© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite



One of my essays in Parenting Beyond Belief (“The Ultimate Dry Run,” p. 87) argued that the Santa myth, in addition to being a hugely enjoyable and harmless fantasy, can serve as a dry run for thinking one’s way out of religious belief.

It’s hard to even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with continued coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood.

I offer as further evidence the following conversation between my son Connor — 12 years old and well post-Santa — and his sister Delaney, six, whose Santa-belief Connor has apparently decided must be kept alive at all costs. The setting is Grandma’s house on Krismas Eve for the Opening of the Early Presents:

GRANDMA: Oh, look, here’s another one: “To Delaney, from Santa!”

DELANEY: EEEEEE, he he hee! (*rustle rustle*) Omigosh, new PJs!! With puppy dogs!!

GRANDMA: Now, if they don’t fit, we can exchange them. I have the receipt.

DELANEY, with accusing eyebrows: What do you mean, you have the receipt? How could you have the receipt?

GRANDMA: Oh, I mean…well, Santa leaves the receipts with the gifts.

DELANEY, eyebrows still deployed: Uh huh.

CONNOR: Laney, be careful. If you don’t believe in Santa even for one minute, you’ll get coal in your stocking.

DELANEY: I don’t think so.

CONNOR: Well, you better not doubt him anyway, just in case it’s true!

DELANEY: I think Santa would care more that I was good than if I believe in him.

Holy cow. Didja catch all that? The whole history of religious discourse in 15 seconds. Reread it, changing Santa to God and get coal in your stocking to burn in Hell. For the finishing touch, replace Connor with Blaise Pascal and Delaney with Voltaire.

(P.S. The boy and I had a small chat after this. We don’t ban much in our house, but thoughtstoppers are definitely out. The Doctrine of Coal is as verboten as any other idea designed to squash honest doubts.)



This was written on Tuesday, 25. December 2007 at 21:47 and was filed under belief and believers, holidays and celebrations, My kids, myths. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Very interesting scene. Geez, sometimes kids say the coolest things!

    I also thought it was interesting that, according to Connor, Santa puts coal in your stocking if you don’t believe. In the Santa myth that I was taught, you get coal in your stocking if you misbehave (getting you on Santa’s ‘bad’ list). The linking of coal with disbelief truly turns Santa more and more into a God that demands belief and less of a God that rewards good behavior.

    How impressive that Connor came up with Pascal’s Wager, and that Delaney gave an effective counter argument.

    Whether they realize it or not, I’m sure that this little dialogue, as well as the one your daughters had about their elves, will be hugely beneficial to the development of their critical thinking. Surely these “childish” debates will make it impossible for them to accept Pascal’s Wager later on in life.

    Comment: bornagainheathen – 26. December 2007 @ 12:16 pm

  2. Yes, Connor’s twist took me by surprise. I’d heard the same thing you did. But I’ve been interested to note how invested the two older ones are in keeping Delaney a believer! Apparently his twist is a natural step in the evolution of belief-traps. When a child believes without question, belief is used to reinforce good behavior. But once the belief itself comes into question, disbelief becomes the thing to be staved off, the thing to be punished. I’m intrigued.

    Comment: Dale – 26. December 2007 @ 12:44 pm

  3. Your kids sure are some kind of awesome. We don’t really do the Santa-as-a-real-live-person thing with our 3-year-old, but it sure makes for good blog fodder at your house!

    Comment: joley – 27. December 2007 @ 10:51 am

  4. We had an interesting topic come up in the Bible study class I mentioned in an earlier comment. Someone brought up that they had seen a painting of Santa kneeling next to the manger. Some people thought it a great piece of art – even Santa comes to worship Jesus. Others thought it was bad to mix a symbol of modern consumerism/materialism (Santa) with the holy image of Jesus.

    Thanks to you, I immediately remembered that chapter of the book and had a completely different thought – Jesus (God) is like the grown up version of Santa. The artist was showing both versions in the same painting. (For my own safety, I didn’t bring it up in the class, but I’m going to mention it to my wife)

    Comment: Ryan – 27. December 2007 @ 11:21 pm

  5. Yes, I think the parallel is too close to be coincidence. They both satisfy the same needs for an orderly world system of reward and punishment, meaning and hope.

    Here’s the kitchy Santa-manger thing, btw — available as a painting, a figurine, and a yard ornament:


    Comment: Dale – 28. December 2007 @ 11:01 am

  6. http://www.lesliehawes.com/wordpress/?p=1040
    I had posted about the ‘Santa Baby’ earlier this month. This picture, above, is the ‘obscene’ one I didn’t choose to illustrate the post 🙂
    I had made the “substitute God for Santa” relationship. I can’t imagine the confusion created in young minds by the “be good or else” sort fo behavior demanded by both god and Santa.
    I was blanching at the new fashionable strings of lights this year…strings of penguins. Any kids that are really paying attention have to be mightily confused.
    Coal has to add a mean twist, too.

