I could sit in a circle of peers and announce that I don’t believe in Yahweh, God, Vishnu, Allah or a giant turtle that holds the known world atop its back as it crawls through the cosmos, and most of them would probably accept this declaration with a silent nod or a shrug of the shoulders. Never mind that in certain countries, among certain people and cultures, such a vow would earn me a spell in prison, a steak knife to the stomach or death. Here in the modern, secular west, I can profess belief, or its lack, in whatsoever I choose and be almost certain of a tolerant reception. But try to tell people that I don’t want to play along with the Santa myth we force upon our kids, and I’m treated like a scar-faced leper with a vest of grenades and a public masturbation problem.
The sprawling Santa conspiracy, global in its reach, in which we entangle our children raises a multitude of uncomfortable questions, and comes at a terrible price: not least of which is the spirit of shattered trust in which it’s perpetuated.
All other western cultural norms are fluid, it seems, except for this one. Never this one. The only things that will grant you an exemption from Santa are deeply-held fundamentalist Christian beliefs or adherence to a non-Christian faith, and even then you’ll probably still be regarded as a destroyer of children’s dreams.
It’s clear that there’s something about this little red-and-white lie that’s seen as integral to and inextricable from a hearty and wholesome childhood. There’s a concomitant notion that somehow the act of debunking Santa holds the potential to obliterate a child’s capacity for innocence and imagination, and quite possibly leave them with the dull, jaded outlook of a middle-aged chartered accountant on the eve of his second divorce. Or else turn them into a fleet of joyless androids each with the face of Richard Dawkins.
Santa is but one fictional character in a cast of thousands. Why should he get special dispensation when it comes to the laws of reality? I regularly read my son stories about alien encounters, magical beanstalks, sentient robots and talking horses, without ever feeling the need to perpetuate the entertaining fallacies inherent in the source material. No-one would consider it heresy for me to explain to my son that horses can’t really talk; knowing this fact doesn’t in any way limit his imagination or detract from his very real enjoyment of the story. Penguins don’t have jobs, dogs can’t moonlight as policemen, there’s no such thing as ghosts, people can’t turn green and smash buildings when they’re angry. He knows that, or at least these things have been explained to him. He doesn’t care. He still mimics these characters and scenarios, and riffs on them in his own unique, imaginative way when he’s running about the house or play-acting with his toys.
The power of Santa compels him… to do very little
Here’s a question for you: why does Santa deliver unequal amounts of toys to the children of the world? Why does he deliver more toys to affluent families than he does to poor families? Clearly, on the great sliding scale of political ideology, the red-jacketed sleigh-racer is more tightly aligned to conservative notions of capitalism than he is to communism, or socialism. If your kid goes back to school after the winter break with a new pair of cheap shoes and a toy laser gun, and has to listen to another kid bragging about his £1000 home entertainment system and surprise trip to Disneyland, what is he to infer about his worth in Santa’s eyes? Should he castigate himself for being too naughty, placing the blame for his poor festive haul upon his own tiny shoulders? Or should he just conclude that Santa doesn’t really like him all that much?
Remove Santa from this equation, and you’ve still got a problem with unequal distribution of wealth and resources in society, married to an unslakable thirst for goods and gadgets that’s only heightened and reinforced by our media, but that’s an argument for another time (besides, there are more learned, original and eloquent thinkers out there with better and more important things to say on the topic than little old me).
Consider also this point: Santa is an omniscient being who has mastered time itself, can travel around the globe and back in one evening, and can apparently conjure an endless supply of toys from thin air, much as another bearded magician once did with water, wine, loaves and fish. Santa uses these powers not to alleviate suffering, lift people out of hunger and poverty, cure the sick and the lame or to usher in a new era of world peace, but to drop toy robots down chimneys. What a role model. He’s no better than Sooty, or Jesus.
You can emphasise the magical, imagination-stretching benefits of a child’s belief in Santa as a rationale for deceiving your children, but when I hear Santa’s name mentioned by parents, more often than not his name is evoked as a correctional tool rather than as an instrument of wonder. Be nice, behave, go to bed, tidy your room, eat your dinner, or Santa will cross you off his list, and you won’t get any toys. By weaponising Santa in this way, parents have created a bearded boogeyman to scare or bribe their children into behaving the way they want them to. This may be an instantly effective, no-nonsense behavioural control technique, but then so is smashing them in the face with a cricket bat.
