23 December 2021

Santa Claus and misplaced, misunderstood faith.

Years ago round Christmastime, one of my 9-year-old students asked me, “Mr. Leslie, is Santa real?”

Oh good Lord, I thought, haven’t her parents had the Santa talk with her? I punted. “Ask your mom.”

This girl’s mom was one of those people with an all too common misconception: The way you keep your kids innocent is by keeping them ignorant. And of course this doesn’t work. As you might know from when you were a kid: When you had serious questions, you sought answers. If your parents didn’t have ’em, or wouldn’t give ’em, you’d go elsewhere.

And these days, older kids won’t even go to their parents for answers: They’ll do as their parents do, and grab their phone first. Wanna find out about anything? Grab your phone and ask Siri or Google. Heck, some of you might be reading TXAB right now because you went to the internet instead of texting your pastor.

I’m old: When I was a kid only academics and soldiers had internet. But when my parents weren’t forthcoming, I knew how to look stuff up in an encyclopedia. We had an old edition of the Britannica at home, and if it had little or nothing, there was always the public library.

And if I had to consult other people, there were plenty of knowledgeable adults around. Pastors, mentors, neighbors, schoolteachers, older relatives. Or when absolutely necessary, school friends—but I already knew they didn’t know anything. Not every kid does.

So as their schoolteacher, this is why I got questions about Santa. And God. And why people are so terrible. And how babies are made. And the definitions to certain words which children’s dictionaries correctly refused to include. And that’s just fourth grade; you should hear what junior highers and high schoolers ask—on the rare occasions they don’t assume they know it all.

I taught at a Christian school, so parents were usually okay with me answering God questions. That is, so long that my answers didn’t undermine their favorite assumptions. But some of ’em deliberately put their kids in Christian school to shelter them. Which is another common misconception: You do realize certain parents put their kids in Christian school because they’re bad kids, and are hoping the school will straighten them out so they don’t have to? So while you imagine you’re sheltering your kids, you’re actually throwing them into the hail. Nice job.

In any event the parents were so not okay with me answering any questions about baby-making. Heck, I didn’t wanna do it either; I kept telling them to ask their parents. I told one persistent girl, whose mom refused to have “the talk” with her, “Tell her, ‘If I don’t know how they’re made, what if I make a baby by accident?’ ”—and that worked.

I likewise knew (from experience; a story I’ll tell another time) parents definitely didn’t want me exposing their Santa game. Problem is, the girl asked me in the middle of class, and some of ’em decided to answer her question before her mom could: “Santa’s not real.”

“He’s not?” asked the girl.

“He’s real…” I fumbled, thinking specifically of St. Nicholas of Myra, “but maybe not in the way you’re thinking.”

“Which means,” insisted one of my very literal-minded students, “that he’s not real.” ’Cause kids know a wishy-washy answer when they hear it.

This isn’t a complicated question.

Reprint of the “Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” article.
From the Newseum.

I bring this up because every year, my local newspaper reprints an old editorial titled “Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.” Long backstory short: In 1897, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asked her dad whether Santa was real. He punted and told her to write the New York Sun. Editor Francis Church responded in the 21 September issue, telling her yes, there is a Santa Claus—because imagination is real, the realest stuff in the universe, and isn’t that wonderful?

Newspapers reprint it, and people love it, because Church made in it a defense of childhood wonder and faith. Problem is, it’s not the straight answer an 8-year-old girl would legitimately want. I know; I taught lots of 8-year-old girls.

Virginia’s request was simple and straightforward: “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. … Please tell me the truth: Is there a Santa Claus?” To an 8-year-old’s mind, she wasn’t asking whether the embodied spirit of Christmas goodwill exists. She wasn’t asking whether “love and generosity and devotion exist,” which to Church is essentially the same thing. She wanted to know whether a jolly old elf really and truly lived at the north pole, and every year distributed gifts to good Christian girls and boys, and coal to the evil ones. She had a concrete, literal person in mind, and wanted to know whether that guy was real.

In reply, Church gave her a cop-out from someone who didn’t wanna tell her no. Because that would outrage the Sun’s reading public.

When kids ask, “Is Santa real?” they aren’t asking, “Is Santa real in an immaterial, metaphysical sense?” To them, that’s a stupid, meaningless answer. They’re not wrong.

Nor do kids care for my answer that the foundation of Santa Claus is a 4th-century Middle Eastern bishop. They don’t want that St. Nicholas; they want the pink-cheeked St. Nick from the poem with the reindeer and sleigh. They want the flesh-and-blood elf who literally climbs down their chimneys on Christmas Eve, eats their cookies, and leaves gifts. That’s what their parents talk about; that’s who they visit in the community centers, and the few shopping malls left. So that’s what they’re asking about.

It’s a dirty fraud to pull a bait-and-switch, and say “Yes he’s real” when we don’t mean precisely the same Santa Claus they mean.

Yeah, I just called “Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” a dirty fraud. ’Cause it is. You don’t leave out milk and cookies for a beautiful concept. You leave it out for a creature with teeth, a tongue, a stomach, and hopefully a functional pancreas. Kids wanna know if the eater of their cookies is real. Not whether the disembodied spirit of Christmas is real. They already know that’s real.

…Well actually it’s not. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Newspapers reprint Church’s editorial because he’s become the patron saint of equivocating adults. This is just the rubbish answer they want when kids ask whether Santa is real. It’s not the sort of yes-or-no answer a lawyer would demand if you were on the stand; it’s a beautiful example of obfuscation. Prevarication. Temporization. Tergiversation. Lying. It’d make the devil blush with pride. Probably already did.

Here’s the problem. When children find out Santa isn’t real in any concrete, material sense, some of them go into mourning as if he’s died. They mourn their lost idea. They often feel like fools for even believing it in the first place—after all, there’s way more evidence for Santa being imaginary than not. The older they are, the more they’ll feel like adults were laughing behind their backs this whole time. And sometimes adults were.

People correctly describe this experience as when a child’s innocence dies. Now, think about what that means. This is when kids begin to recognize the magical world they were told exists, is actually a trick of their parents, and every other adult has functioned as a co-conspirator. Writings like Church’s editorial are part of the conspiracy. (Isn’t it any wonder people still believe in massive conspiracies?) Things like this editorial are an attempt to prolong the trick—and justify it in the minds of the adults who do this. Church just happened to write a much better excuse for lying than most adults can think up.

But try reading the “Yes, Virginia” piece to a weeping 7-year-old who just found out Santa is make-believe. She’ll call it a rotten lie. ’Cause it is.

And there goes God.

Nearly every nontheist I’ve dealt with has claimed they stopped believing in God round the time they stopped believing in Santa Claus.

In fact nearly all of them lump God together with the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, fairies and elves and monsters under the bed, and all the other myths we tell children. When they stopped believing in one, they stopped believing in all. Because, say these skeptics, they’re all the same. They’re based on “childlike faith”—which isn’t real.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Now yes, the sort of “faith” they mean, isn’t real. Isn’t actually faith either. Faith isn’t the magical power to believe in the ridiculous. It’s complete trust in someone or something. It’s trusting the physician who tells us we need surgery. It’s trusting the mechanic who tells you your heater needs replacing or it’ll explode. It’s trusting the firefighter who says, “Stay out of the building.” We put our faith in these people, ’cause we believe they’re not steering us wrong.

Kids are literal-minded, as I said. When an adult tells them something, and says it sincerely, they usually put faith in that adult. Especially Mom and Dad, the adults they know best. But when it turns out Mom and Dad have been punking them for years with all this Santa business, we shouldn’t find it so surprising when kids wind up having a massive crisis of faith. Get ’em at just the right age, and most of ’em won’t take anything on faith anymore. Not Santa… not science, not religion, nothing.

After all, if the parents were making up Santa; why aren’t they also making up God? Be fair: What evidence have their parents really offered for God’s existence? I mean, their lives don’t show it any.

In my experience the parents who overdo it on the Santa nonsense… are too often not the strongest Christian examples. After all they had no trouble inventing the most outrageous lies for their kids. No pangs of conscience, and if so, they’re ignoring them, or feeding it a steady diet of excuses. They’ve been suppressing the Holy Spirit too. Stands to reason they’re pretty irreligious… and their kids are fully aware of their hypocrisy, and interpret it as yet another fraud the folks are perpetuating. “Why, they only teach us about God and sin and hell in order to make us behave ourselves!” Stuff like that.

Sadly, they’re not wrong. Not every “Christian” has real faith in God. Most of us follow him for pragmatic reasons, and our faith is wishful thinking. We want God to be real—want it so bad—but haven’t based our faith on anyone or anything concrete. So we have nothing concrete to pass down to the kids. And eventually the kids have had enough of childish things, and want to put these things behind them.

No more lies!

If you’ve been pushing Santa on your kids, there’s only one way out of a scenario where the kids’ faith in you, in God, in everything just collapses: You have to repent.

Yeah, repent. This doesn’t just mean you feel sorry; it means you’re not gonna lie any more, and you’re gonna do what you can to make things right. Santa is pretend, and we tell the kids Santa stories because they’re fun. Same reason we take ’em to Spider-Man movies. But when our fun damages the kids’ ability to trust adults, that’s not right. We gotta make that right. Apologize. Then prove you meant it by being honest from now on.

That’s the hard part: Demonstrating your repentance. Demonstrating your faith in Jesus to your kids. (Especially when your own faith is a little shaky.) But we Christians should be doing that anyway. Start producing the real thing, and make sure the kids see it in you.

I know quite a few parents who’ve always taught their kids Santa is imaginary. He’s a fictional character, like the Grinch; he’s holiday entertainment. Santa represents generosity and kindness. And when he gives ’em Christmas presents even though they totally oughta be on the naughty list, he can even represent grace. He can be a really useful teaching tool. Fun too.

These kids never have to experience any trauma of discovering they were lied to. They never created any Santa-fixated, artificial version of Christmas. They don’t at all appear to be deprived of wonder and magic and awe. God becoming human—the actual story of Christmas—is plenty awe-inspiring enough.