The Reality of Santa

Some would-be jihadists, who had traveled from the U.S. to Iraq and joined ISIL, are quitting the cause. It turns out the WiFi signal isn’t strong enough in Syria so their IPods quit working. These American teenagers can’t tolerate such torturous living conditions, and they want to come home. It’s a story that makes you want to laugh, cry, and get angry all at the same time. The cultural gap it illustrates is so enormous as to defy description. The Sunni and Shiite Muslims celebrate their holiest religious holidays by fasting during daylight hours, beating themselves with whips, chains and swords, and slitting the throat of a goat or sheep. In the U.S., Christians celebrate their holiest days with chocolate Santas, marshmallow Peeps, and brunch. In the Middle East they use real blood in their ceremonies. In the West, they use grape juice. This is a larger cultural divide deeper than the Marianas Trench. Gullible American teenagers, seduced by slick social media campaigns, borrow daddy’s credit card, lie about going to Italy, and then fly off to join ISIL. I blame Santa.

This will not be an anti-Santa screed. I have no problem with the Santa meme. Only how it’s used by parents. I blame the idea of Santa for a lot of problems in our country. Sure, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy share some of the burden. But most of it falls on Santa. Conservatives are always complaining about the “47%” who depend on government largesse to survive. What is the North Pole toy factory if not a government subsidized industry? How can Santa afford to give away so many toys if the government is not propping him up with taxpayer money? Where is the Super PAC to end Santa subsidies?

But the real problem with Santa is magical thinking and behavior expectations. Magical thinking is a serious issue in a democracy like ours. Voters who think they can cut taxes while maintaining a certain level of services are guilty of magical thinking. People who want easy answers to difficult questions, such as ignoring or dismissing global warming, are engaged in magical thinking. People who don’t plan for retirement are engaged in magical thinking. Left Behind enthusiasts who believe that the laws of gravity will stop working just for them are engaged in magical thinking. People who don’t wear seat belts or get vaccinated are engaged in magical thinking. Magical thinking is ignoring the laws of nature and reality in order to sustain an irrational narrative. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that pumping increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere is going to cause changes in the atmosphere and how it functions. Magical thinking prevents us from facing and solving many of our problems.

And when do most Americans first become encouraged to engage in magical thinking? Santa of course. Kids do not accept Santa at face value without lots of pushing by parents. Just check out the Santa line at the mall and see how many frightened , crying children there are. Then, at around age four, children began to question how the Santa myth can be true. But their parents lie to them about the physical impossibility of Santa. They encourage children to doubt their own rational thinking. These lies have consequences. Exhibit A is the “no duh!” study done by scientists who found that kids who are lied to by their parents (including Santa, TF, EB, etc.) become frequent liars themselves. Many parents, encouraged by a media that gets fat off of the Christmas commercial interests, argue that kids need magic in their lives. Emily Yoffe says children need “a little fairy dust.” People argue that childhood should be innocent and free from reality. That children need a fantasy life. I grant you that the evidence does support a child’s need for a fantasy life, but I think that using Santa is both counterproductive and just plain wrong. First, magnets, kites, caterpillars, etc. are magical enough for almost any child. Second, the reality of life for many children is too harsh to be covered up by chocolate Santas in a stocking. Kids know this and start dismissing advice from anyone who perpetuates the Santa myth. Third, there are better ways to encourage a rich inner life for children. My children were followed around by 6 ft. butterflies, hippos, and bears. And they never believed in a real Santa, tooth fairy, or Easter Bunny.

The behavior tie-in, the naughty / nice list is also harmful. My parents put coal in my stocking when I was six. Now what I had done as a six-year-old to be “bad” I cannot tell you. I remember that I read books in bed after I was supposed to go to sleep. I played with the dolls in my mother’s trunk after my father, who was worried I’d turn into a “sissy,” forbade me to do so. And I questioned the ability of Santa to come down a non-existent chimney. Beyond that I did nothing that wasn’t the normal behavior of a six-year-old boy. What I, and others, can vouch for is that my parents’ lies about Santa broke my trust in them permanently.

Many people want to believe that if we are good, we get rewarded. If not by Santa then by karma, God, life, or the afterlife. And if we are bad then we get punished. Therefore when bad things happen to people, they must have done something wrong. This belief makes it so much easier to avoid thinking about or trying to do something about the human tragedies we see. And yet we know, at least most of us know deep in our hearts, that a causal relationship between behavior and life circumstances is iffy at best. The rich aren’t rich because they live better lives. The poor aren’t poor because they deserve it. We all know good people who have suffered horrible tragedies. Life is unpredictable. And the harsh reality is that no amount of planning or good behavior can shield anyone from illness, accidents, or death.

“Okay, Mr. Grinch. I thought this wasn’t going to be an anti-Santa diatribe.”

Glad you are still with me. There is no need to take Santa away from children. Just stop lying about him. We told our children that Santa is a make-believe game that children and adults play together. Most kids love playing make-believe. They understand its reality and limitations. Just like a tea party for stuffed animals, children can enjoy the magic of a pretend Santa without inevitable disappointment of a real one. My sons turned out great. And while we didn’t always answer their questions (some things are personal and private), they grew up knowing they could trust us to tell them the truth as best as we could when we did give them answers and guidance. We had and still do have fun at Christmas. My wife and I still put gifts from Santa in people’s stockings. Santa, like Middle Earth and Star Wars, is wonderful to dream about and have fun with. But telling gullible children that reindeer can really fly is an awful idea for parents who want their kids to be truthful and to trust in their guidance. To believe otherwise is a worse case of magical thinking than believing that bunnies lay chocolate eggs.