Should parents collude with the Santa Claus myth?

The Santa Claus myth: deception or harmless fun?

Most parents make their children believe that there is a jolly fat man in a red suit, who lives at the North Pole and comes down in a sleigh every Christmas Eve to give children presents. Most of us have memories of this fun fantasy. We have memories of the making of lists; the excitement, making it difficult to sleep, that Santa was coming in the night; the devastation that Santa didn’t give us the presents we wanted; smarty-pants siblings and classmates telling us that Santa Claus isn’t real, to which we responded either with misery or denial. Or we worked it out for ourselves, feeling proud of our cleverness or disappointed at finding out the truth. We might have deliberately kept that we had worked it out from our parents for a while, to keep the myth going.

I have a rather different story to tell than most others, both amusing and rather embarrassing. I was very interested in science and the idea that belief in God was a delusion when I was ten. But (unlike my younger brother) I still wasn’t convinced that Father Christmas didn’t exist. God? What a load of pre-scientific nonsense; I was far too clever to believe in him. But Father Christmas? Tough one, that. It took an article I read when I was eleven, in the Christmas special issue of the NewScientist, on whether it’s right for parents to deceive their children into believing in the big FC, to finally convince me that it was a myth. Talk about selective credulity.

Father Christmas according to Tim Stanley

The excellent Telegraph journalist and historian Tim Stanley has his own theory on Father Christmas:

The legend of a jolly old fat man who brings children presents has to have some root in reality. My theory is that he is real but he’s also incredibly lazy – so he encouraged the world to think that he doesn’t exist to get adults to do his job for him. If you travelled to the North Pole, you’d find him sitting in his underpants watching the Eastenders Omnibus, chuckling at his luck.

There is, in fact, a sense in which the legend does have some root in reality. The idea of Father Christmas is descended from a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey called St. Nicholas. According to Wikipedia, the particular legend that led to the Santa Claus myth was when a father had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry, or marriage portion, for them, and due to the near-complete lack of work for unmarried women were liable to become prostitutes. St. Nicholas heard of their plight but was too modest to help them in public, so instead secretly threw three purses of money – one for each girl – through a window (or down a chimney, depending on which story you believe).

On the question of whether it’s right for parents, particularly Christian ones, to keep Santa Claus as part of the Christmas experience, well it’s clear that the Santa element can be very good. Father Christmas is a symbol of, and is descended from a legend about, giving, and giving is a central theme of the real Christmas message, with God giving his one and only Son that we might be saved from our sin and have eternal life. I suppose, from a Christian point of view, the Father Christmas element should aid the central meaning of Christmas and not replace it, as it all but has in the post-Christian world.

The other aspect is that it’s very fun. A sense of wonder and belief in what can be seen is a very good thing for children to develop, in a world where what is unseen is seen as less important, less real or non-existent. In 1897, an eight-year-old girl named Virginia Hanlon wrote to the New York paper The Sun, saying that some of her friends had told her there was no such thing as Santa Claus. She received this captivating response, published as an editorial, which I will quote in part here:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge…How dreary would the world be if there were no Santa Claus…There would be no childlike faith, then, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

But can lying to one’s children ever be justified? Michelle Arnold at Catholic Answers argues that the fact that we consider this lying is a vindication of the message of Francis Church (the editorial writer), except that it’s now the adults, not the children, who are victims of “the skepticism of a skeptical age.” We see things as either black or white, literally true or completely false. Perhaps this explains the belief of so many – Christian or not  that the scientific theory of evolution is incompatible with the stories in the first two chapters of Genesis: we find it hard to accept that something can fail to be literally true without being any less true in another sense.

There is of the contention that this doesn’t change the fact that the Santa Claus myth is a direct deception, intended to actually make children believe something that isn’t true, unlike myths which are understood to not be literally true but are supposed to convey a message. The argument is that knowing that, for example, the worlds of imagination in the Narnia and Harry Potter aren’t true, or that witches don’t really fly around in broomsticks, doesn’t necessarily make the books or Halloween less enjoyable (leaving the ethics of Halloween for another time), and therefore it’s not necessary for us to lie to our children for them to have fun.

But do children even draw the same line between imagination and literal truth as we do? Do children who love Halloween really believe that witches fly around on broomsticks? When they play pretend or make-believe games, do they really end up believing what they are pretending? Well, I’m not particularly well-acquainted with small children, but my suspicion (and that of my father, who obviously is) is that they just don’t draw the clear line between genuine belief and imagination that we do. Therefore, instead of believing in these things in the sense that we believe what we read in non-fiction books, they enjoy the fantasy and pretence in stories and, most importantly, they enjoy the luxury of not having to admit to themselves that they are not true in a literal sense.

This probably explains the fact that children do actually enjoy fantasy stories and making believe more than adults do, and perhaps this is what belief in Father Christmas is. Perhaps the transition from believing in Santa to not believing in him is the transition from blurring truth and imagination to separating them – an inevitable and healthy transition that has to start from somewhere. Perhaps the Father Christmas myth is not so much a lie as helping a child to enjoy the stage in life when he doesn’t have to distinguish between myth and reality.

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10 things about me

Hi. Apparently there’s this blog tag thing going on on WordPress, where one blogger writes ten things about him or herself, then nominates 10 other bloggers to do the same. Well here goes my list…

1. I’m indecisive. Very. This makes me quite slow in chess, for example. Also I entered into the D of E (Duke of Edinburgh) Award in December last year and I’ve done the expedition but I still haven’t decided on what else to do for it, when probably the rest of my school year has finished it by now.

2. I often think of a really good thing that I should have said or mentioned in a conversation hours after it. I find that with blog posts too. It’s often better for me to leave a finished post for a few hours, then come back and see if my unconscious mind has thought of something good to add or change.

3. I don’t have enough Christian friends – not enough friends generally but I really want to start making an effort to find friends who I can fully relate to. The Bible and all Christian leaders emphasise the importance of fellowship among Christians, so I’m definitely lacking in something.

4. I’m somewhat of a Radiohead nerd. Their music is amazing, though I’m actually beginning to get slightly bored of it now. But I’m still fascinated by them for some reason. I know too much about their setlists

5. I’m an INFP (Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceptive), according to the most recent personality test I took.

6. When I was ten, I read The God Delusion and decided I was an atheist before I found out that Father Christmas wasn’t real. I eventually found that out when I was eleven, by reading a NewScientist article on whether it’s right for parents to tell their kids that he’s real.

7. I used to be fascinated, and still am quite interested, by the Pitcairn Islands. They’re a remote group of 4 subtropical Pacific islands owned by the UK, about halfway between New Zealand and Chile, with a tiny population of 67 people descended from the HMS Bounty mutineers. I’d love to go there but, as you might guess, it’s a very difficult place to visit.

8. I’m not really sure what I want to be when I’m older, although I’ve often considered being a journalist. I’d also like to study Philosophy at university.

9. I love improvising on the piano and I often come up with musical ideas in my head, which I record onto my phone if I can. But it’s often very inconvenient to have these ideas at random times, like in a lesson, knowing you’ll probably forget them.

10. I prefer holidays (vacations) where you actually do stuff, like walking in Switzerland or the Lake District, rather than holidays like the one I had in Greece, where you relax on the beach and go to bars in the evenings and it’s just England by the sea. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just not as good.

Instead of nominating ten people, I’ll just do what DL Aiden (whose blog I linked to with the “apparently” link) did and invite anyone to reply and post their ten things, either in the comments or on their own blog, linking it back to the comments section. Thanks for reading.

One free trip to space or free international travel for life?

One free trip to space.

This is a difficult one. You have all the safety issues to take into account and I love international travel, being fortunate enough to have been abroad most years of my young life. But just being able to go anywhere whenever I want for my whole life would make it boring and not as special. One free trip to space would be enormously special.

It’s funny though, isn’t it, how small we are. We are literally a fly in a cathedral (well, literally in terms of size comparison) in our solar system alone which is a couple of light years wide, let alone the observable universe which is billions of light years wide – and who knows how much is out there that we can’t see?

And yet, >0.01% of people have ventured off our little fibre in a carpet universe. Because I am so small, I think that a trip to space would be special. And it would. And if it’s free then wow – who could say no to that just because they’d rather spend a lifetime exploring the different microscopic features of our tiny carpet fibre? And of course I’d get to experience what astronauts mean when they say you can’t tell up from down, when they talk about the awe of seeing the Earth as a beautiful ball floating in a black sea.

