Spoiler Alert! Santa is a dangerous alcoholic, suffering from obesity, and doesn’t exist.
Actually only one of those is true. Well, maybe two… but if you pass the age-test, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Should parents raise their child by teaching about Santa Claus, thereby risking the sacred parent-child bond of trust by potentially abusing them with lies and deceit that may one day come back to haunt them until any association with holiday joy turns into nothing more than pain and betrayal felt mostly by the son or daughter who was too innocent for their own good? …Or should we be brutally honest from the start, and ruin any chance for that sense of magic that adults remember when they look back at their younger years, because their parents were the type whose misguided sense of equality alienated their children from the rest of society that had the common experience of enjoying the holidays? And what part of Christmas does religion play for atheistic parents, or those from another religion, in a society inundated with such Christian traditions?
An Atheist Answers “The Question”
A few years ago, atheist Jamy Ian Swiss, who writes for James Randi’s blog, was one of several speakers in a panel discussion called “Raising Skeptical Geeks” at the “geek” convention “Dragon*Con.” When the subject of talking to children about Santa Claus came up, Swiss drew on his own experience to answer this. He says that he wants his children to grow up as atheists, but that does not mean the he doesn’t keep the tradition of Santa Claus alive.
I grew up in a New York City reformed Jewish household (that typically experienced December days with both a Christmas tree and a lit Chanukah menorah), and today we continue a tradition from my own childhood. [. . .] [So] in our household we celebrate a secular Christmas that upholds the magic of Santa Claus.
He talked on the panel about how his apartment goes from regular old living space to fully decked-out Christmas extravaganza from the time the kids go to sleep to the time they wake up. The Christmas tree is matched with the mountain of gifts, and the cookie crumbs indicate that Santa was here. He has several reasons for doing this.
I possess strong memories of the experience of awakening to these magical mornings in my childhood. But in addition to wishing to share that experience with my children, I also think that the experience of believing in Santa — and the eventual loss of that belief — can provide a powerful lesson, later in life, about supernatural and religious claims. It’s easier to understand how someone can believe in a god or gods when you’ve had the experience of strong belief yourself. It has certainly served as such a lesson for me.
He also wrote about a time when his naturally inquisitive son Dexter asked him “the question” at dinner. “Is Santa Claus real?”
Oy! At that moment, I would rather he asked me where babies came from.
I took a deep breath and thought about how I might best test the waters of his question. So I turned it back to him. “What makes you ask?”
“Because,” he said, the deep thought showing in his eyes, “he seems like a god.” My heart sang.
“Well, you make a very, very good point, Dexter. That’s an excellent reason to ask the question.” I can’t think of a better one, really.
I wanted to answer Dexter’s penetrating question, but without prematurely demolishing his sense of mystery. It was a daunting task that lay before me – but I thought I had grasped an answer.
“But even though it might seem that way, I don’t think Santa’s a god. I think he’s a magical being. There’s a difference. After all, people think their gods tell them what to do, give them rules for living their lives. Gods take from people, and punish them for not following the rules.”
“But Santa mostly just gives. He reminds you to be good, but mostly he just makes people happy by giving everyone gifts, using his special magic. Because he gives all these gifts around the world, and yet he doesn’t get the gifts himself. And that teaches us a lesson. Instead, he gets the greatest pleasure of all – he gets to feel the happiness and joy people have. And if you ever hear anyone talk about ‘the spirit of Christmas,’ that’s what they mean. If you hear someone say ‘It’s better to give than to receive,’ that’s what they mean. That’s what Santa does, and that’s the spirit of Christmas. So I don’t think that Santa is really a god.”
Dexter thought about this, rolled it around in his fertile mind – and was satisfied. He agreed with the conclusion, and the conversation moved on. One of the challenges of dealing with children’s questions is trying to answer the actual question, and not the question we adults imagine is being asked, because of all the answers we know but of which our children are not yet aware.
This is a great story, and a very good answer to such a difficult question for parents to deal with. But is this the “expert” opinion?
Believing Around the World
Jared Durtschi, an assistant professor in Kansas State University’s marriage and family therapy program, agrees with Swiss. “I don’t think it’s necessary for parents to decide upon a time to tell their children there is no Santa,” he said.
“As children develop, the magical thinking that is so common in kids, which allows them to so readily accept all the details of Santa Claus, will give way and they will soon figure it out on their own.” But kids who believe in Santa, he says, tend to be more excited about the Christmas season than those who do not. This is probably true regardless of the country (provided that they celebrate this Christian holiday).
It’s unclear just which country is the most Santa-crazy, but I was particularly shocked about these numbers from the Great White North:
In Canada, in 2009 a thousand postal elves answered 1.1 million letters and 39,500 e-mails from children in 30 different languages, including Braille. Canada Post has its own special address for Santa, complete with an appropriately jovial postcode: H0H 0H0!
Considering the population of Canada is only around 34 million people, that means that roughly one out of 30 Canadians wrote to Santa. That is some serious business.
Here in Japan, Christmas is of course very different, and there are some traditions (e.g., the standard strawberry-laden “Christmas Cake“) that don’t exist in the West, and vice versa (e.g., there’s no mistletoe tradition in Japan). But it seems here, too, that the children enjoy Christmas more by believing in Santa.
Children here are often told that Santa will come to give presents if they believe in him. This is pretty similar to the West, but one difference you’ll find in the story of Santa is the location of his workshop. Western children learn that he lives in the North Pole… whereas Japanese children think he lives in Holland.
Because… the Dutch make great elves?
Let’s not get too off-topic…
There’s one last reason that makes the belief in Santa a good thing. The Universal Postal Union reported this in 2010:
This year in Brazil, the Post has formed partnerships with public schools and social institutions to encourage children to write letters and make use of postcodes and stamps. In 2009, Correios answered almost two million [children’s] letters [. . .].
In Germany, [. . .] In 2009, Deutsche Post’s team of elves sent out replies to 280,000 letters addressed to the Weihnachtsmann in 17 languages. In France, by 6 December, a team of 60 postal elves had already sent out reply cards in response to over half a million letters and 80,000 e-mails from children in 102 countries.
Encouraged by family and friends, children the world over write Father Christmas a letter or draw him a picture. And if they remember to include their name and address, they are sure to receive a reply from the mythical recipient.
Through initiatives such as this, Posts are helping to promote the cause of literacy. A letter to Santa is often a child’s first experience of correspondence. Written and sent with the help of a parent or teacher, the child learns about the structure of a letter, salutations, and the use of an address and postcode.
So writing a letter to Santa, as well as the process involved in sending it, are genuinely educational tasks.
The Bottom Line
Considering the benefits – albeit not particularly important – it seems that parents in Christmas-celebrating countries would be best to teach their children about Santa Claus. And if that means going through the motions of writing a letter, then it will actually make the child smarter.
So let’s all embrace the holidays with a little Christmas joy and holiday laughter. If you don’t, Santa might become all three of the spoilers I alerted you to above. Al Yankovic reports below: