Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Santa meme

There are Christian parents who think it’s immoral and/or spiritually hazardous to teach their kids that Santa delivers the Christmas presents on Christmas Eve.

Let’s clarify the parameters of my post. Some Christians don’t even think we should celebrate Christmas. They take the Puritan view of holidays. That position moots the debate by denying a necessary presupposition of the debate. If that’s your position, then my post isn’t directed at you. I’m not debating the merits of celebrating Christmas. This post is for Christians who take that for granted.

In addition, I’m not defending (or opposing) the Santa tradition. I’m not discussing what Christian parents ought to do. Rather, I’m just evaluating what some Christian parents think they ought to do.

i) One thing I’ve noticed is that the issue is often oversimplified. For instance, there’s a distinction between telling your kids that Santa exists, and telling your kids that Santa doesn’t exist.

For instance, it’s possible for a parent to be silent on the status of Santa. To the extent that Santa is part of the pop culture, belief in Santa is something kids could pick up through cultural osmosis. So the question then is not whether the parent should tell them that Santa exists, but whether the parent should correct that belief.

Now, there are probably Christian parents who think they have an obligation to do both. I’m not going to evaluate that position. I’m just pointing out that these are separate questions.

ii) Apropos (ii), suppose you, as a young parent, don’t believe in the Santa tradition, but your mother does. Suppose your mother teaches her grandkids that Santa brings the Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve. What’s your duty in that situation?

Christian opponents of the Santa tradition typically argue that this custom ultimately undermines parental authority, or the equivalent. When the kids are old enough to realize that their parents “lied” to them, they become disillusioned in their parents. At least that’s the claim.

Yet in this case, if you disabuse your kids, you are undermining their trust in their grandmother. But if undermining childish faith in parents is damaging, so is undermining childish faith in grandparents. So that situation poses something of a dilemma.

iii) Apropos (ii), is it inherently wrong to undermine parental authority? Suppose two unbelievers marry. Before they have kids, suppose the wife becomes a Christian.

In my opinion, she has a duty to raise her kids in the faith as best she can under the circumstances. But that may create situations in which she must undercut paternal authority by telling her kids that their atheist father is dead wrong about God.

Now, perhaps you’d say the justification for undermining parental authority in that case is quite different from the trivial case of the Santa custom. I agree. But I’m just probing how far some Christians are prepared to take the appeal to parental authority.

iv) There’s a popular atheist meme using Santa. Infidels have promoted a deconversion narrative involving Santa which allegedly parallels Christian apostasy. And, oddly enough, many Christians buy into that meme.

According to this deconversion narrative, young children believe in Santa because their parents teach them Santa exists. But as they age, children begin to harbor nagging doubts about Santa’s existence. They raise practical questions about the logistics of Santa delivering all those presents one night out of the year And maybe their domicile doesn’t have a chimney. What if they live in a high-rise apartment complex? Likewise, can reindeer fly? How fast? And so on and so forth.

So there comes a point when they reason themselves out of believing in Santa. And that coincides with the shocking realization that their parents “lied” to them. Having lost all faith in their parents’ credibility, they systematically doubt everything else their parents told them. One thing leads to another and they turn their back on God.

v) I wonder how factual that narrative really is. For one thing, is this based on actual memories or reconstructed memories? When we’re very young, we don’t remember as much about what happened to us. So how much of this is based on genuine recollection, and how much is based on the suggestive power of the narrative itself? Are we remembering what happened, or is this deconversion narrative, which we learned much later in life, rewriting our recollection of events?

vi) Apropos (v), I’ll use myself as an example. I have a good memory of my childhood. But when I think back on it, I don’t clearly and distinctly remember believing in Santa. I also don’t clearly and distinctly remember my parents telling me that Santa existed.

I think I probably did believe in Santa when I was very young, and my parents probably conveyed that belief to me in some fashion. But I’m skeptical about the confidence with which both atheists and some Christian parents presume to trace what they believed at an age when we don’t remember much of anything.

I also know, at a later age, that I didn’t believe in Santa. But I don’t recall a conscious process of transitioning from belief in Santa to disbelief in Santa. I expect that belief in Santa slipped away without any cognizance on my part. If you asked me one year whether I believed in Santa, I’d say “yes,” but if you asked me the same question two years later, I’d say “no.” There was no crisis of faith in Santa.

I couldn’t pinpoint how old I was when I lost my belief in Santa. I couldn’t pinpoint a discernable tipping-point.

In addition, I certainly didn’t connect loss of faith in Santa with loss of faith in my parents, or vice versa. I didn’t associate disbelief in Santa with my parents one way or the other. My disbelief in Santa was a discrete, compartmentalized disbelief. It didn’t trigger disillusionment in parental goodness. I don’t think I even put the two together.

That’s probably because my parents were far more real to me than Santa ever was. It doesn’t necessary take much to stop believing in something that isn’t real to begin with. That can fade from consciousness, fade from conviction, without any effort or awareness. To the contrary, it takes continuous effort to believe in nonentities.

By contrast, my parents were overwhelmingly real. Their goodness was indubitable.

Now, I don’t pretend that my experience is necessarily representative for anyone else. There maybe grow-ups who can describe painful stages of doubt in Santa’s existence. It’s quite possible that I’m misremembering my own experience, but that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? How good is memory at that tender age?

But I’m quite sceptical about the Santa deconversion narrative popularized by atheists, and aped by some Christians. That’s strikes me as quite artificial. Too pat. Too schematic. I suspect losing faith in Santa is a generally subliminal process.

Is there really a stereotypical way kids cease believing in Santa? Suppose you have a number of siblings. Your older brother or sister outgrows belief in Santa. What then? Well, one of two things can happen.

On the one hand, your older sibling might seize the opportunity to prove how grown-up he is and how childish you still are by triumphantly announcing to you that Santa doesn’t exist!

On the other hand, he might collude with your parents to perpetuate the Santa tradition. That would make him feel grown up too.

Moreover, most folks lie some of the time. Surely most kids have caught their parents in a lie at one time or another. Maybe their parents didn’t lie to them. Maybe they overheard their parents lying to someone else.

Even if that was momentarily shocking, are we to seriously believe the bottom falls out of a child’s life when he catches a parent in a lie? I don’t think so.

After all, children are prone to lying. If they catch their parents in a lie, they realize that their parents are doing what they do. Children make allowance for their own lies. They don’t think that makes themselves wholly untrustworthy.

Children keep on believing in their parents because they really don’t have a choice. As long as they are dependent on their parents, they have to believe in them most of the time. Of course, if their parents are chronic liars who constantly break promises, constantly let them down, that’s different.

Am I saying this to justify parental lies? No. But I’m just questioning the hysterical narrative in which finding out your parents “lied” would cause your little world to collapse all around you. That just isn’t realistic in the main. For one thing, it credits children with too much innocence. But children have a cynical streak. They don’t fall apart that easily. Not as a rule.


  1. By the way, maybe a better meme for apostates who deconverted from Christianity to atheism is the Cypher meme. A freedman who wants to return to the Matrix. Permanently plug back into the Matrix. A bluepill who prefers bluepill fantasy to the real world. Ignorance is bliss.

    Or at least someone who thinks reality is the virtual world rather than the real world. The chat room rather than the big blue room.

    1. We have frequently pointed to this article:

      "DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
      "Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
      "Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
      "Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


      VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

      Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

      Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

      You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

      No Santa Claus? Thank God he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.