Is Santa Claus Real? A Parent's Epistemological Meditation

Is Santa Claus real?

Jana and I have two sons of the age where this is getting to be pressing question. (Actually, I think our oldest knows what's up and just isn't saying anything. I think he's protecting us.) Some kids in their class believe, others don't. So the question gets floated a home a lot: "Dad, is Santa Claus real?"

This question tears Jana up. She really gets tied up in knots about it. She doesn't want to disillusion the boys but she also doesn't want to be found deceiving them (even in a good cause).

Me? I say lie to the kids. I'm a huge believer in lying. You can't get through the day without lying. It's a social necessity. So count me as a fan of lying. Here's a snippet of an article of mine now in press:

It goes without saying that Christians are deeply committed to truth. Dishonesty and lies are sinful and immoral. But this stance is problematic given the fact that everyday conversation is awash in deception and deceit. We lie frequently in everyday conversation. In one of the best empirical studies on lying it was observed that we lie in 1 out of every 4 conversations (DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, & Epstein, 1996). Given the sheer number of conversations we have during the day the number of lies we tell on a weekly basis is staggering.

This might seem to be a simple observation about human sinfulness but a closer inspection complicates that assessment. Specifically, many of the lies we tell are altruistic in intent. For example, we might offer compliments we don’t truly believe in order to protect or enhance a friend’s self-concept.

Generally speaking we don’t mind dishonesty of this sort. We realize that a certain degree of deceitfulness is necessary in everyday conversation in order to keep our casual encounters free of ego-threat, shaming, and the loss of face. Were we to be totally “honest” with each other casual and passing conversation would become unremittingly brutal and obscene. Politeness is inherently dishonest, but it is also socially necessary.

Thus, there is a complex tension between protecting each other and being authentic and truthful with each other. As they say, the truth hurts. Consequently, we are very careful when disclosing the truth, working out within our hearts a calculus of costs and benefits. At times it is just not worth shaming you to tell you the truth. The matter is too trivial and the cost, psychologically and interpersonally, too great.

In short, it appears that not only do we lie a great deal in life such dishonesty is necessary and required. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted (1955/1995, p. 361):
It is only the cynic who claims “to speak the truth” at all times and in all places to all men in the same way, but who, in fact, displays nothing but a lifeless image of the truth. He dons the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowance for human weakness; but, in fact, he is destroying the living truth between men. He wounds shame, desecrates mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives, and laughs arrogantly at the devastation he has wrought at the human weakness which “cannot bear the truth.” He says truth is destructive and demands its victims, and he feels like a god above these feeble creatures and does not know that he is serving Satan.
To reach a kind of compromise between the two of us, Jana and I have decided to not answer the question if Santa is real. We basically say, "If you believe in Santa, you get presents from Santa. If you don't, you don't." Of course, the boys will still get presents from their parents either way. But if you want presents from Santa you have to "believe" in Santa.

Now this "belief" is going to look different for my two boys. For the youngest the belief is going to take an ontological turn. That Santa exists. For my oldest the "belief" is starting to look like pretending, being in on the joke so to speak. But my ultimate hope is that this sense of pretending changes into one of participation and praxis. Santa isn't about ontology. It's about giving gifts and not taking credit for them. Learning the joy of finding the perfect gift for a loved one and watching them open it. To see the joy and surprise and tears when they open it. It's about learning to become Santa.

Epistemologically, then, I think Santa Claus is real. But real in the pragmatic sense, as a practice, rather than as an ontological category. Santa is a way of giving rather than a jolly old elf. Santa is participation in the Spirit of Christmas.

So in that sense, Santa is very real indeed.

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25 thoughts on “Is Santa Claus Real? A Parent's Epistemological Meditation”

  1. This sounds really familiar. =)

    Also, are you planning more posts on the powers? I have a question but I figured I'd wait until the next Powers post to ask it.

  2. I think you've described very well Zizek's structure of ideology. We don't really believe in a Big Other, he says, even though we continue to act as if we do. On a cultural level, he might very well be right. This is also like certain postmodern versions of Christianity, I think. I'm thinking of Gianni Vattimo, who loves Christianity the way one loves going over to grandma's for Thanksgiving (but of course he's Italian, so the analogy doesn't work entirely). This is a practical, not an ontological, faith ... a Santa Claus faith. You've given me another way of looking at this. Thanks!

  3. Childhood fantasy is a very important aspect in faith development. If I tell my young children that Elijah, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, etc aren't real, how do I explain that while Elijah et al are mythological contstructs, GOD, a power we can't see or touch, IS real? By the time children are old enough to understand the metaphor of Elijah, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, they begin to be able to have the congitive ability to understand the nature of Faith.

