Christmas is fascinating, particularly the media surrounding Christmas. In the West, Christmas celebrates both secular and religious myths, Santa Claus and Jesus Christ respectively, (which is itself fascinating). But it is the celebration of Santa Claus I’m particularly interested in. Why do we tell our children Santa is real?
I did not grow up with Santa Claus. My fundamentalist household decided to expunge the secular characteristics from our holiday as much as possible, knowing them to be pagan in origin. Instead of a tree, we put up a nativity scene. Instead of elves, we decorated with angels. And most crucially, I was never told Santa Claus would bring me presents. The logic was, if I discovered that Santa Claus was not real I would develop the suspicion that God also wasn’t real; the assumption being that to share the myth of Santa Claus without believing in it is a lie. When we watched Christmas movies that included Santa, they made sure I was aware that it was a “fun story”. They even made sure I understood Jesus did was not actually born in the wintertime in the spirit of accuracy and candour. My parents believed they chose to not lie when omitting Santa’s myth from the holiday, while also choosing to tell the truth when sharing the myth of Jesus’ birth.
I don’t believe I missed out on much (I might have even enjoyed knowing something the other kids didn’t know) but I’ve developed a fascination for the myth and the role it plays in western society. Particularly, I grapple with the assumption I’ve grown up with that sharing Santa Claus without belief is a lie. No parent believes in Santa Claus when they share the myth with their children. They participate in the ritual of putting out milk and cookies, even dressing up in a costume in case of discovery, without an iota of belief. Does this make these myths and rituals a lie?
For a long time I believed it did; it was a harmless lie doubtless, but still a lie. However, that conclusion doesn’t appreciate why so many parents share the myth of Santa Claus with their children. Parents who take no pleasure in lying to their kids will happily “lie” during Christmas about Santa. What is going on here? Evidently, there is enough reason to share the myth that doesn’t include an accurate representation of reality.
To understand what value Santa brings, we need to look at adults, not children. It is adults who need Santa Claus, not as an object of belief, but as an object of ritual. After all, it is adults who do Santa Claus and are therefore the most engaged with the myth. Adults create the media which celebrates the myth, adults buy the gifts, adults prepare the ornaments and decorations, and adults put the gifts under the tree at midnight.
The value Santa offers is an opportunity to embody goodness. Adults need Santa so they can ritually practice the spirit of merriment and generosity without the burden of social context. It provides a space and time to ignore the perilous and ugly aspects of our world and focus instead on tenderness and goodwill. That value is why the myth of Santa works so well.
As a result, something truly wonderful happens. All over the world during christmas, children receive gifts from a benevolent spirit. Despite there being no literal person named Santa Claus, his effects can be seen globally (more or less). His spirit has power despite all children eventually coming to understand that he does not physically exist. His spirit is so powerful, in fact, that children who were once distraught at discovering Santa isn’t real will grow up to perpetuate the myth to their own children. The spirit of Christmas is simply too important for Santa to be cast aside.
Santa is shared because he is useful. The spirit of Christmas brings hope and goodness into the world, if only for a season. One of my favourite Christmas stories is the Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I. In the midst of a war, French, German, and English soldiers crossed into each other’s trenches to celebrate Christmas. They sang, drank, and exchanged gifts because, for just a few days, they were reminded of their common humanity. That is the beauty of the Christmas spirit. It is something worth practicing. Embodying the Christmas spirit through Santa Claus is then an extension of that wonderful tradition.
Santa is a star example of a syntheist spirit. Our seasonal observance of Santa demonstrates that belief is unnecessary for a spirit to have power. It is through our actions and our faith that a spirit can change the world.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone!