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.
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.