  4. Richard,

    It's from a previous writing, so I don't mean to raise an older conversation, but I'm wondering about truthfulness in daily conversation. Honesty is something that has come to be very important to me, and I have found that, while there remain extenuating circumstances where one ought not to state bluntly the first thought that comes to mind, for the most part if we are bold and straightforward enough, we can be truthful in our conversations with people. Other than the infamous "How do I look?" question from a spouse, can you give some examples of daily "required" white lies? I'm really wondering, not only because of the importance truth has come to play in my own daily life, but also because I have come to recognize and appreciate those in my life who "play it straight" and don't beat around the bush or try to coddle me.

  5. Hi Brad,
    Of course I wouldn't want to be taken to be downplaying honesty. My goal in raising the issue is for Christians to have a more psychologically realistic view of honesty.

    For example, I'd say politeness is basically a form of dishonesty. Two examples. A co-worker tells me a joke I don't think is funny (on humor grounds, the joke is clean). I make a laugh. It's polite for me to do this, but it's a type of a lie. I really didn't think the joke was funny. Of course, I could stay stonefaced and say "That's not funny." I doing so I take someone's moment of delight (they were excited to share this with me) and I shame them. If you watch yourself this sort of dishonesty is a regular part of your day.

    Another example. Your child is invited over for a sleepover at another kid's house. But you think this kid is kind of inappropriate, they talk about sex or whatever. So you don't want your child staying overnight. The parents call and ask, "Can Billy sleep over?" You say, "No." They ask, "Why not?" Do you say, "Because I'm uncomfortable having my son spend time with your child. Your son isn't a very nice boy."? How about if this was the case, "You, as a parent, give me the creeps. You might be pedophile." And so on.

    Finally, a lot of what I'm grouping into dishonesty is less about lies than about concealment. Intentionally keeping private feelings and beliefs we have. Do, I, for example, tell my wife I'm sexually attracted to a friend of hers? Do I tell her friend this? And so on.

    Of course, in all this there is a web being woven. A mix of concealment, social courtesy and honesty. And, thus, it's easy to get tangled up and lose our way. Hence the need for the kind of honesty you speak about. But I think the way forward isn't to reduce the complexity of truth-telling (e.g., let's all just shoot straight with each other) but to appreciate the full and muddy complexity of truth among social creatures.

  6. Perhaps, I have too much of a "hang-up" over deception,(nothing makes me angier) because of my childhood and temperament, but I just can't see believing in myth when it concerns real life...REAL LIFE is not always pretty, pristine, and 1950ish. Maybe it is my 'anger" at "waking up" and knowing that life is not pretty...and that is the problem. But, I don't think that "lying to another" is giving them anything, but pie in the sky...I guess I am not to be a "people developer" the "Christian sense"..

  7. BTW, My husband feels the same way about we resolved the problem of "Santa" by telling about the historical Santa and making a "moral lesson" out of it...and we also exposed our kids to the traditions of other countries, as my husband is from the Netherlands..

  8. Since a couple of your other readers also noticed an implied correspondence between your description of santa faith and faith in God, I'm guessing it was intentional on your part. Perhaps a God that exists in a pragmagtic sense is better than no God at all, but I can't help but think their is some self delusion in this. To use your analogy, how many adults do you know who still write letters to Santa? Once you loose belief in an ontological sense, that's it. This pragmatic belief may allow a person to continue to associate with Christian friends and family members or even be employed by Christian institutions - but deep down, they know they're pretending. And you're right that it is a form of dishonesty - to others and yourself. I think it was Sartre who said, "To know that you believe is to not believe."

  9. My wife and I have taken a different stand on the Santa Claus story, by calling it just that...a story. I believe that the idea of Santa Claus is sometimes used as a crutch for disciplining children. I have read many times, "Santa doesn't bring naughty children presents." This reenforces a morality based solely on rewards, and not on altruism. In this picture, not even Santa is altruistic. We have chosen to teach our children that parents love their children and at Christmas we give gifts, just as the Magi presented Jesus with gifts.

    This line of reasoning is foreign to the world, and has been a great conversation piece in many of the classes that I teach. I am high school teacher, and when students hear that my children don't believe in Santa Claus, many are shocked. As I go on to explain my line of reasoning, some of them begin to see that maybe it is not such a bad thing to give someone a gift out of love for the person.

  10. Fascinating thoughts, as always, Richard. I like the ways in which you believe Santa is real - that it's a participation thing. And I think your boys will come to appreciate and understand that, too.

  11. "Epistemologically, then, I think Santa Claus is real."

    Do you know what the word "epistemologically" means?

