My three year old is a fan of the book series Angelina Ballerina, about a little girl mouse who is very talented and passionate about ballet dancing We've been taking the books in the series out one by one from the public library, and as the holidays loomed nearer, I saw that, of course, there is one in the series titled Angelina's Christmas. My first impulse as a secular humanist mom was to ignore it. But I decided to read it first and see if there was any religious content other than the word "Christmas" (which arguably is used in a secular way as often as it is used to refer to the birth of the Christian savior). There's wasn't. In fact, I immediately approved of the book's unique message, checked it out, and was thrilled when a friend gave a copy of it to my daughter to keep.
What is the message of Angelina's Christmas? Well, the more overt message was the usual holidays are a time to show care and concern for others. In the story, Angelina notices that an elderly man in her neighborhood is all alone, so she and her family make him cookies and get him involved at her school's holiday celebrations.
But the side story is what really interested me. Angelina's younger cousin, Henry, makes a special cookie just for Santa Claus. Henry is brought to tears when he's told that he cannot give it to Santa in person because Santa only comes when people are sleeping. Henry keeps the cookie in his pocket when they visit the old man. The old man turns out to be a retired postman. He notices Henry's sad mood, and puts on a Santa outfit to cheer him up. Then he tells Henry a story about how he used to deliver presents to families on Christmas even in terrible weather. Henry enjoys the company and story so much that he is moved to give the postman the special cookie, instead of saving it for Santa.
The implication is that real people bring joy and good to the world. Such people might embody the symbolism of Santa through their actions, but Santa Claus as a person is not real. So if we want to express gratitude for good works, we should express it to those who actually do good works.
I don't tell my daughter that Santa is real. She knows about Santa (mostly from the Korean cartoon Pucca where Santa Claus is a main character, and incidentally also a ninja and former thief.) In fact, we have conversations about how Santa is a character, and compare him to other characters she knows are fictional. She enjoys the concept of Santa, but she knows that the guys she meets wearing red suits are regular people in costume. This hasn't become an issue yet with peers who believe in Santa and whose parents want to encourage that belief, but I suspect that at some point it might be. Either way, I'm sticking to my guns and refusing to lie to my own child.
Over a decade ago, and then again 2 years ago, I heard Tom Flynn, notorious secular humanist and "Anti-Claus" speak about why non-Christians shouldn't celebrate Christmas. The full expression of his opinions and support for them are outlined in his book The Trouble With Christmas. Included in Flynn's talks was a harsh critique of "The Santa Myth" and the many dark and unintended consequences of teaching children that Santa Claus is a real person, opposed to a fictional character.
A decade ago I came to my own conclusions. I think celebrating the holiday season in a variety of secular ways is both fun and beneficial for humanists who want to celebrate, so long as it is done in a way that emphasizes charity, generosity, and family togetherness, downplays the grotesque materialism, and ignores the baby Jesus.
However, I was then and now totally persuaded by Flynn's anti-Santa arguments. In fact, I found his arguments relieving. I had been one of those kids who believed longer than I really should have, and letting belief in Santa go was emotionally painful, humiliating (because most of my peers had figured it out at much younger ages) and made me trust adults, including my own parents, less. As Flynn argues, and I agree, parents and other adults lie to kids about Santa. People try to dress it up as something else. Something about celebrating innocence, indulging in a fun fantasy, or whatever. The the problem is that it's one sided. When a kid asks if Santa is real, that means the kid has enough of an understanding about what is real and what is fictional. That kid is asking if Santa is literally real, or merely a character like Clifford or Curious George. When adults say that Santa is real, they are in every sense of the word, lying.
In the episode of South Park titled "Crack Baby Athletic Association" the writers make the point that Santa is really just a lie adults tell children. In the episode, all the kids know and like Slash (who actually is a real guitarist who used to be in the band Guns and Roses) and he apparently plays at many of their birthday parties and other events. Some of the kids try to get Slash to play for a benefit they are organizing, and in the process they discover that Slash isn't real, but a lie their parents have told them, and that whenever they've seen him play it was really one of their parents dressed up in costume. One of the kids, bewildered by this information, calls his father and asks him directly if Slash is real, and his dad says something about the spirit of Slash being real in our hearts or something like that (think "Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus".) The kids then express annoyance and disappointment that their parents have lied to them. They don't interpret what has happened as anything other than being deceived. In the end, the writers parody the end of Miracle on 34th Street (probably the most anti-critical thinking holiday movie ever); a mysterious donation has built a center for the crack babies (I'm not explaining that, you have to see the whole episode) and the kids notice a guitar that looks just like Slash's in the corner.
The whole Santa Myth often puts teachers in a precarious position. Students will ask if Santa is real. Teachers can risk getting in trouble with parents who want to perpetuate the myth by telling the kids the truth, or they can participate in the lie. When I was a teacher in a school with young children I chose to treat it like I treated religious beliefs - I told them to ask their parents. But it felt weird to do that. Once I watched a second grade boy stand up in front of the entire school and lecture all the kids about how Santa was really real, and how he knew because his grandfather had taken him to the North Pole to see the toy factory, and so they'd better be good and believe in Santa or else they would get coal for Christmas. As he went on this tirade, other students giggled and rolled their eyes, and teachers flashed each other looks and awkward smiles, but of course nobody was going to correct this kid, because the Santa Myth is one of our sacred cows. Events such as this poor 8 year old kid's lecture (which likely resulted in teasing and humiliation when he discovered Santa's fictional nature) show how out of control this whole Santa Myth can get.
While working as a babysitter, I had a lovely afternoon with a 5 year old girl. We had gotten onto the subject of the continents, and from there we got online and were looking at maps of the globe. It was so much fun to be teaching a young child about the earth, and feel in awe of how much humans have come to understand and document about the geography of our planet. All of the sudden, she jumped up and asked, "Hey, where's the North Pole?" I pointed it out. This is what we saw:
You might notice that the North Pole is smack in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. There's no land, only constantly shifting ice. So unless Santa's a very cold merman, there isn't any home or factory of his there. The girl looked at the spot on the map. I could see she recognized that it was water, not land, and looked confused. "Where's Santa's house?" I sort of panicked. I hadn't expected this to suddenly come up. And I hate lying to kids. I told her to ask her parents.
Now these are just some personal experiences I've shared on this blog. There are actually a whole list of fully fleshed out arguments as to why the Santa Myth is a bad idea that shouldn't be perpetuated, but instead of going into all that here, I'll direct you to this article by Austin Cline. And for those who find visuals more persuasive, check out some of the endless parade of pictures of not-so-happy kids on Santa's lap.
Originally published 12/6/12 on Humanist Mom.