The anti-Santas: on the plausibility of belief.

Here’s a story about Christians who were raised without Santa Claus“I found it hard to comprehend that other kids believed in something so obviously fictional,” says one young man who was asked to write about his experiences growing up without a belief in Santa.That’s cool–I say, to each hir own, right?  I also completely understand the desire to distance oneself from U.S. Christmas materialism, which is a factor many people in this story mention as part of their motivation.

However:  I don’t understand how belief in God and/or Jesus is incompatible with belief in Santa.  In fact, I’d say that belief in one supports belief in the other.  After all, if it’s hard to swallow the notion of a fat man in a red fur suit flying around the world to distribute gifts, then isn’t it hard to swallow the Magic Baby born of a virgin to save the world story, too?  Or the story about how Magic Baby was sent to save people from Evil Nonsensical Authoritarian D!ckhead  Old Testament God who really in fact supposedly loves us?  (Seriously:  OT God is like the worst abusive domestic partner in human history.)  Frankly, in the age of jet travel and Federal Express, the fat man story seems more plausible (if just barely).

One final thought for children–or grownups–who have spilled the beans about Santa to other kids or children not their own:  God is imaginary, too.  (How’d’ya like them apples, you little $hits?)

29 thoughts on “The anti-Santas: on the plausibility of belief.

  1. Our first conversation with DC1, as a kindergartener at a religious parochial school, on the topic made those connections… I think it was Easter Bunny, Santa, God. We’re very careful to say that some people believe in God and Jesus and we should respect those beliefs as long as they don’t hurt people. And that other people have other religions as well that we should respect (as long as they don’t hurt people). And he gets to choose his own religion.

    And we had long conversations about the existence of Santa Claus that year in which we refused to answer his point blank question (other than a discussion of the historical/fabled St. Nicholas) but admitted that yes, adults know whether he’s real or not, and no matter what the answer is, adults are not allowed to tell children. It’s one of the rules. He basically went from being unclear on the concept to an unbeliever in terms of Santa, but I don’t ever remember believing either so maybe it runs in the family.

    I have no idea what his religious beliefs are.


  2. Faithful reader and big fan, only occasional commenter. But I’ve just come home from a high-church Anglican Advent service, so I felt moved to say, the willingness to believe in the Christian God but dismiss Santa is about a difference in register, isn’t it? There isn’t a whole lot of difference between the formal structure of the two myths, but God sent his only son to Earth to redeem mankind from their sins sounds a lot bigger and more important than the more domesticated picture of a fat man coming down your own personal chimney with some presents, particularly when it’s accompanied by organ and choir (or, perhaps, some good ol’ fire-and-brimstone preaching). Santa has quite a large superstructure, but it isn’t so vast as, say, the Catholic Church, nor is its history nearly as long. Tradition casts a long shadow. (On another front, perhaps the Christian story lends itself a bit better to a metaphorical interpretation, and there are Christians or Christian-sympathizers who like the moral lessons offered by the Jesus story but don’t really have the time for a fat man with presents coming down the chimney.)

    What seems weirder to me, though, is that my no-nonsense fundamentalist atheist parents didn’t give up on Santa until my sister and I were both in college, 10-15 years after we both realized he wasn’t real.


  3. I agree: one set of implausible beliefs unsupportable by evidence is about the same as another. I wrote a bit a couple of years ago about our own decision not to lie to our children about Santa. One consequence was in fact our son rather shocking a visiting friend, who came running downstairs to his dad shrieking “Dad! He says Santa Claus isn’t real!” — I think they were 8 or 9 at the time. Here’s my post on “Santa Claus is People,” in case it’s of interest:


  4. I don’t know, Emily. As a five year old atheist, Santa and Jesus sounded pretty much the same to me, standing there in my Lutheran kindergarten.

    They both kept track of your sins. They both threatened you with punishment if you didn’t act right, and a reward if you did. They both reserved the greatest punishment of all for those who did not believe in them. And they both had their biggest holidays in the darkest, coldest times of the year. Plus they both had all that singing.

    And, of course, they were both fictional. Santa had better TV shows, that was the only difference I could see.


  5. I don’t know either, but on a different harmonic. My parents told me Santa (actually, Father Frost in our tradition, but whatever) was the spirit of kindness. Which also made it clear how ze could appear everywhere at once. Seemed plausible to me. Still does.


