55. Thinking about Christmas: 2. Struggling with Santa and Other Quasi-Magical Beings Doing Seemingly Impossible Things

So, Christmas is fast approaching and with childish amusement I do enjoy reading on how some non-religious people struggle with the idea of Santa and what to tell their children. In most of the Western world, Santa Claus — in his many variations — plays an important ritual in the lives of parents and children. He represents a monolithic cultural myth played out across generations. And despite the obvious paternalistic motif embedded within Santa Claus, he does appear to be immune to one’s political bent. Right, left, or center, everyone seems to be a sucker for Santa.

For sure, if you have strong religious convictions, you may find Santa distasteful. Santa can be a somewhat distracting and secular sideshow and may minimize common religious themes that abound at the winter solstice. Somewhat worse — and in the hands of capitalistic hucksters — Santa can become the pagan saint for consumerism and meaningless over-consumption.

Now, I understand the religious objection to a secular Santa.  But I am a little more puzzled by why strongly non-religious people such as atheists would care one way or the other. Now, when I say: atheist, I am not talking about people who are uncomfortable with the idea of an active divine presence but choose to respect the beliefs of those who do accept such a presence. Those people would be what we call the general non-religious or, well, just about everyone you know.

Instead, I am talking about people who reject all divinity and argue that religion not only promotes ignorance but is a source of considerable harm. You know, those people with whom you never want to be trapped in a conversation with at a party and whom you would prefer that they never talk to your kids about anything.

So, what’s the problem with Santa?

Plenty, it would appear according to Austin Cline, about.com‘s expert on agnosticism and atheism.  In a nutshell, Santa is naughty because:

  • Encouraging belief in Santa means that parents are forced to lie to their children,
  • Those lies must grow more elaborate across time as children question the plausibility of Santa,
  • Santa Claus discourages healthy skepticism,
  • The reward and punishment system of Santa is unjust,
  • Santa Claus promotes materialism,
  • Santa Claus is too similar to Jesus and God,
  • Santa Claus as a tradition is relatively recent and manufactured, and
  • Santa Claus is more about the needs of parents than those of their children.

Lots of things to ponder in these arguments. However, returning to my original point, I am not quite sure of how any of this is relevant to atheism. In fact, one could argue that Santa Claus serves as a fun secular counterpoint to the more traditional religious meaning of Christmas. That certainly was my memory as a child — Santa was awesome and the obligatory trudge to our Methodist Church for Christmas services was not.

The only part of the above argument against Santa that might be relevant to atheism is that Santa has similarities to a Judeo-Christian God. That at least would bring it into the realm of general atheism. Cline explains it this way:

The parallels between Santa Claus and Jesus or God are numerous. Santa Claus is a nearly all-powerful, supernatural person who dispenses rewards and punishment to people all over the world based upon whether they adhere to a pre-defined code of conduct. His existence is implausible or impossible, but faith is expected if one is to receive the rewards. Believers should regard this as blasphemous; non-believers shouldn’t want their kids prepared in this way to adopt Christianity or theism.

Kind of reaching a little on that point but you get the message: Santa could represent a gateway drug toward Christianity (or away from it if you are already a Christian).

The basic theme is that encouraging belief in myths among children is inherently bad and, doubly so, when parents knowingly lie to create and maintain that belief. Cline asks: “Is it not possible that kids would find at least as much pleasure in knowing that parents are responsible for Christmas, not a supernatural stranger?”

Absolutely.  In the moment, it probably makes no never-mind to small children who gives them the toy. However, it does matter several years down the developmental road when the true identity of Santa becomes apparent. The issue for most children is not distress over parental deceit but more of a sense of puzzlement over why parents would not take credit in the first place. The higher message embedded within the Santa tradition is one of family, kindness, and generosity. That lesson is best learned by children through repetitive myth, song, and story.

To offer a gift and demand equal exchange is the province of children and small people. To offer without recognition is the realm of parents and big people. Sacrificing for those you love, is a source of joy.

And that is the ultimate meaning of Christmas delivered through the disguise of Santa.

26. Christmas Mandelbrot