Santa Claus: A Web of White Lies

Although with respect to religion I've gone from devout believer to devout skeptic, I've always opposed encouraging children to believe in Santa Claus. It has always struck me as very strange that parents spend so much money on gifts for their children and then lie to them by saying that a magical elf snuck into their house in the middle of the night to drop them off, thus giving him all the credit for their work. I don't like the idea of lying to children in general, but this seems like a rather odd lie. I understand that some parents truly enjoy playing along with the idea of Santa Claus and sometimes use him as an unassailable authority when kids whine for a toy late in the year, but it seems that children would enjoy the holiday just as much if they knew their parents were responsible for all their gifts; older children and adults certainly like receiving presents despite knowing where they came from. As a Christian, I wanted to avoid lying as much as possible and I was concerned that children who learned that Santa Claus is imaginary would then start to think that God is imaginary as well. As an atheist, I also feel uneasy about lying unless truly necessary, though I certainly don't lament any nascent skepticism created in children about what their parents tell them about invisible beings. Still it strikes me as a bad idea to build and maintain this web of white lies for children.

Despite what some readers may suppose, I myself didn't have a negative experience with belief in Santa Claus. As is common, I believed in him as a young child and stopped believing in him sometime in elementary school. I don't remember being at all upset when I learned the truth. I didn't feel disappointed, deceived or disillusioned. I've heard stories, however, about children who do experience some amount of grief and who do sincerely struggle to accept the truth for some time. No, it's not a tragedy, but it is completely avoidable simply by not perpetuating absurd stories about an ageless magical elf who lives where there is no land, who can make deer fly, and who can deliver free toys to hundreds of millions of households in a single night though still unable to give nice presents to poor children.

I don't want anyone to get the impression, however, that I have some sort of weird vendetta against Santa Claus. It's not something I spend much time thinking about and it hardly even qualifies as a minor issue. Since I don't intend to have children, the question of what to say will probably never arise, but I decided long ago that I wouldn't lie to any children that I might end up raising one day. I certainly don't interfere with anyone else's parenting choices by telling children the truth about Santa Claus. When children talk to me about him, I listen attentively, but I don't ever say anything to suggest that he's real or that I myself believe in him. It's actually completely identical to my personal policy regarding children when they talk to me about God.



Euan said...

I hung up stocking for santa as a child I never actually believed in a magical elf but I played along because it is part of the fun of christmas.

Anonymous said...

Like you I decided many years ago not to have children. However, if I had become a father I would let my child have normal childhood fantasies, but I would avoid filling their heads with impossible fantasies.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that rationalists should promote critical thinking wherever possible. I agree with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins that it is incumbent upon us to put social pressure on those who promote silly or destructive ideas. Santa is a figurehead for God--a sort of training bra for the boobs of religious idealism. One does not have to tell children that Santa or God do not exist, only that it is a belief that not everyone holds, including yourself. Your sanction of rationality might well set off a storm of free thinking.