I would not give up that opportunity.

However, I have to say that when I think of places I’d like to visit I think more of Greenland, Canada, the French Polynesia, Scandinavia and South America than space. Maybe there’s a good reason for that. Of course, Earth-bound travel is fine and probably nicer, more hospitable, perhaps even more beautiful than space. Few other planets we know of are as dynamic and none are as geologically active or fertile as ours. Because we have people, we have so many different cultures and towns and cities to explore.

Still, I could not give up the opportunity to go where so few others have gone before and conquer my fears, free or not free. And I know it never will be free, but who knows, it might even be affordable in my lifetime. The world’s first commercial spaceport is already being constructed.

Chess and war

What kind of people are good at chess? Most would agree it’s those who are good at recognising, memorising and solving puzzles, thinking both tactically – looking at what the best thing is to do now – and strategically – planning ahead and seeing how everything fits in in the long-term.

If playing timed, they also need to be able to think fast. They need to be able to get themselves out of tricky situations. They need to be able to think offensively and defensively. Above all, good chess players are excellent at keeping concentration, staying alert to any threats and opportunities.

To me, it seems as if chess should be compulsory for people who want to become military generals – I don’t think there’s a single quality in the above list that isn’t advantageous in war.

We could use the example of the current Libyan conflict – is there really a long-term strategy in this? Is there an exit strategy? What will happen if it all goes wrong? Hmmm…

Personally, I’d rather we weren’t directly involved in the Libyan conflict at all. I would fully support just arming and funding the rebels, and letting Colonel Gaddafi know that we basically hope he dies (I know one of our recent former Prime Ministers was very nice and friendly and cuddly and gave you weapons but things are different now).

But getting into another war is exceedingly costly when we’re trying to cut spending, hypocritical (what about Robert Mugabe, the Syrian President etc.?) and it’s far easier to get into a war than out of it, as we’ve seen with Iraq and Afghanistan. And just because Russia, China and a league of other Arab dictatorships say we can do it, doesn’t mean you can say “Oh it’s all perfectly fine because we’re adhering to international law.”

Still, we’re in it now, we’re probably not going to leave any time soon, so I just hope we succeed in what we’re trying to do. All I suggest is that all the military generals, David Cameron and anyone else who’s thinking of becoming an army general or Prime Minister be made to take up chess.

Maybe then we’ll be able to think up a coherent strategy for succeeding in Libya and, for that matter, exiting Afghanistan, because all the qualities needed to succeed in chess are immensely helpful in war.

EDIT (24 October): I am of course glad that Libya has been liberated, and the rebels have so much to thank the British government for in helping them end their dictator’s 32-year-long reign. Our intervention was worth it in the end.

Planes, trains or automobiles?

Norwegian train

My favourite way to travel 500 miles

Which would I go by on a 500-mile journey? Train. Trains are usually cheaper than flying, there’s more leg room and generally more space, they’re usually cleaner (at least than the car I use!), they’re more smooth and comfortable and, well, there’s not much point in flying 500 miles unless you really need to get there fast. (I know I sound like a greenie here, but the environmental damage from short flights is clearly something that’s avoidable.)

Of course, if the journey was much longer, I would take a plane. Planes are much more exciting – I still love looking out the window at takeoff – and on longer journeys they offer inflight entertainment, which is usually enough to keep me occupied. And obviously they’re much, much quicker.

As a general point, I’ve never understood why people often drive short or long distances when going by train can save a lot of time, hassle with traffic and even money, what with the price of petrol continually going up here in Britain and I presume elsewhere too.

I am slightly more sympathetic to long car journeys over long train journeys, because it’s nice to be able to stop and stretch your legs at places where you want to stop on your own terms. Personally though I don’t yet hold a driving license so it’s not up to me at the moment.

Another form of transport I really like is the ferry. Personally I’ve never been on a 500-mile trip so I’m not sure about that, but I’ve always liked the space, facilities, comfort, views and ability to go outside on deck – still I guess those who get travel-sick will disagree.

My worst mode of transport is the bus. I don’t mind buses, but they’re often more uncomfortable than cars and you don’t get the benefit of less traffic (but of course you would if more people used them). Short bus journeys are ok, but I would not go on a five-hundred-mile bus journey.

