To Santa, or not to Santa?

US Navy Petty Officer 1st Class James Durrance as Santa at Misono Orphanage.The issue of whether to play along with the Santa Claus game comes up every year. For those of us who are atheists because we value rationality, those of us who count ourselves as part of the skeptical community, it’s an important question. Since the only thing that atheists are sure to have in common is their lack of belief in any deities, it’s not surprising that there are a variety of different atheist responses.

I see these responses as falling into three broad categories. First, some people are totally okay with teaching the Santa Claus myth. They see it as fun and ultimately harmless. For example, Surly Amy at Skepchick included this cute bit in an answer to a reader’s question:

It’s really up to you as to which way you go with this topic and you’re not a bad parent for encouraging the Santa myth or for telling the truth. As long as it is a fun and loving experience that isn’t alienating your child from the joy of the season. Remember to have fun. To this day, I still leave presents under our little fake sparkly tree addressed to my husband that say, “From Santa” or from “Rudolph.” I don’t think he has figured it out yet and he is good every year.

Others think the Santa Claus story is good, but for a different reason. They see the exploration of the myth as good exercise for a child’s critical thinking skills. Again from Surly Amy at Skepchick:

This topic comes up every year here at Skepchick headquarters. While some of the girls have slightly different opinions on the topic, I am most fond of Rebecca’s take on the situation. Which ultimately is the point that sure, go ahead and lie your ass off to your kids about fun things like the Tooth-fairy and Santa. The kids are going to figure out that it’s really you in the end and when they do praise them for their junior skepticism and use it at a learning exercise. Ask them how they found their evidence and then use the Santa myth as a way to explain other crazy things people believe in. That way when they come asking why your family doesn’t believe in a god but the neighbors do.

Dale McGowan at The Meming of Life agrees, in a passage from his book Parenting Beyond Belief:

I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

Still others think it’s bad to present Santa Claus as anything other than a made-up story, because lying to your children (and lying in general) is a bad policy. Skepchick Elyse explained this point of view in a letter she wrote to her young son and graciously shared with the blogosphere:

If I looked at you and told you there was a Santa, and he is watching you, and he flies around the world in a sled and he has presents and he is real; I would be lying. I would also be telling you that magic is real, that it happens effortlessly, and it is everywhere. Forcing you to believe in a tired old lie just because it is a tradition is not going to help you to build a world of magical fantasy. It will stand in your way.  Instead I want you to look at the story of Santa Claus and say, “This may not be real, but I can imagine a world where it is.” …

So you are not going to have a belief in a real Santa as you grow up. Some people think that’s strange. But, my sweet boy, I am giving you something far better than anything any crimson-fleece-suited man can ever leave under a tree: your own imagination and the truth.

This year, I was surprised to find several examples of Christians who don’t participate in the game of make-believe surrounding Santa Claus. I always sort of knew they were out there — after all, tailoring your behavior all year to please a man with magical powers who rewards you or punishes you accordingly, but who’s not the Christian God, is a clear example of idolatry if I ever heard one. Still, Santa Claus seems like such a big part of Christmas as it’s usually celebrated, I think of him as part of the (Christian) Christmas tradition.

It’s sort of cool to see (some) atheists and (some) Christians agreeing that it’s bad to tell your children elaborate stories  with no basis in fact, even if those stories might encourage children to behave better. But there’s a subtle difference in tone, I think. While the atheists argue something like, “It’s bad to teach falsehoods as truth” (in itself), many of the Christians seem to say something more like, “It’s bad to teach falsehoods as truth, because then your kids will start doubting things you tell them and they might stop believing in God.”

Here’s our old friend Pastor Mark Driscoll in his recent contribution to the Washington Post “On Faith” blog:

What we are concerned about, though, is lying to our children. We teach them that they can always trust us because we will tell them the truth and not lie to them. Conversely, we ask that they be honest with us and never lie. Since we also teach our children that Jesus is a real person who did perform real miracles, our fear is that if we teach them fanciful, make-believe stories as truth, it could erode confidence in our truthfulness where it really matters. So, we distinguish between lies, secrets, surprises, and pretend for our kids. We ask them not to tell lies or keep secrets, but do teach them that some surprises (like gift-giving) and pretending (like dressing up) can be fun and should be encouraged. We tell them the truth and encourage them to have fun watching Christmas shows on television and even sitting on Santa’s lap for a holiday photo if they so desire. For parents of younger children wanting them to learn the real story of Santa Claus the Veggie Tales movie Saint Nicholas is a good choice.

Christian cartoonist and blogger Wes Molebash asked his readers for their Santa Claus MO, and the first commenter, Travix, wrote:

My parents always told me he wasn’t real. They didn’t want me to believe in him for some period of time then tell me he wasn’t real. They didn’t want the same thing to happen with my belief in God.

Not everyone takes this exact angle, of course — many of them emphasize that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and feel that Santa detracts from that. (Some emphasize this in a grotesquely violent way.) However, this too depends on a worry that the Santa story makes Jesus-belief vulnerable. Although the Christians advocating truth about Santa do technically agree with the third group of atheists in my list above, the actual reasoning behind their position validates the second group, the one with the goal of educating children about supernatural belief in general. If mere belief, or eventual disbelief, in Santa Claus could cause a child’s faith in Christianity to crumble, maybe that’s a clue that there aren’t any better reasons to believe in Jesus than there are to believe in Santa.

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  1. People are so protective of tradition. C’mon, think outside the box, folks! Kid’s don’t need thoughts of Santa to make Giftmas out-of-this-world exciting. Children can be made to enthusiastically help pick up sticks in the yard, if you are creative and energetic enough. There are alternatives to Santa and his flying, deer-powered sleigh that don’t or wouldn’t rely on deceit. The whole Santa thing is a very weird practice, if you ask me.
    Traditions have an origin. Someone is inventive, and the practice catches on. Let’s be original and start some new, better traditions.

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