The sad truth is that parents are conditioning their children to be good not for goodness’ sake – as the old snowman song goes – but to be good so they can get a new TV. They’re being encouraged to equate virtue with financial reward. Part of being a happy, successful and fully-socialised human being necessitates a degree of sacrifice, negotiation, humility and deference. These are qualities – and modes of conflict resolution – that shouldn’t need a chuckling demigod, or the dangled carrot of a PlayStation 4, to be fully realised.
My family and I were in a shopping mall at the weekend, and passed by a Santa’s grotto. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something deeply sinister and ritualistic about the line of dead-eyed kids shuffling up to receive their gifts. They were like a cult. Ho ho ho. Here’s your new church, kids, here’s your new Jesus: roll up, roll up, as we inculcate you into the wholesale religion of consumer greed.
We experience rather enough problems with the religions we already have, thank you very much, without adding Santaism to the list. While belief in Santa may be the ‘Temporary Profile Picture’ of quasi-religious micro-faiths, it worries me tremendously that a belief in the supernaturalness of Santa might serve as a gateway drug to harder fictional beings, like Jesus or Moroni.
Imagine the scene in a household where a child who has been raised in a pro-Santa Christian family finally discovers that Santa isn’t real.
CHILD: “Ah, so Santa was all a big lie, was he? That’s hilarious. You had me, you did, you really had me, you got me hook, line and sinker with that one. So, come on, put me out of my misery. Jesus, right? Come on, the cat’s out of the bag. You made him up too, right? Miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead. I knew there was something iffy about that. I’ve got to hand it to you, though, you’ve created a genius fictional character there.”
PARENT: “Em… nope. Nope. That’s all true. Em… Jesus is real.”
(Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Santa – employed properly – could be the antidote to Jesus: the great flicking wrist to bring down the whole house of cards.)
Parents and guardians are the people that children listen to and look up to above all others, whose word is gospel for a significant proportion of their young lives. For them to distort a child’s understanding of the laws of time, physics and the universe is an unforgivable crime. Nothing should be done to inhibit a child’s burgeoning critical faculties, or to corrupt their very sense of the world as an observable, rational and comprehensible place.
Don’t get me wrong. I myself used to believe wholeheartedly in Santa Claus. I used to get letters from him, in this very ornate handwriting. I thought, this could only be the work of a magical being, he writes like a bloody pro. This guy’s the real deal. I also used to get plenty of Valentine’s cards. I don’t think I can properly express the horror I felt on the day I was old enough to realise that the letters from Santa and the Valentine’s cards were all in the same handwriting. That was a shock to me. “Well, Santa. I see last year’s presents have come with a few strings attached. I’m not that sort of boy. But maybe throw in a few easter eggs and we’ll talk.”
The truth was even more horrible. I cross-referenced the Santa letters and the valentine’s cards with the handwriting on my birthday cards. They were from my gran. “Roses are red, I’m your mum’s mummy, I am going to put you, back up in my tummy.” I know she was just trying to boost my fragile little-boy ego, but I really bought in to the whole romantic fantasy. And all that time the unrequited love of my young life was a bloated septugenarian who smelled of cabbage. I was cat-fished by own gran before it was even a thing.
I guess what really irks me about this time of year is the fact that Santa is a secret I’ve had no say in. You don’t need Santa to make Christmas magical, but you do require his absence to maintain an honest and healthy stance on both our society and the universe itself. My silence is being demanded, not to preserve the mystery and magic of the festive season, but to stop me from blowing the whistle on the millions of other families who have chosen to deceive their children. Families who want to keep using Santa as a four-month-long carrot-and-stick combo. This only makes me want to blow the whistle all the more; to send my sons into their future schools with information bombs strapped to their brains, ready to blast your children in their faces with the bright light of truth.
I always want to be truthful with my children.
“Daddy… what happens to grandma and grandpa now that they’re dead? Have they just disappeared? Will I ever see them again?”
“TWO MONTHS UNTIL SANTA COMES, WEE GUY, ARE YOU AS EXCITED AS I AM??!!”
I think I do, anyway.