Friday, December 9, 2011

No, Virginia


I hate to be a humbug. No, really, I do. And I really have nothing against Christmas, insofar as we are talking about values of giving, kindness and love. Obviously, I have no use whatsoever for the mythology surrounding it, but the holiday itself is responsible for many of my fondest memories as a child, and I would never wish to deny my family the same, simply because I think the manger empty.

However, there is an issue I take with Christmas, and that is Santa Claus. And no, this won't be the trite, anti-commercialist drivel that passes for original, provocative thinking these days. I don't have a problem with people spending money at the holidays, even on trunk-loads of mass-produced crap from the mall, if that is what makes them happy. (I have never been too thrilled with the notion of obligatory gift-giving, as I think it cheapens the whole notion of generosity, but that is another matter entirely.)

No, my problem with ole' St. Nick is the way that myth is used as a warm-up indoctrination of sorts for introducing children to the most critical aspects of religious faith. There a countless examples of this in the popular culture surrounding Christmas, but there is one in particular that I think of as ideal example. My daughter has recently been watching a cartoon version of the “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” story, and while this particular cartoon does not enjoy the popularity of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Polar Express or It's a Wonderful Life, most people should be familiar enough with the story to not require too much exposition.

The premise is simple: A young girl, Virginia, who is very much in love with the idea of Santa Claus and the spirit of Christmas, has her faith in Him challenged by a snotty, stuck-up, elitist little brat, Charlotte. Charlotte does this by pointing out the obvious, those things all of us raised in a Christmas-celebrating household had to come to terms with at some point in our childhood: how could one man make it around the world in a single night, how could he know whether you'd been bad or good, reindeer don't fly, fat men don't fit in chimneys, etc. Virginia has her faith shaken, and ultimately decides to write a letter to The Sun, the city paper, to ask the editor if Santa is real, because, as she has been taught, “If you See it in the Sun, it's So.” After much wrangling over the consequences of Truth vs. Hope, the editor does the “right” thing and publishes what is now a famous response that begins, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

It would be difficult, even in the course of the remainder of this post, to fully explain just how much is wrong with this little narrative. And everything that will be said, applies in equal measure to most of the rest of those timeless Christmas classics listed above. (Except Rudolph, which is more about individuality and finding your own way in the world, which makes it far and away the best of the bunch.)

The problem, of course, is that as adults, we know that every single person in this show is lying to Virginia. Everyone except Charlotte, of course, as there actually is no Santa Claus. The warmth and coziness of an idea is no testament to its veracity. Here is the world the show attests to: People who accept belief in things, even if they know they are not true, make the world a better, kinder place, and people who point out the obvious truth, or even question the accepted mass illusion are cynical, mean and selfish.

And this is essentially how Christmas, and particularly the Santa Claus myth, have come to stand in, and serve as an indoctrination to, the larger Christian mythology. A quiz might help here:

Who am I?
I see everything that happens.
I reward the good and punish the wicked.
I am immortal.
I am able to defy the natural laws of physics and biology.
I often send “helpers” to take of business for me, or send reminders.
I live way up high.
I am often depicted as an old man with a white beard.
Who am I?

A. Santa Claus
B. God

While many have pointed out what I just did, the obvious parallels between God and Santa Claus, few have examined this from a psychological, historical or ethical perspective. First, the psychological.

What can we learn from the pervasiveness of the Santa Claus myth in our culture? Well, first and foremost, children will believe absolutely anything you tell them, no matter how absurd, if it is repeated often, and with conviction. My daughter, who is amazingly sharp for her almost 4 years, absolutely accepts that every night immediately after dinner, but never before, Santa's elves sneak into our dining room where she was just sitting and put a chocolate in the appropriate door of our Christmas countdown train, just for her. She believes that because her mommy and daddy, whom she trusts more than anyone else in the world, tell her it is so.

If there is any parent out there who is in a similar situation with their own children, and has any doubt at all about just why they themselves remain so firmly convinced in the truths about God that their parents told them, I have to say that I do not believe they are being completely honest with themselves. Because while what our parents told us does nothing to prove or disprove the realities of the world, including the existence of god, it should illuminate for us where much of our conviction comes from. This is not an easy thing to do. Examining the “why” of our convictions is a monumental mental task, and requires a level of self-examination and truth-seeking that many people are simply not up for. We all have ideals and beliefs that we are desperate to protect, and honestly challenging those is a Herculean effort on most occasions.

But even more interesting, I think, is looking at this connection from a historical perspective. The modern Santa Claus myth, with a man who lived at the North Pole delivering gifts with the help of flying reindeer pulling a sleigh, dates to roughly the 1820s. According to Wikipedia, it was the 1934 song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that popularized the more contemporary version of Santa Claus, adding a list of “naughty or nice” children, elves, etc.

