You'd Better Not Lie - how honesty and belief collide in the Santa Claus myth

Holly Lebowitz Rossi | Posted on 04/01/07

The story of dishonesty and religion has an undisputed leading man — Santa Claus. He certainly keeps fun and imaginative company, including the Easter Bunny. But Santa, the onetime Byzantine saint who today is believed to magically deliver Christmas presents to children the world over, has become an annual moral conundrum for Christian parents who worry about whether it’s wrong to convince their children of the existence of someone who (if I may) does not exist.

Consider these classic tall Santa tales:

• Reindeer fly Santa’s sleigh through the night sky.

• Santa Claus magically makes his way into every single household in the world in one night.

• If you misbehave, Santa Claus will know, and he will deny you Christmas gifts as punishment. A small irony: such misbehavior includes, according to the famous song, lying — the very thing your parents do in telling you that Santa Claus exists.

• Elves work hard all year long to manufacture toys at the North Pole.

It’s a slippery question, whether these myths qualify as “lies” in a morally important sense. After all, explaining to children that toys are made in factories by non-elves is not only age-inappropriate for young children, it’s just plain no fun.

So most parents err on the side of Santa, and on the side of encouraging imagination and wonder in the minds of their young children. A 2006 survey of more than two thousand parents conducted by the web site BabyCenter.com found that 87 percent of them encourage their children to believe in Santa. When asked when they think the ideal time is to tell their children that Santa Claus isn’t real, 55 percent said they’d like their child to believe in Santa as long as possible. And why shouldn’t they? In the messy childhood interplay between magical, creative thinking and slowly learning how the world actually works, Santa Claus stands out as a comforting myth that connects generations and preserves a wide-eyed sense of enchantment in a difficult world.

But the nagging question remains — are these parents’ pants on fire? Are they lying, betraying the moral requirements of being honest people? Some say that with children, truth always comes second to age-appropriateness. “We tell children whole truths when they are old enough to understand them,” writes the conservative Jewish commentator Dennis Prager. “Otherwise parents would tell young children the anatomical details of sexual intercourse in order to explain how they were conceived.” Encouraging children to believe in something improbable and magical is part of the enchantment of our early years.
But Santa Claus doesn’t exist in a vacuum; for religiously serious Christians, Christmas is the celebration of Jesus Christ, the savior and messiah. If the Christian story is true, can it be enjoyed with an obviously false mythology? Or does the frivolous fun of the Santa lie cancel out the life-altering power of the holiday’s religious truths?

Pascal’s Wager: How do we choose what to believe?

Honesty isn’t the only character virtue — and when it comes to teaching children how to live in a complex world, it can become less than the most important one, especially when it comes to belief.

Donald Cox, an economics professor at Boston College, applies some of the techniques long used by economists to these questions of belief and truth. In a 2003 article, “The Economics of ‘Believe It or Not,’” Cox distinguishes between “low- and high-stakes beliefs” as a way of understanding why people persist in believing in everything from Santa Claus’s existence to the ability of a new brand of toothpaste to quickly whiten their smiles.

“To believe or not to believe?” Cox writes. “Economics provides a simple, almost trivial sounding, answer: believe something when the benefits of believing outweigh the costs, otherwise don’t.” All of us probably believe things that are not true, Cox explains. And at the root of our decisions for what to believe, and what to encourage our children to believe, is a classic philosophical concept, Pascal’s Wager.

Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century philosopher, devised a decision-making procedure to consider whether he could profess a belief in God. He imagined a four-quadrant matrix. In the two left-hand quadrants are written “God Exists” and “God Does Not Exist.” In the two right-hand quadrants are written “I Believe in God” and “I Do Not Believe in God.” This leaves the philosopher with four possibilities: God exists and you believe in Him; God exists but you don’t believe; God does not exist and yet you believe; or God does not exist and you don’t believe. Pascal decided that believing in God was the wisest choice, even if it turned out that God did not exist. For if God exists and Pascal did not believe, then he was looking at eternal damnation; if he believed God did exist and was wrong, he risked only the chiding of his philosophy buddies.

