The Santa experiment
I don’t have any children, although like any young adult, I’ve often contemplated how I would raise my own. I never particularly liked Christmas, and I always felt it unwise and deceitful to teach my children the rather silly notion of Santa Claus. The big bearded guy stands for many of the values I do not believe in; mainly the capitalist, consumerist attitude I feel is quickly destroying our planet.
Recently, however, I’ve changed my mind about the guy. There is another purpose to Santa Claus, not to mention the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny: they are quite effective tools to teach our children how to seek out evidence of claims made by others about how the universe operates, and ultimately of the duplicity of adults. In their infancy, kids are gullible. They’ll believe whatever you tell them. You could say babies come from storks, that Santa Claus can tell if they have been naughty or nice, or there is a bearded andro-centric God who will send them to a fiery pit of hell if they misbehave or fail to believe in his unprovable existence. In the case of Santa, the dogma is normally something that persists only a few months of the year, around the time of Christmas. Although those months may be intense, with images of him everywhere (in stores, on television, and the Internet). From November to December, the fat guy is everywhere.
We reward children who are especially pleased with the idea of Santa. The more they are excited about him, the more we ham it up, and play into the fantasy. The child benefits from a reward system that re-enforces the notion and existence of Santa, in the shape of presents, candies, and food. For a child, the idea that Christmas is actually about the birth of a man some consider God is completely lost on them; it’s all about Santa, and about the presents he brings.
But like any myth, the story of Santa is riddled with inconsistencies and impossibilities. As children grow up, they begin to question the mythology. How can Santa deliver presents to billions of children all in one night? How can he come in the house if someone doesn’t have a chimney, or if the chimney is lit? Why is it that some children (particularly the poor ones) never receive any gifts, or people who aren’t Christians don’t get any either? Are they not both deserving? An inquiring child will begin to ask these questions, and even the most credulous one will be highly suspicious of his existence once all of the evidence is examined. Like any good parent, we see a child abandoning his fantasy world as just one development in the many stages of growing up.
The Santa experiment offers us a rather unique look at how children are able to reject claims made by adults about the world, despite their bombardment of self reinforcing imagery. This is due to several factors: (1) the mythology of Santa is generally not held dogmatically, nor is it considered a crucial part of a person’s belief system. (2) The rejection of the idea of Santa is seen as a positive development in the life of a child. Credulous belief in his existence is usually seen as a sign of immaturity, and other incredulous children often reinforce the idea that the belief is juvenile. (3) The ‘indoctrination’ of the imagery and story of Santa are only reinforced during limited times of the year. After the Christmas season is over, the influence of Santa as a cultural and mythological entity fades.
Although some might criticize me for drawing a parallel between the notion of Santa and gods, the fact remains that the ideas share a great deal in common. Like many religions, the legend of Santa Claus is based at least partially on a real person (St. Nicholas), which, over the span of time, has been exaggerated, mystified, and stylized. The main differences lie in the fact the mythologies of religions are far more sophisticated, as are their underlying themes. The idea of Santa Claus does not deal with complex moral issues, but is rather a quaint view of how human beings should act towards one another. Santa is like a proto-religion that never really took off. It’s easy to see if the legend had been taken more seriously, and a whole set of moral and ethical guidelines had been built around this legend, that ‘Clausism’ might have quite the following; after all, the values of giving, honesty, and goodness are important and popular values. Instead, Santa Clause has been assimilated by our culture and turned into a religion fit for children, and not adults.
It seems fitting most children realize Santa is a myth, but they maintain the illusion in order to try and manipulate the system to gain more presents. By doing so, they turn the tables on our little lie for their own self interest. I see nothing wrong with this; the notion of Santa is something we use to manipulate kids around the holidays. It’s poetic justice that the Bearded Fat one eventually becomes their tool for manipulation. Ah, truely, this is the true spirit of Christmas, is it not?