  6. But of course the difference between believers in Santa and Jesus is that people who believe in Jesus really believe that Jesus exists, no matter what other people think, whereas the majority of people who “believe” Santa don’t really believe in him, except in a spirit of Christmas kind of way. I get pretty tired of being expected to keep everyone else’s belief in Santa alive. I don’t expect the Jewish kids in the preschool to pretend they believe in Jesus, or the atheists, God (though I guess these are topics that don’t come up in secular preschools very often). I certainly wouldn’t be angry if someone said God isn’t real to my kid. And I don’t think it’s the End Times if my kid tells someone else that Santa isn’t real (even though I’ve told hir not to go around saying that, etc).

    I should add, however, when the kid came home insisting that Santa was real, and then asked me, I said ‘what do you believe?’ Kid said, I believe Santa is real. And I let it go at that. The kid has the right to ze’s own beliefs.


  7. Perpetua, you don’t have to FEED the beast–just don’t kill it for someone else.

    My first draft of this post instructed children who spoiled it for others to burn in hell. But that was too nasty, even for me, and even for little Santakillers.

    I’m sorry if this post seemed blasphemous to Emily & to other churchgoers. I’m just calling it as I see it. As Courtney Love once sang, “I don’t really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus.” I’m with delagar: Santa’s presents were real; the presence of God was never real to me.


  8. When my kids asked point-blank if Santa Claus (or tooth fairy, or Easter bunny) was real, they were old enough that I could say “do you really want me to answer that? Because people that aren’t real don’t bring presents.” And so we merrily play the game. The tooth fairy comes when you get your wisdom teeth out at 18, and Santa Claus comes for any now-adult child who is here for Christmas. For those who go to their in-laws’, though, I’m not responsible.

    When they asked whether God was real, we had a more serious discussion, about why I didn’t think he, she, or they were real, but a lot of other people did.


  9. It’s a beautiful story, although as a feminist I lament the emphasis on the “virgin birth.” Who doesn’t like babies–aren’t most of them kind of magical anyway?

    Interestingly, the sermon in my church this morning (on the lectionary passage, from the beginning of Matthew), focused instead on Joseph, and what one does when one’s plans have been entirely overturned, and God is saying “just go with it; good will come of this.” This same argument would, of course, work for Mary (but the annunciation isn’t included in Matthew’s account, so it hasn’t been the subject of a sermon this particular year; we’ll get back to it another year), but Joseph had more of a choice (and Mary was in much more peril, up to and including the possibility of stoning). It was a good sermon, one which I think would even work in some ways from an entirely secular viewpoint, since the emphasis was on what to do when everything seems to have fallen apart (stop, consider/discern in whatever way fits your beliefs, live into what seems like a “mess”). But the idea that one tries to listen for God’s voice in such crises is certainly distinctive to a religious viewpoint (though few if any members of my church are expecting guidance from angels, or dreams; in fact, the preacher acknowledged that that’s not part of our experience these days).

    I’m a very active member of a mainline Protestant church, but also someone who tends toward belief in the concrete, the empirical, etc. (as a scholar, I’m not even very fond of most theory, which often seems to leave too many of the complicated details of real life behind). My belief in God, which is neither entirely stable nor entirely certain, is something I see as much as an act of consent as anything else — I strive to live as if I believe in God, however strong or weak my faith may be at the moment. It’s definitely in a very different register from my other beliefs, which are very much evidence-based (and very much subject to change in light of new evidence). At the same time, I don’t turn to the Bible to explain things it was never, in my opinion, meant to explain (e.g. the nuts and bolts science behind creation).

    Given the above, it’s probably not surprising that I was never really all that into Santa as a child. I sort of played along, as, for the most part, I think, did my parents. I suspect my mother, a very conscientious sort, had some trouble with the deception involved, and might, left entirely to herself (without my father and grandparents involved), have avoided introducing the Santa myth. My father may have been more into my believing, since he was the one who gave me a copy of “Yes, Virginia” when I was 7 or 8, I think, presumably to cushion a blow/make a transition that, frankly, wasn’t really a big deal for me. It’s probably also relevant that there were much more important issues in play when it came to trusting my parents, since my mother was seriously ill (and would, in fact, die soon after I passed Santa age), and my father, and perhaps she as well, were in a certain amount of denial about just how serious the situation was. So I was already trying to figure out how to cope with far more fraught fictions (or at least alternate views of reality) than Santa (and my parents’ energy was probably also going in that direction. My guess is that families in crisis, even slow-motion crisis, either get very hung up on stuff like Santa, as a way of deflecting attention from the real issues, or just sort of shrug the Santa question off, as not all that important in the great scheme of things, and we were closer to the latter. I also suspect that the personality of the child, as well as the parents, is key; my sibling had a very different experience of the years when my mother was ill, and may well have had different Santa experiences as well — though the whole business of more important things overshadowing the Santa issue would probably go double for hir, since ze is 2.5 years younger than I).


