Sunday, November 29, 2015

Memories of Santa

Some random thoughts about Halloween and Christmas. Some Christians oppose Halloween due to its allegedly heathen roots. You also have some Christians who oppose Halloween because it has its historical basis in the dogma of Purgatory and prayers for the dead. A Catholic holiday. 

The basic problem with that line of objection is that the history of a holiday is irrelevant to its contemporary significance. The very fact that some Christians feel the need to give people a history lesson on the real or alleged background of the holiday ironically illustrates the irrelevance of their objection. For if people don't know the history of the holiday, then that has absolutely nothing to do with why they celebrate the holiday. It doesn't factor in their thinking at all. 

And even if they did know about its historical origins, that isn't what motivates them to celebrate the holiday. Halloween has evolved. For instance, there was a time in the second half of the 20C where it was influenced by horror flicks. But currently it seems to be influenced by superhero flicks. Halloween represents whatever the pop culture makes it to be at any particular time. 

Now that's not a reason to celebrate Halloween. That's just debunking a bad reason not to celebrate Halloween. 

Nowadays there are seasonal stores that hawk Halloween paraphernalia. I don't object to professional Halloween costumes. But I can't help thinking back to my childhood when kids had homemade halloween costumes. That's more meaningful than taking the kid to the store and buying something off the shelf. That's something mothers used to make for their kids. It made it more of a family experience. Admittedly today's kids are probably spoiled by professional superhero costumes, so they'd sneer at anything homemade. 

As a kid, I think what I most enjoyed about Halloween was being outside at night. That was exhilarating. Although I have fond childhood memories of Halloween, there isn't much riding on that holiday one way or the other. It's a very thin holiday. 

Then there's Christmas and Santa Claus. Although some Christians oppose Santa Claus, here's an atheist (Louise Antony) on the topic:

I have a very strong opinion about this, one that puts me seriously at odds with some of my very best friends: I think that there are no good arguments for teaching a child to believe in Santa Claus, or for not telling the child the truth the first time he or she asks.  
Prima facie, one shouldn't lie to one's children. More seriously, one has a duty not to try to convince them positively of things that are beyond false–that are preposterous…In the case of Santa Claus, the risk of losing trust in one's parents' testimony is, I think, not trivial. Finally, when a parent actively tries to get a child to disregard perfectly sound arguments against a certain proposition, there's the risk that rationality will itself become devalued and the child will get the message that making sense is not terribly important. "But does a reindeer fly?" "It's magic!" Alexander George, ed. What Would Socrates Say? Philosophers Answer Your Questions About Love, Nothingness, and Everything Else (Potter Style 2007).

i) Although she doesn't quite come out and say so, what do you bet the subtext is her concern that childish belief in Santa Claus conditions kids to believe in (gasp!) God (shudder! shudder!).

Of course, one obvious problem with the implied analogy is that all kids outgrow belief in Santa Claus, whereas there's no correlation with regard to kids outgrowing belief in God. Indeed, some kids are raised in a secular environment, but then grow into faith in God as adults. 

ii) In fairness to Antony, I agree with her that if a kid expresses doubts about the existence of Santa, it's a mistake to argue with them. It's a good thing that they doubt his existence. That should be encouraged, not discouraged. 

iv) I don't agree with her that we should simply tell them the truth the first time they ask. Rather, I think it's more useful to draw them out. Ask them why they have doubts about Santa. Discuss their reasons with them. If they have a good reason, explore it and commend it. If they have a bad reason, explain why that's a bad reason. Don't co-opt their reasoning process, but help them to clarify their reasoning process. 

A Christian objection I've run across is that Santa Claus is a godlike figure. A figure with divine attributes. So it's a short step from losing faith in Santa to losing faith in God. However, that's a bad objection for a couple of reasons:

i) It's an argument from authority–parental authority. That's fine for young kids, but teenagers need to have a better reason for believing in God than faith in their parents' opinion. 

ii) It's a very bad analogy. I remember, as a very young boy, sitting at a little table in my grandmother's little kitchen, asking her where God was. She exclaimed that God was everywhere. So, pointing to the teaoit on the table, I asked her if God was in the teapot. She assured me he was.

Much as I adored my grandmother, even at that age I didn't believe God was in the teapot. I never confused God with Santa. I never thought of God as that kind of being. I didn't view God as an embodied being. To me, God existed outside our world. 

iii) I don't think parents have a duty to inculcate the Santa narrative. Although I think it's harmless, I don't see much value in that. I think both opponents and proponents make the issue more important than it is. 


  1. Steve, what about the argument that says that we should not teach our children believe in Santa because it causes us to lose the focus of the real meaning of Christmas (a commemoration of Christ's birth)?

    1. Depends on how far you wish to take that. There are lots of things associated with Christmas that aren't focused on the birth of Christ. For that matter, there are lots of things we do on a daily basis that aren't focused on the birth of Christ.

    2. On the merits, Christmas should center on the birth of Jesus, and the theological significance of the Incarnation. However, the commercialization of Christmas has a silver lining. If Christmas was just a Christian holiday, rather than a national holiday, far fewer unbelievers would be exposed to the rudiments of the Christmas story. All the Christmas kitsch has the fringe benefit of making the pop culture pay far more attention to this holiday than would otherwise be the case. As a result, some unbelievers will incidentally be exposed to the Christmas story. Unwittingly, it reaches some of the unreached.

  2. On the issue of the history of a holiday, I think it's useful to provide people with parallels they already accept. A good one is the history behind our calendar system, how day names like "Thursday" and "Saturday", for example, were associated with paganism in the past. There are all sorts of non-Christian backgrounds to the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the language we use, tools, furniture, etc.

  3. The same logic evidently applies equally well to the history and foundations of the U.S.A. People don't care about what it used to be, or is supposed to be, just what it is now, what it could be in the future, and what it means to (and can do for) me today.

    Historical revisionism is a universal acid that started in the garden, and Satan has had his useful idiots deploying it upon all manner of subjects ever since.

    1. Well, actually, Halloween (to take one example) *can* mean anything people choose because it's a made-up holiday to begin with. It doesn't commemorate a historical event.

      For instance, the Star Trek narrative has evolved. There's a history to how it all got started (TOS), but since it's fictional from the get-go, there's nothing wrong with changing the narrative.

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    3. I'm appreciative of this analysis. I've heard Christians make the argument that Halloween has pagan origins and acts as a "gateway" to Satanic worship. That to me seems misplaced. I also think that a "holiday" has the meaning that one invests it with. For virtually every child I have known Halloween is an opportunity to dress up and get a haul of candy. If Halloween acts as a gateway to Satanic worship, it is a remarkably inefficient one considering the number of children that participate in Halloween and the dearth of actual Satanists.

  4. Steve, help me here: I understand the celebration of Christmas and the fun of fantasy, and protest neither. What I'm not getting here is the insistence of giving kids who might not be able to distinguish fact from fiction a load of bs in the form of Santa Claus. What purpose does it serve other than to undermine trust?

    1. The purpose is the fun of childhood fantasy. That's a one-time opportunity.

      Since very young kids naturally can't distinguish fact from fiction anyway, I don't think this is an additional problem. They live in a fantasy world anyway.

      Again, I'm not big on the Santa myth for kids. But I don't think it's a big deal one way or the other.