"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Do You Believe In Santa Claus?

The inevitable time had come.  My son wanted to know if there was really a Santa Claus.  I said no, there was not.

“I guess that means there’s no Easter Bunny either”, he replied sadly.

Toby Young writing in The Telegraph (12.24.13) admits that he is like most parents who appreciate the few weeks of added discipline the Santa Claus myth confers:

As Christmas approaches, I can control my children by telling them that Santa will give them a lump of coal if they don’t behave better. Five-year-old Charlie once asked how Father Christmas would know if he’d been naughty and I pointed to the motion detector on the kitchen ceiling that’s connected to the burglar alarm and told him it was Santa’s CCTV.

“Every time the little red light goes on, that means he’s watching you,” I said.

His table manners improved significantly after that.

Young takes the matter of Santa Claus seriously, however, and wonders why he can so easily encourage belief in Father Christmas but without hesitation dismiss the existence of God.  He explains that if you can’t prove that God exists, then for all intents and purposes he doesn’t.  His is a rational, logical, and persuasive argument; and he hopes that his son will not put two-and-two together just yet.  For a while at least he can live in an innocent netherworld where fantasy is just fine and he can take baby bites to chew on the question of the ages.

I might talk about the importance of encouraging children to engage in fantasy, of allowing their imaginations to roam beyond the world of sense and sight, and quote that famous editorial in the New York Sun pointing out how dreary a wholly rational childhood would be: "The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished."

It is no wonder why committed rationalists like Mr. Young and atheists alike keep up the Santa Claus myth.  There is something very appealing about a reindeer-drawn sleigh coursing through the starry night, alighting on rooftops while Santa comes down the chimney to give presents to little girls and boys. 

Such happy myths prepare children for religion.  The story of the Nativity, for example, is an equally fanciful but compelling one.  A woman leading a rough life as a carpenter’s wife in Palestine gets pregnant.  It is a woman’s lot in life, so although she and her husband live in poverty with barely a roof over their head and not a lot to eat, she is resigned to her fate.  Then the Angel Gabriel tells her that despite the penury, hard and unpromising life of the past, things will be different from now on.  The child will be special and worth the nine months of discomfort and difficulty.  In fact, he is God. 

Three rich patrons who have been guided to Bethlehem by a bright star come and shower her with gifts.  She is finally rewarded as a woman and a mother. Sadly, just when she needs her son to help the family out, he goes off on his own, leaving her and her husband behind.  She realizes, however, that Jesus is now a grown man and off on a promising career, and doesn’t hold his departure against him.  Unfortunately she doesn’t live long enough to see how successful he has become and to be really proud of him, but like all good mothers, she loves him anyway.

Believing in Santa Claus prepares children for similar stories of resurrection, miracles, rapture, and life everlasting in a blissful paradise.

Young cites G.K. Chesterton who said that the problem with atheists isn’t that they believe in nothing; it’s that they can be persuaded to believe in anything. That’s one way to look at it, although it seems more likely, given the above, that it is the faithful who believe in anything.

Joseph Campbell became well known a number of years ago by popularizing the idea of myth as central to American culture.  Although he was a bit New Age in his pursuit of ‘Bliss’, he was still very convincing about the need for myth to sustain us in a harsh and uncompromising world:

“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth--penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.” (The Power of Myth)

So there is really nothing wrong whatsoever in perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus.  If you are a religious parent, then Santa Claus is a Christian figure. Although he can be Old Testament and harshly judge children by their adherence to or rejection of moral and ethical principles, he can be generous and forgiving.  He has supernatural powers, and like God can be everywhere at once.  He can fly like angels, exude happiness and bounty, and celebrate humanity although judging it.

If you are a rationalist or atheist parent, the Santa Claus myth is your children’s first introduction to Campbell’s special world of metaphor and allegory.

Young, although a rational skeptic, says he would be profoundly unhappy if God – or the myth of God – disappeared:

I’m profoundly skeptical about the claims of scientists like Richard Dawkins to have grounded morality in reason and logic alone. The notion that a godless universe doesn’t pose a problem for mankind – that we can dispense with a belief in a morally ordered cosmos and just carry on living our lives – is horribly complacent. Not believing in God is profoundly unsettling. As Dostoevsky pointed out, if nothing is true, everything is permitted.

I am for perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus for a different reason entirely – it enhances the innocence, the wonder, and the magical world of children.  

The only real reason for having children nowadays is for this innocence.  A world without children would be a dim and dreary place indeed.  We no longer need children for social or economic security, lineage, or primogeniture and the rights of accession.  Children cost far more than they provide in return.  They often turn out to be ingrates, disrespectful layabouts, drunks, wife-beaters, and thieves.  They howl, scream, throw temper tantrums, wreck the car, never take out the trash, and bully their younger siblings.  They, more often than not, are a royal pain in the ass.

But we still have them and in great numbers. We produce them for the few years of pure, unadulterated innocence, humor, and warmth that they provide.  By sharing Santa Claus with them and through our complicity in this harmless and useful myth, we become part of that special, short, and unique world.

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