Originally published on the HB 22 Dec 2008.
As a young boy I certainly believed in Santa. We made the annual cookie oblation and went to bed under the conditional covenant that he would not come if we did not sleep (or at least stay in bed). Nevertheless, I think I began to doubt the faith earlier than some. We did not have a fireplace and the idea of someone, even Santa, coming through the front door in the middle of the night was a little creepy. I don’t actually remember apostatizing from the Santa fe. Nevertheless, when it came time to decide what to tell our children about Santa we opted out of the Santa story.
It wasn’t because we were or are Christmas haters. It wasn’t because we didn’t have much money for presents (we didn’t). We told our children that the man in the red suit was the “Christmas clown” (thank you Vern Pollema) on the premise that, while pretending is fun and necessary, the Santa story isn’t quite the same thing. When we were reading pretend stories to our children they knew the convention, that we were making up stories and that we were temporarily entering into a make-believe world, that we were exercising our imaginations about possible worlds. That’s why make-believe stories begin with conventional lines such as “Once upon a time….” This language is a verbal wink. It signals to the participants: “please place your tray in an upright and locked position, turn off your cell phones, and stow your carry-on bag. The flight is taking off.”
In the Santa faith, however, there is no such convention. The story is told earnestly and even passionately. Expressions of doubt are met with rebuke and exhortation. Evidence is presented and a defense of the faith is offered. The cookies and milk are gone in the morning. New presents appear. There are other rituals. In my family we opened some presents on Christmas eve. Dad always worked on Christmas eve. As the time approached for him to come home for work, time began to slow. After dinner he would take a nap. While he napped each present was checked meticulously and shaken one more time. Time came to a halt in the annual demonstration of the theory of relativity. The energy of a concupiscent child is equal to the mass of presents under the tree times the length of my father’s nap squared. The rite never varied, at least not while we believed.
That’s just it. At some point we learned that the Santa faith isn’t really a true faith at all. It was a complex hoax, a conspiracy even. Santa can’t live your heart if he doesn’t really live at the North Pole. At that moment, in a small but sometimes painful way, we learn that people lie. The pain of the truth is buffered by presents and Christmas cheer but things are never the same. We become just a little bit cynical, perhaps for the first time.
We decided not to tell our children that there was a Santa because we we did not want our children to suspect that we were liars. If we lied to them about Santa, why weren’t we lying about Jesus and the resurrection? Why weren’t we? After all, they had never seen Jesus. They only had a book, a story, and a story teller. Who can blame them for doubting? If Santa doesn’t really fly through the air then perhaps Jesus didn’t ascend? If Santa didn’t really eat the cookies, then perhaps communion is just a thing we do; it doesn’t really mean anything?
In its own way, the Santa myth tells children (and grown-ups) that this really is a closed universe, that there isn’t really any such thing as transcendent reality, that Christmas is really about being nice to one another and thus so is Christianity. Perhaps modern people believe so easily in the “death of God” because they learned a long time ago in the death of Santa? Poetry is a way of talking about transcendent realties. If there are no transcendent realities then poetry is ultimately hollow—there’s nothing to communicate or worse, the message communicated is that there is no message, not really.
Some cultural historians tell us that the Santa faith has become more intense in the modern period than it ever was, e.g. in pre-modern times. Perhaps that’s because, having implicitly accepted the the modern notion that it’s no longer possible for rational, modern people to believe in a tri-personal, transcendent God, that Jesus is God the Son incarnate, that we turned to a new, more credible, more manageable, less demanding deity? After all, he only asks that we be good. The only punishment for failure is possibly that we don’t get that new flat screen. Perhaps Christmas is commercialized not because the Scroogy old capitalists have ruined it but because they’re giving us our heart’s desire?
Presents and eggnog are great fun. We buy the tree and give presents. Remembering the incarnation of God the Son is a fine thing. It’s great to receive the annual Christmas cards and letters, even if I fail to reciprocate properly. Whatever we do around the holiday, let us remain grounded in real history and let us make sure that when we pretend that we and our children are all on the same page.