  12. I love this conversation, and the Bonhoeffer quote only adds to the excellence and poignancy.

    My wife and I have twin 3.5 year olds, so luckily we don't have to cross that bridge yet, but we've already taken the "historical Santa" route with the idea about giving out of love, just as God loved us and sent Jesus to us as His gift to us. So to some extent you still have the "mysical gifts" but eventually they'll know that we're giving them to our kids out of the joy of giving.

    Interestingly enough, the VeggieTales crew came out with a video on St. Nicolas this year that took a similar route. They essentially trace "Nicky" back to ancient Greece and showed how he learned about giving because God gave Jesus to us. He in turn does the same, and the legend gets born because of his generosity. We thought this a very good approach.

  13. We never had Santa in our house. Our now adult daughter 'met' him when she started school. She told us she realised that if she believed, she would get more presents, so she did! This was age 4 and a half, and as she tells it, a very pragmatic decision!

  14. We never believed it best to lead our children to have faith in a fictional character for the sake of material gain. We embraced Santa as part of the seasonal legends and myths, fun but not true. We have our own household characters as well -- the Lawnmower Fairy, the Ghost of Colleyville (my dad's creation), The Tooth Mommy. And our kids have grown up just fine, with excellent discernment skills. When our oldest was in kindergarten, though, at a local church, we were blasted by the teacher for not deceiving our child into 'believing in' Santa, because those children who DID believe were ready to fight him over it (but he was the one in trouble!).

  15. Because of the severity of my own doubts, I couldn't bear to have our kids believe in Santa, as I worried about having to then explain the difference between the "reality" of Jesus and the myth of Santa. In many ways, I am sad that I have penalized my children for my own problems. My 6 year old is nevertheless seeming to exhibit issues believing in a God she can't observe in real life, even without believing in Santa. Sigh.

  16. Santa Claus is but a distorted image of the real St. Nicholas of Myra in Lyceia. Just as truth is usually better than fiction, the story at the center: the life and works of the real St. Nicholas is better than the myths on the fuzzy edges. His relics in Bari continue to exhude myrrh which heals those annointed with it. He still peforms miracles of intercession, giving gifts today as he did when he was in the body. The real St. Nicholas loved children and gave them gifts, but he also stood firmly against heresy at the council of Nicea. The stocking idea came from his throwing a stocking filled with gold coins through a window to stop a poor family from sending their daughters to work the streets. So put up your stockings, and pretend to be Santa Claus for fun (explaining the difference between myth and reality), and then tell them about the real St. Nicholas, a saint alive in Christ, who shows us the potential for a holy life. The story of *that* St. Nicholas is one that only becomes more meaningful after childhood has ended.

    Holy St. Nicholas, pray to God for us!

  17. Just to state the obvious, different kids will react differently.  I think I'm more like @233cfdb55bc8a49fb3e80a755164286c .  There are 2 things that still stir up feelings of resentment (at my age, more my fault) from my (atheist, semi-Jewish) childhood.  1) Tooth Fairy: I slept soundly and never caught my mom swapping out teeth for quarters, but the Tooth Fairy just seemed made-up.  Without evidence, though, I couldn't be sure, so I asked my parents.  They made me "pay" them a chocolate truffle I had, and then they confirmed my doubts (and ate my truffle).  2) Elijah's cup at Passover: when we kids left the table to go "open the door for Elijah" (that wind you feel...), someone's parent would drink wine from the cup, and when we returned, this was offered as evidence to us that Elijah came (and drank).  After college, I actually went along the conservative evangelical path for two years, and now (as agnostic atheist once again) I'm working through another round of resentment at all the deceiving "apologetics" I was given, including self-resentment for misleading others by passing on the same arguments I received (without rigorously checking them out); I admit I deceived myself more than anyone else did.

    That said, my wife grew up with Santa Claus and stockings and the whole bit (which I never had as a semi-Jew), and she converted to Jesus from atheism a decade ago and seems fine with both of those (though no longer believes in Santa).

    I like the idea of letting your kids decide for themselves.  I hadn't thought of that somehow (thankfully no kids yet!).  I guess I'd say there's kids who believe both ways, and we should respect them all, and not feel ashamed if we need to change our beliefs over time; can look at the (strong!) evidence for Santa, history, etc., if desired.  I like not wanting to through out the praxis baby with the ontological bath water, too, although I am more (overly?) concerned with distinguishing them.

  18. Santa is real? Thanks for ruining my childhood. You know any other kid could alsojust search if santas real or not then see this. And, i was lying ( ha ) my mom already told me hes not real. She hasnt told my sister yet.I'm ten, and the truth about santa kind of came with the truth about the tooth fairy.

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