The subject of Christmas–it’s hypocrisies, contradictions, virtues, meanings–is well hashed out. While I was tempted over the season to write a little piece about holiday practices and festivities, it failed to catch enough passion in me to inspire thoughts worth even two cents. But then I had a conversation with a friend, and she dropped reference to the traumatic childhood disappointment of learning that Santa Claus wasn’t real. This dusted off some old thoughts in my mind, and the more I examine them the more upset I get.
Santa Claus. My mother is a big Christmas lover, and it was always a big deal in our household. She loved Christmas for its religious meaning, despite coming from a protestant tradition that tends to utterly reject the holiday as “too Catholic.” We used advent candles and a little pop-up book nativity set to anticipate the holiday and focus on the Messiah narrative, not to mention that my brother and I endured endless boredom while my mother rehearsed Handel’s “Messiah” with the community choir. When it came to the traditions around presents however, my mother had a philosophy that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other family. She told us about Santa Claus, along with St. Nicholas proper, Black Peter, Belsnickel, St. Lucia, the Christ Child, and even the Catalonia Crapping Log.
The result was that I grew up with a different perspective on Santa Claus than the other American kids around me. I wasn’t a cynical Santa hater, but I did have a rather pig-headed superiority about my awareness of his place in the broader Christmas folklore. I did indeed get into fights with my cousins over his existence, and several of my friends were a little harder to access during the Christmas season. I was censored and told with great consternation not to talk about Santa Claus with other children. As a kid, this seemed stupid to me. The older I grew the more disturbed I became at the extreme level of commitment with which our culture sets up the Santa Claus mythos. It’s deep in our commercial culture, constantly being preached in our movies and media, and fanatically embraced and elaborated by adults. School systems, though not allowed to enforce religions, are neck deep in perpetuating Santa Claus. It is a belief that has a propaganda system, but the what makes it stand apart to me is that is is a belief that everyone knows is a lie.
Understand that I really enjoy folklore and mythology. I do not hate wonderful movies like “Miracle on 24th Street” or “Nightmare Before Christmas”. Movies that play with the Santa Claus mythos are no more evil and no less entertaining than movies that feature Greek gods. Folk tales are the things stories are made of, and I have no objection to the constant use of a folk world and character to create even more stories. What I do object to is that people insist on creating a false sense of reality for a child. Children are so susceptible. I grew up with all kinds of harmless misinformation because my Dad was too mischievious and maybe a little too lazy to answer every question I leveled at him.
Children depend completely on their parents for safety, nurturing, and information. As they grow older, they grow more independent and start to look for those needs elsewhere and according to their own abilities. At the young ages in which we inflict Santa Claus trickery though, there is no independence. Children are presented with information and evidence and propaganda, and have no other means to know elsewise. The trust is complete, and then it starts to crumble. Children lose the ability to trust the world their parents have communicated to them at they same time they start needing guidance to navigate it. I’m not targeting Santa Claus to be the source for rebellion in young adults by any means, but I would argue that parents’ willingness to misrepresent the world undercuts the role parents are supposed to have in nurturing their children.
Most people link their loss of belief in Santa Claus to the time in their lives when they started to “lose innocence” and grow cynical. Thus many people perpetuate the Santa Claus myth as a sentimental way of connecting to their own childhood. Manipulating innocence and reveling in childhood wonder is the big motivation behind the lie. This is where things start to get really twisted, from my perspective. If the justification for perpetuating the presentation of Santa Claus as a factual person is to create wonder and imagination in your child, what does that imply about the world when the child learns they’ve been elaborately, conspiratorially lied to their whole life? To present an exciting reality, then debunk it, seems as callous as inflating a balloon for them so you can pop it. In the end you aren’t really creating a sense of wonder, hope, or magic, but setting those things up as a myth to be busted.
We don’t need to force a myth into reality to create wonder. Why can’t children receive presents understanding that the gifts stem from the unconditional love of their parents and family, and not whether they lived up to the list-standard of an abstract stranger? (Talk about setting children up to be susceptible to societal pressures! Also, what does it tell a brat or punk if they still “earned” presents?) Why can’t we teach them awe and respect for all the natural wonders around us? Photosynthesis is real alchemy! Science is practical magic! And that is a subject of wonder that will never betray a child’s innocence.
All that above are the dusted off thoughts I formed a long time ago. What really stirred me was that I recently had a conversation with a friend about religion. My friend lamented the time when she learned that Santa Clause wasn’t real and she wished she could get her Santa Claus innocence back. She made the mistake of then (despite knowing that I was religious) going on to link religion as another Santa Claus conspiracy that let her down. Now I get that for many people, religion is something that they passively inherit and eventually find disappointing. That’s a common and valid experience. I am very religious, but I have come into my beliefs through ration and research and intense scrutiny. I do not believe Christianity in the same way that my parents do, or my neighbors, but have drawn my own conclusions through my own process of learning. I don’t believe that my intense search for Truth is perfect or unassailable, but for it to be swept aside as a Santa Claus delusion –fed to me by a system of deliberate, willful self-perpetuation that I have not yet woken up to– is extremely offensive and dismissive of my efforts, not to mention the efforts of the wide world of people in the same search. I’m just tired of being told that my perspective of the world is as stupid as Santa Claus.
Moreover, religions are made up and steered by communities of earnest people who have found something true and helpful that they think would bring positive impact if shared by the world. Santa Claus is propagated by a community who knows they are lying, whether their goal is to get their kids to just behave for a month or so or whether it’s to manipulate parents to be looser with their cash for a season. Rather than examining the motivations and ideas of a religion’s adherents, it becomes easy to write them off saying, “They are the product of a willful self-perpetuating machine that is trying to manipulate me using a constructed reality.” And I don’t want this post to make the mistake of targeting only those who don’t identify as religious. I can recognize in many religious folk the same self-conscious superiority that made childhood me a prick to my friends about Santa Claus. This paradigm is available for use by anyone who wants to explain the existence of ideas that aren’t compatible with theirs. In its model they can tuck themselves into their bubble and claim safety from the contrivances of some manipulative sector of the world, then bask in the vanity of being superior to all the dupes who are swept along with it.
And to them I say: Fine then, go forth and watch your television, play your games, and enjoy your media.