    Comment: leslie – 28. December 2007 @ 8:47 pm

  7. Yes, a mean twist indeed! I’m interested to pursue this cultural idea further — the idea of the benefactor who gives out of love, until you fail to acknowledge the gift, at which point the daggers come out.

    I have a hypothesis that the single greatest sin to the religious mind is ingratitude. Believe in God, love Jesus for his sacrifice, believe in Santa, honor thy father and mother, and Support the Troops are all ultimately demands for gratitude — and all come with sober consequences for ingratitude.

    Comment: Dale – 28. December 2007 @ 10:06 pm

  8. It seems to be the privilege of POWER to demand gratitude.
    Power manifests in the religious, political, familial, gender, age, class, place in line.
    Santa has extraordinary power in childrens’ lives. I always wondered why, when given the opportunity to “sit on Santa’s lap” , that kids would be terrified. It has to be akin to sitting on God’s lap. A kid would have to be undergoing an internal assessment of “goodness” vs “badness”, and assuming that since at one point they didn’t want to share their cookie with their little brother that they were never going to get a toy again EVER. That’s terrifying and bleak.
    I think the rabidly religious operate out of the same fear. If I don’t “be good” I’ll not get any “toys” EVER.
    Is Santa God’s additional ego?

    Comment: leslie – 29. December 2007 @ 12:03 pm

  9. Santa comes with a Problem of Evil, too. Why does he not give more to poor children than to children from wealthy families? Why does it seem almost like he gives them _less_? Why doesn’t he give gifts to most non-Christian children? I’ve seen parents work picking out donations for Toys for Tots or other charities into the Santa myth (‘we’re helping Santa’), which I find a fascinatingly frank admission that Santa is not omnipotent even in his dedicated domain.

    Comment: Mercredi – 29. December 2007 @ 12:05 pm

  10. And when Connor said “better not doubt him anyway, in case it’s true, I thought of Bloody Mary in the mirror.

    Comment: leslie – 29. December 2007 @ 12:06 pm

  11. And when Connor said “better not doubt him anyway, in case it’s true, I thought of Bloody Mary in the mirror.

    Oooh, I hadn’t even caught that! You’re right!!

    Comment: Dale – 29. December 2007 @ 1:11 pm

  12. Santa comes with a Problem of Evil, too. Why does he not give more to poor children than to children from wealthy families?

    Absolutely. This is one of the things that kept driving me toward a love of reality. All fictions run into explanatory trouble and require frantic propping up. The real loveliness of the truth is its durability.

    Comment: Dale – 29. December 2007 @ 1:14 pm

  13. When I was little, the assumption my brother (2 yrs apart) and I had concerning Santa and our youngest brother (8 yrs apart) was that as long as he continued to believe in Santa, “Santa” would have to keep delivering toys – even to us. Our motives for keeping the Santa myth alive in our household were purely selfish and calculated.

    Currently, with our kids (3 and 6 yrs old), we include Santa as a small part of the season. My wife, who is Jewish, hates that Santa is even acknowledged, and I am mostly on her side on this, but given the familial nature of our Christmas celebration (great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles), this is one case where the risks of “going with the flow” are minimal compared the the mess of breaking with tradition. I’m happy with our spin on it – we never invoke Santa as a parenting method (“Santa’s watching you know”), gifts from Santa are limited (compared to when I was a kid when the biggest, best stuff came from Santa), and I’m frustratingly vague answering my kids’ questions/concerns (never actually lying to them, yet not exactly dispelling their Santa belief).

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 31. December 2007 @ 11:52 am

  14. I have heard Chrstians worry about “letting” their kids believe in Santa for exactly this same reason… because they worry that the kids will someday realize Santa isn’t real… and then that will “let” them question if God is real too. Heaven forbid.

    It’s sad that there’s not much they can come up with as to why they SHOULD believe in God, but not Santa. I mean, if they had some valid reasons, this wouldn’t be such a concern, would it?


    Comment: samanthamj – 03. January 2008 @ 2:03 am

  15. […] on Santa, which first appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief. This year is our first fully Santa-less Krismas, as Delaney declared her akringlism in February (described […]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Santa Claus — the ultimate dry run Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 07. December 2010 @ 7:57 am

  16. […] on Santa, which first appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief. This year is our first fully Santa-less Krismas, as Delaney declared her akringlism in February (described […]

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