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

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

‘I Guess That Means There’s No Easter Bunny’–The Debunking Of Santa Claus, Faith, And The Persistent Fiction Of Truth

Billy Tompkins was beginning to have doubts about the existence of Santa Claus.   The reindeer on the roof, the chimney, the milk and cookies, presents and the lump of coal, were all suspect.  He was convinced that Santa Claus was just a fairy tale character and that the fabulist tales of a Nordic genie in a flying sled who brought toys to all the children in the world were simply not believable.  Yet, being still a child and not yet completely trusting his instincts and logic; and still trusting his parents for all truth, he finally asked his father the  question.  “Is there really a Santa Claus?”

“What do you think”, his father replied, hoping to defer the inevitable; but his son, coming into his own and increasingly confident of his judgments, said that he no longer believed, choosing the right phrasing to suggest that the fiction of Santa Claus had been very nice while it lasted, but that was over with, no hard feelings, and no lying implied.

So, both father and son evaded the issue nicely and had a happy Christmas.

Most children would have left it at that.  Santa Claus was no different from talking rabbits, and by the time they had moved from fairy tales to puzzles and dinosaurs, little ones were unconcerned about the disconnect. 

Billy was different, however, smarter than most, precocious in a way that gave his parents pause.  He saw through things more quickly than other children, never bought the white lies his mother and father told to keep him from unpleasant family secrets, questionable whereabouts, or why Mommy and Daddy were fighting. He never challenged his parents but had a way of knitting his brows that forced them to backtrack, insert a bit of truth here and there, cobble over the rough patches to keep him innocent.

Father Brophy and the nuns in Sunday school were particularly big on lies and deception, and when prompting a child before first confession, they always mentioned lying.  A venial sin, it might be, they warned, but still a painful sin against our Lord.  They never bothered to parse and disaggregate the concept – when was a lie only a fairy tale; what were the consequences of untruth; and why did everyone seem to lie – for they assumed that young children were not yet ready for Thomas Aquinas and his dispelling of heresy.

Image result for images nuns teaching catechism

Billy always raised his hand to ask Sister Mary Joseph to explain what she meant and always put her on the spot.  “There is no Santa Claus”, he began, “so my parents lied to me for eight years”.

The nun had never been confronted with such a question, and being from the strict, disciplinarian Carmelite order, thought it insolent.  Nevertheless she hemmed and hawed, got herself tangled in semantics and morality, and barked at the boy, “That was a fairy tale, not a lie”. 

But Billy was persistent.  If his parents had made up a story, deliberately avoided the truth, perpetuated a myth, and insisted on its veracity long after Billy reasoned the facts on his own, why were they not liars? 

“Children are not adults”, the nun snapped, “and parents know what’s best for them.  And besides”, she added somewhat conciliatorily, “hasn’t  Santa Claus been good to you?”.

The Santa Claus conundrum – fantasy, lie, or conspiratorial strategy – has been the subject of serious inquiry. Toby Young writing in The Telegraph admits that he like most parents 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.

Billy’s parents had indeed looked forward to the Christmas Season for exactly this reason – disciplinary duties would be shared with Santa Claus; and already the Church angle was right around the corner.  Being good was counselled not just because it was the the right, responsible thing to do, but because someone was watching.  Now Santa, very soon God.

Discipline and family order aside, says journalist Young, this elision of fantasy and religion is the very foundation of Christian belief. If a child can believe in a superior, all knowing being – Santa Claus ‘knows when (all children) are sleeping, and when they (all children) are awake, and whether they have been bad or good – then it is but a short step to the Almighty.  Santa Claus paves the way for religion. 

The obverse is also true. Why can one so easily encourage belief in Santa Claus but without hesitation dismiss the existence of God? asks Young. If you can’t prove that God exists, then for all intents and purposes he doesn’t, a rational, logical, and persuasive argument; but if you have been prepped for fantastical belief by the wonders of Father Christmas, then devotion is not far behind.  

Atheists who celebrate the ‘tradition’ of Christmas, Santa Claus, his sleigh, and his reindeer, are denying their disbelief and unwittingly greasing the wheels for faith.

Image result for image logo of atheism

Such traditionalism among atheists, suggests Young, is a sign of their undeniable belief. Few parents, atheist or faithful, can deny the almost spiritual innocence and beauty of the young child, and this belies their dismissal of God.

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."

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. Whether a Jungian psycho-mystical link to the past, the magic of myth described by Joseph Campbell, or simply a desire for God, Santa Claus is not only for children.

Happy myths prepare children for religious belief and consolidate the more conscious and deliberate conclusions which lead to it.  Hinduism, an esoteric, intellectual religion with a subtle cosmology, has needed the Ramayana, the epic battles of Siva and the Sri Lankan monkey gods, and the exploits of its heroes to give it popular appeal.  The myths of the Old Testament are equally fundamental and supportive of belief.   The Battle of Jericho, the parting of the Red Sea, the Flood, and Armageddon itself are mythical devices created to assure Jewish solidarity and undivided belief.

In the New Testament the story of the Nativity 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.

How different is this from the belief in Santa Claus? Both prepare children for similar stories of resurrection, miracles, rapture, and life everlasting in a blissful paradise.

Billy’s world collapsed when he finally realized that if there were no Santa Claus, then there could be no Easter Bunny; nor Hansel and Gretel, The Three Bears, and Little Red Riding Hood.  This was not the catastrophe, tragic loss of innocence, and fall from grace that it might seem.

The newly rational and cognitive Billy understood the nature of fantasy, how there were really no monsters under the bed, and how in fact there could be two parallel, equal realities; but the damage had been done.  Despite the relegation of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to history and the deconstruction of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, there in fact might be, just might be something else besides this.

As an adult Billy was more a rationalist than a believer, although at times the ‘Santa Claus Syndrome’ kicked in and he went to church.  More than anything, however, he was surprised at the constant anger at supposed lies, misstatements, and untruths by politicians. Hadn’t people learned from Santa Claus? It didn’t take the likes of Browning, Kurasawa, or Durrell to confirm what everyone knows – there is no such thing as truth or fact.  Everything is fungible and subject to interpretation.  

From the Old Testament to the New, from historical interpretation to myth-making, from credulity and the New Age, from settled science and scientific ‘fact’ to Ptolemy, Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein; from religious ecstasy to atheistic lists, there is neither anything new under the sun, nor anything permanent.  Andy Warhol was more right than he imagined.  Not only is everyone famous for fifteen minutes, but that nothing lasts longer than that, nor has as little importance than a cinder in a grate.

Billy’s children believed in Santa Claus and he encouraged it.  He told them stories of Santa’s sleigh, his reindeers, his bag of toys, chimneys, his vigilance, and his absolute, universal presence.  God would come soon enough 

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