  10. I just kind of suspended disbelief pretty early on and didn’t much care about the specific historicity of it and all. If the Santa Clause cookie disappeared from the plate left out overnight, I just figured, whatever. If you didn’t get that “boxing ring” that my brother ordered to be under the tree one crazy year, you had to be able to sue somebody.

    I’ll send you a card, Historiann (if the store’s still open) that I was coincidentally looking at earlier today that I think might have made a good illustration for this post.

    And to all, a Good Night…


  11. I live in a multi-denominational household. I’m a religious person, my partner is not, and we talk about values with our children. My partner is a keeper of the Santa tradition, I am not, and I did my best to keep quiet on the topic until one of our children delivered his 10-point analysis on the fraudulence of the Santa mythology. Then we both said “keep it to yourself, okay?”

    Honestly, the Santa divide is the harder one to handle in our household. I say it is wrong to lie to children. My partner says “try believing in the Spirit of Santa (as you define that Spirit to be).” One child says “Santa is just a way to coerce children into behaving” and the other rolls hir eyes at the lot of us and just gets on with loving everybody (including, presumably, Santa).


  12. I was brought up to believe in God but not in Santa. Because my parents didn’t believe in lying to children and they believed in God (so that wasn’t lying). I’m now agnostic on both Santa and God and wouldn’t teach my imaginary children about either (other than as cultural phenomena) as I don’t believe in lying to children.

    My husband was raised to believe in God and Santa. When he found out Santa wasn’t real, he was devastated and it made him question everything he had been taught, including the truth of God, but also just everything he had been assured by his parents to be true. He thought this was a terrible experience so doesn’t believe in telling children about Santa as he thinks it undermines your children’s faith in your word.


  13. I’ve only heard of this happening occasionally, FA. I think most children figure it out for themselves when they’re ready & don’t experience it as a trauma or crisis of epistemology.

    I don’t understand this idea that talking about Santa is “lying to children.” I don’t believe in God or the divinity of Jesus, but I would never characterize a believer who fostered belief in her children as “lying” to them. (True: we know empirically that there is no Santa. But there is no affirmative proof of God’s existence, either. That’s why belief in God is just that, a belief & not subject to empirical proof.)

    There are all kinds of uncomfortable truths or complicated explanations for things that we don’t share with children until they’re ready for that information. (For example, many people around the world use the belief in a higher being to oppress, enslave, and/or kill those with other religious beliefs. This is information that has to be introduced carefully and patiently to children at developmentally appropriate ages.) Belief in the fat man seems very benign by comparison: the fat man has never said that gay children don’t deserve presents, or that Jews drink the blood of Christian children on Good Friday, and he has never advocated killing people who don’t believe in him. At least, that’s not the Santa I know.


  14. There are all kinds of uncomfortable truths or complicated explanations for things that we don’t share with children until they’re ready for that information.

    That’s not the same as making things up.


  15. What truffula said. When your kid asks you point blank if Santa exists and you say yes, that is lying. Something my raised-Catholic self could never do. Although my raised-Catholic self is also good at side-stepping the question, as was my mother before me.


  16. What Contingent Cassandra said, especially this part:

    “My belief in God, which is neither entirely stable nor entirely certain, is something I see as much as an act of consent as anything else — I strive to live as if I believe in God, however strong or weak my faith may be at the moment.”

    Yes to all that. I interpret “the way, the truth, and the life” through the concrete commitments of the first and third more than as a propositional claim about the second. This is not at all the same kind of belief I had in Santa Claus or God as a child. It’s interesting that we generally use the same language for both, but they’re very different psychologically.