Anyway in my opinion, trains are the best way to go, especially Swiss trains surrounded by the Alps (though the picture above is actually from Norway 😉 ).

Am I too lazy or too busy?

I’m a person who can be very hard-working and sometimes almost perfectionist when I’m doing work, but I’m not very conscientious and I can be a procrastinator. 

I usually work hard at school, but at home I find the hardest part of work/studying is the daunting process of actually starting work. Once I’ve started, I normally work hard but I usually need a lot of break time to be able to concentrate on the rest of my work. 

I often find I’ve produced some very good work but sometimes I haven’t covered everything, because I’ve spent too long on one particular part. I like to include a lot of detail and get out everything that’s in my head, but this means I can be quite slow and/or lose concentration later on. This is one of the reasons why I’m slow in exams (though fortunately I am entitled to extra time).

I should also emphasize that while I say I can be a hard-working perfectionist, I’m not always. It depends on the day, the time of day, how tired I am and in what state of mind I am. And if I’m not in the right state of mind when I do a certain piece of work, later when I am I want to do the work I haven’t yet done, not to perfect earlier work.

What I really need to do is organise myself so I know exactly when I’m going to do certain bits of work and studying. Right now, I’m not the least organised person I know, but I don’t have a revision timetable, I often leave too much work to the weekend when I should be relaxing and I generally do homework at irregular times within the deadline.

So to answer the question: am I too lazy, or too busy? Well, because I often (but not always) procrastinate I’d say I’m more on the lazy side, but that doesn’t mean I’m not hard-working. No-one has a perfect work-play balance, but I’d say I have a reasonable one that could do with some improvement.

The prisoner’s dilemma

The paradox of buses and congested traffic

I’ve got this very interesting book called This Book Does Not Exist: Adventures in the Paradoxical. I haven’t actually read that much of it yet, but one paradox – the prisoner’s dilemma – has struck me as intriguing and very relevant to everyday life.

It goes like this: You and I have both been arrested for a crime and are being interrogated in separate cells. Both of our sentences depend on whether each of us confess to our crime. There are four different scenarios:

If you confess but I don’t, you will go free while I serve a five-year prison sentence.

If I confess but you don’t, I will go free while you serve a five-year prison sentence.

If we both confess, we will each serve a two-year sentence.

If neither of us confesses, our crime cannot be proved. In that case, we will both be jailed for six months on a lesser charge.

You have to choose what to do without knowing my decision, and vice versa.

Assuming you only care about yourself in this situation, the logical thing to do would be to confess. Either you’re completely freed if you’re lucky, or you get a two-year sentence if I confess as well – whereas if you don’t confess, you have no chance of getting off and you may well be banged up for five years.

However, the best possible outcome for both of us together is if you don’t confess and neither do I. In this case, we get away with only a half-year sentence each. If we both take the rational option for ourselves, we take two-year prison terms and endure worse punishment than if we had taken the irrational option and refused to confess.

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to both refuse confession and a lot more likely to both plead guilty, taking the logical option for ourselves – which, ultimately, makes things worse for the both of us.

This is often the case in life. The book gives the very familiar example of whether to take the bus or the car to work. If not many people take the bus, your best option for yourself is to drive, which is quicker and means you don’t have to wait at the bus stop. However, if lots more people took the bus that would be a lot more convenient for you and everyone else, because the emptier roads and more regular services (because of the higher demand) would make the journey quicker. But even then going by car is quicker, but if everyone else starts to take the car for that logical reason you go back to square one…

This could also be applied to voting. If you support a minor party, but don’t want one of the major parties to get in, the rational decision would be to tactically vote for one of the main parties that’s closer to your views. But if everyone voted with their hearts, that would be best, because the party would at least have a far greater influence and you’d be more likely to get your first choice.

Like with the prisoners, the only way to beat this paradox is to communicate with the other voters. If you managed to get lots of like-minded people together to vote for your first choice (this is possible at least in your own constituency, especially with the advance of the Internet), you could actually get the best outcome.

There are so many other incidences where this paradox has an effect. There is only one way to beat it. Would we all be better off individually if we just pulled together and agreed to do what’s in the wider interest? I think so.