Without realizing it, parents are using this pre-Enlightenment philosophical tool with their children. Young kids, certainly, have nothing to lose by continuing to believe in Santa — even if he does not actually exist, they are rewarded with bountiful gifts and fun times with Mom and Dad. And not only do their children’s beliefs “keep them young” and preserve the magic of the holiday, every year their children continue to believe in Santa is another year the parents can threaten his wrath if the children do not behave like upstanding little angels.

Like Pascal, many parents realize that sometimes the actual truth is less important than the process of how one decides what to believe. And that process is something that every parent wants his children to learn for themselves.

From Saint to Santa

But a bit of dishonesty must be judged on its content as well as its form. Some lies are good, some are bad, and so we must look at what exactly the Santa Claus myth says. Is it a beneficial story, worth perpetua­ting, or is it just a scurrilous untruth? How did the fourth-century Turkish bishop Nicholas of Myra, who was reputed to be a protector of fishermen, become the round, jolly fellow we know today as Santa Claus, anyway?
According to the British author Jeremy Seal’s fine book Nicholas: The Epic Journe¥ from Saint to Santa Claus, Nicholas of Myra’s life spawned many legends. One of the miracles that secured Nicholas his sainthood was his miraculous calming of a raging sea that threatened to swallow terrified fishermen. This story inspired captains and fishing crews to hang small icons of Nicholas in their cabins, and to christen their boats after the saint. It’s what first brought Nicholas out of his local context, as he and his legends sailed to distant ports.

But the story that relates Nicholas of Myra to Santa Claus, it turns out, is a miracle in no sense except that any anonymous generosity can be considered a wonder. Nicholas had learned that a wealthy nobleman had fallen into poverty and was contemplating selling his three unmarried daughters into prostitution. In order to stop this tragedy without wounding the pride of the father, Nicholas sneaked up to their house in the dead of night and heaved a bag of gold through the window. With that first bag, the eldest daughter was given a dowry and married off. Nicholas returned with bags for the second and third daughters, each of whom also wound up happily settled. The story has many versions (e.g., some say he threw all three bags in at once), but at its heart is the foundation for the Santa Claus myth: a kind and generous stranger stealthily slips gifts into the house in the dark of night.

From that early narrative, Seal chronicles each brick in the wall as Nicholas fades into relative obscurity and his mythical doppelganger, Santa Claus, rises to universal prominence. Although his legend evolved differently in different countries, the most universally recognizable aspects of Santa’s modern persona all emerged in mid-nineteenth-century America. In 1821, Santa was first reported to ride in a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer. The reference was published in “The Children’s Friend,” an anonymously written poem. In 1862, the first live, in-store Santa appeared at Macy’s in New York City. Four years later, Santa was first placed at the North Pole in a Harper’s illustration by Thomas Nast. In 1869, Nast’s copious Santa illustrations were published in book form, using a new color printing process. He chose red for Santa’s garb.

Keeping the “Christ” in Christmas

Brett Smith and his wife, Robin, don’t actively discourage belief in Santa, but neither do they put out cookies and milk with their four children, ages four to nine. “Our faith promotes truth,” says Brett Smith, who with his family attends a theologically conservative, evangelical church. “Therefore there is little room for the continuance of Santa when the Bible and Christ teach us all the lessons we need to learn.”

Were it not for his association with the religious holiday of Christmas, Santa Claus would be less controversial than Harry Potter or the Cat in the Hat. But there’s no escaping the “Christ” in Christmas, and that’s where matters get complicated. Many parents, like the Smiths, have anxiety about the role of Santa in their children’s lives. But the anxiety can cut two ways — either fear that their children won’t believe in Santa, or fear that they will.

In the past decade, the internet has come along to help those parents with the former problem. For starters, kids can call Santa directly. SantasPhoneCalls.com, for example, tells visitors it has the answer “for Mommy and Daddy when their children’s inquiring minds ask, ‘Which Santa is the real Santa Claus?’ The real Santa Claus is the one who calls you live on the telephone from the North Pole!” Children can also write letters that Santa will answer with a personalized response. They can send electronic messages to EmailSanta.com, NorthPole.com, or Claus.com/PostOffice. SantaProof.com even has an official “Santa Evidence Kit,” with white powder boot-prints, a thank-you note, the glasses he “accidentally” left behind, and other tools to offer a CSI-like demonstration that Santa indeed stopped by on Christmas Eve.