    That said, it’s absolutely fair and not rude or blasphemous to say that the virgin birth and resurrection are as unbelievable, if not more so, than Santa. Miracles are not supposed to be believable or plausible, by definition. Faith is not being convinced by logical arguments, it’s committing to absurdity. Santa Claus just doesn’t have the “back story” (high enough stakes, powerful enough promises) to inspire that commitment. On the other hand, as Historiann says, that also means Santa hasn’t provided justification for slavery, genocide, and many other forms of oppression.


  17. I think anonymous grad puts it well with the word justification:

    Santa hasn’t provided justification for slavery, genocide, and many other forms of oppression

    Santa is relatively* innocuous. Organised religion isn’t. But then, it isn’t intended to be. The world’s religions have been used to justify both ill and good for millennia.

    * Santa of course has baggage, witness the recent Fox News Santagate, arguments about just how racist Zwarte Pete is, Santa’s work in the U.S. selling everything under the sun, etc., etc. And you have to wonder about how he treats Mrs. Claus. We didn’t even know she existed until the 19th Century.


  18. “…as he thinks it undermines your children’s faith in your word.”

    There’s a great passage in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn where the grandmother tells Katie, the mother of Francie, that she has to raise her daughter to believe in Kris Kringle and the elves.

    Katie objects, saying she doesn’t want to lie to her child. She says her daughter (who is a newborn infant at this point) will one day learn the truth, and know her mother has lied.

    Yes, says the grandmother, and this will be a good thing. Then the child will come to understand that the world is a hard place, and people in authority do not always tell the truth. This, she says, is a hard truth, which the child must know.

    I’m working from memory; but it’s a great passage. If y’all haven’t read that book, by the way, you should. I taught it in Working Class lit this semester. It was written in the early 40s, and it’s just excellent.


  19. Truffula wrote that we didn’t even know Mrs. Claus existed till the 19th century. Actually Santa Claus as we know him didn’t exist till the 19th century, did he? I thought the idea that he was round and fat and wore a red suit, and was pulled through the air by flying reindeer, was invented by Clement Clark Moore.

    I had a letter to the editor published in the Philadelphia Inquirer sometime back in the late 80s about Santa Claus, in fact. There was an issue about some shoppers at a mall objecting to a black Santa Claus, and the Inquirer had an editorial saying that Saint Nicholas himself probably had darkish skin because he was Turkish. (I’m paraphrasing from memory here.) I wrote a letter saying that St. Nicholas of Myra lived in Anatolia in the 4th century, and the Turks didn’t settle there till after 1071, and that in any case the idea that the late 20th century conception of Santa Claus has anything to do with Nicholas of Myra is ludicrous and a white Santa Claus is just as mythical a figure as a black Santa Claus. It just ticks me off when people try to justify current opinions, whether I agree with them (it’s fine for a mall Santa to be black) or disagree with them (marriage should only be between a man and a woman), with historical factoids that just aren’t true and even if they were wouldn’t be relevant.

    By the way, speaking of belief in possibly nonexistent beings, here is an instance in which the belief in elves is politically useful:


  20. Elves! I keep leaving my computer open at night, hoping that the Good Elves will come and finish my book for me. It hasn’t worked yet, alas.

    I think the modern white, rosy-cheeked, red-suited Santa was a Clement C. Moore creation, but he had a major assist with some of those iconic Coca Cola Santas from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    My Santa looks and sounds like Barry White, BTW, and his elves look and sound like Aziz Ansari and Amy Poehler.


  21. Clement C. Moore

    Or maybe Henry Livingston Jr. But either way, to suppose that Santa Claus sprang fully formed from anybody’s head without an assist from Sinterklaas (Sankt Nikolaus in my parents’ house) seems a stretch to me. My progressive parents never suggested that black Peter was any particular ethnicity, just that he was the guy who left switches as a suggestion to your parents if you were bad. Sankt Nikolaus looked like a bishop.


  22. Possibly something definitive on S.C. in Stephen Nissenbaum, _The Battle for Christmas_, which I don’t have to hand, and which is not even snippet on google books? I’d like to know where and how the stockings part got grafted on. My mother always told a tale about growing up in a coal-heated house in Connecticut with four siblings. The parents would leave at dawn for church, with the kids expected not to be up and about until they returned. One year the eldest (a brother, of course), got up and replaced whatever was in the stockings with glistening hunks of Pennsylvania anthracite. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued, and the story was still rattling around decades later. It made having an oil burner seem bland and desolate by comparison.


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