What social and cultural changes have occurred since the early 19th century that might have precipitated the increasing popularity of the Santa Claus myth? I think three are the most relevant; the rise of modern consumerism, the rise of science, and with it, decreasing child mortality. While much could be said (indeed has been said), concerning the relationship between Christmas and commercialization, as I said above, that is not really my concern here, even though the relationship is certainly very strong. At the same time, very little has been said concerning the relationship between Santa Claus and the latter two sociological changes. So I intend to address them here.

You may very well be asking, “What does the rise of science, or decrease in child mortality, have to do with Santa Claus?” Quite a bit, I would argue. In the 1700s, doubting the existence of God, or at least the Christian version of God, was mainly left to philosophers, scientists and the founders of the United States. Newton had only penned the Principia at the end of the last century, and new ideas were still relatively slow to spread. But by the 1800s, questioning Christian doctrine was much more commonplace, even among the middle-class. When Darwin dropped the Origin of Species bomb in 1859, scientists had been looking for a naturalistic explanation for the story of life for decades. Within a few decades, it was not at all unreasonable for a person to state that they did not accept any version of natural history that included miracles, or required faith to accept.

Another half a century later, and the new twin pillars of physics, relativity and quantum mechanics, brought about a rethinking of the origins of the cosmos themselves. In 1931, Georges Lemaitre (a physicist and Roman Catholic priest) suggested the hypothesis now known as the Big Bang Theory, which, although incomplete, served as the first naturalistic and rational explanation for the origin of all things.

With the origins of life and the origins of the cosmos themselves explained without any recourse to miracles or magic, many people, quite understandably, began to question where exactly God fit in at all.

Meanwhile, child mortality was dropping like a bag of hammers. A few hundred years ago, a woman could expect to give birth four or five times if she wished to see one child live to adulthood. (That is assuming, of course, she survived each of the pregnancies.) But by the 1930s in the West, modern sanitation, medical care and vaccinations had dramatically reduced the number of childhood deaths. It was, for the first time in human history, more reasonable to expect your infant to grow up than it was to expect them to die before puberty.

Considered all together, we have this: More and more children being born whose parents can reasonably expect to live to the age of mental maturity. These children are increasingly being born into a world that does not logically require them to believe the same things that their parents, or their parents, believed. If a parent wishes to pass on their beliefs to their children, as all parents assuredly do, at least to some extent, it is no longer possible to just wait and see which children will live to maturity and then indoctrinate them, no questions asked, into the local mythos, since they had no reasonable alternative anyway. Now, it can be safely assumed that the majority of children will survive to the age where they are able to think for themselves... unless they are taught, explicitly and repeatedly, to do otherwise.

Children are natural scientists. They ask a million questions, the most notorious, and most beautiful, being “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” If left to their own devices, they will explore every inch of their surroundings, put many things into their mouth, pull the dogs tail, and generally try just about every dangerous thing they can think of just to see what happens. This is the foundation of science: trial and error, experimentation. And when they can't discern the cause themselves, they inevitably turn to those whom they trust above all else, their parents.

This puts parents in a critical position. We have a sacred trust. We can either encourage and foster this natural, empowering inquisitiveness, or we can squelch it by teaching our children that it is a virtue to simply believe what everyone else around you does, and accept their beliefs without question.

At some point, the cracks in the Santa narrative narrative become apparent to all children. They will begin to ask questions, to point out what they have deduced and most parents will tell them, “Santa only comes to those who believe.” For many children, they will swallow this for a few more Decembers, figuring a booty of presents under the tree is not worth trading for something as ephemeral as truth. But inevitability, the blatant impossibility of the Santa myth becomes clear, and children lose their faith.

But the work, or the damage, depending on your perspective, has already been done. These youngsters have been taught that laying aside their natural doubt of all things that seem to defy the laws of every other phenomenon they have ever witnessed is not a sign of mental incapacity, but is rather a virtue. And that doing so for the sake of a future reward makes you wise and good. This is a travesty.

Any parent or educator can attest to this: children need both positive and negative reinforcement from time to time. And they will also attest that this outcome can not be set too far in the future. When a child is young, parents will start reminding their offspring of Santa's watchful eye sometime around Thanksgiving. Then, as the child matures, the reminders slink further back in the calendar, and children learn that Santa watches them all year. And then the sleigh crashes and the myth can no longer be sustained. (Un)Fortunately, there is another, nearly identical, waiting to take its place, with the rewards and punishments a little bit further out, and a tad harder to disprove.

So you may ask why, after all this ranting about the mentally debilitating and indoctrinating effects of Santa Claus on a young child, I would still tolerate it in my own home. Well, admittedly I am torn. And I certainly won't deceive her when she comes to me with questions, guilty as I am of being a part of the initial deception. But fundamentally, as much as I rail against faith, there can be some tolerance for it when it brings such an immense amount of joy to a child's life. 

Faith is relatively harmless in the hands of a child. Because after all, they are not charged with running the world. We are.

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