Many parents are horrified by these techniques, worrying that there’s a blasphemous danger that their children might grant Jesus’s divine status to Santa. But others use Santa to inform their family’s religious beliefs.

Lisa and Sean Holly, who attend a Lutheran church, tell their three young boys that Santa rewards them with gifts for living as Jesus wants them to, embodying the values of kindness, charity, faith, love, and the golden rule. “I don’t want my kids to get random presents for no apparent reason,” Lisa Holly says. “I don’t think it can hurt to have those childhood fantasies, but I don’t want Christmas to be a purposeless gift orgy, either.”

Taking a somewhat different approach, Cindy and Andre Roy “play the game of Santa” with their three-year-old and their newborn twins, but only because, they say, the family’s regular church attendance will protect the children from Santa/Jesus confusion, as it did for Cindy. “When I was growing up, Jesus was someone we learned about every Sunday,” Cindy Roy says. “When I began to question Santa, it was because there was a lot about his existence — like showing up in three shopping malls on the same day, making that crazy trip around the world in one night — that just didn’t fit. The question of Jesus was a separate one, and there was a lot more evidence for his reality in the life of my family than there was for Santa.”

The controversy is not just theoretical, either. A great flap erupted in 2002 in Irvine, Calif., when Reverend John Horn, a Catholic priest, gave a homily about real versus fictional characters. In it, he dropped the bomb that Santa Claus was a “made-up person.” Several children started to cry, and their parents were furious. But, according to news reports, when parents confronted Horn with their feelings, the priest simply told them they should not lie to their children.

The Defining Santa Moment

There will come a time, typically somewhere between ages five and ten, when a child comes to understand that there is no such thing as Santa Claus. Hand-wringers might worry about what this moment will mean for the child’s development. Will little Christopher’s sense of trust in his parents be permanently damaged when he realizes he’s been lied to? Will Susie begin to question the existence of God when she understands that her parents deceived her about Santa?

Be not afraid, says educational psychologist and longtime shopping-mall Santa Carl Anderson, because “if you have a good, solid relationship between parent and child, the truth about Santa is not going to rock that.” Anderson’s psychology dissertation at the University of Texas was a study of how children react to the discovery that Santa Claus isn’t real. He found that if children are allowed gradually to figure out for themselves that Santa isn’t real, their pride in their growing reasoning skills will outweigh their disappointment over losing their Santa fantasy. “They related to deciding to no longer believe, or knowing the truth, as an indication that they were growing up, and they had a certain degree of pride in the fact that they were on the side of those who knew the truth,” Anderson says.

For parents confronted by children who ask myth-unraveling questions, Anderson has this advice: “Back off. Let them come to you and say, ‘Is Santa real?’ And even if they come at you with that, don’t necessarily assume that they want to know the truth. Sometimes what they’re saying is, ‘I’m having doubts. Is it okay if I continue to believe this for a while?’ Ask them why do they want to know, and try to let their answer guide you.”

Anderson’s research inspired more than a career as a psychologist — it motivated him to become Santa himself, growing a full beard and performing as Santa at schools, festivals, and shopping malls. Today, Anderson is a member of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, an organization of more than one thousand Santas who believe that the jolly guy should have a real beard. Unsurprising, then, that Anderson’s attitude is that Santa is, in his way, a real presence in the lives of many families, a presence that transcends any questions of honesty. “Parents are participating in a tradition that’s existed within their own family, within their own life, and within their cultural history that goes back far beyond what they would expect,” he says. “In our culture, it’s probably the most widespread introduction to myth or a mythical belief that children experience.”

George Costanza, the Seinfeld character, once said, “Just remember — it’s not a lie if you believe it.” Granted, he’s no paragon of moral character. But when it comes to beautiful stories of miracles, giving, and imagination, there’s perhaps some wisdom in his statement that truth and belief can — and often should — occupy distinct moral spaces. Anyone who believes that God parted the Red Sea, stayed Abraham’s hand before he sacrificed Isaac, or resurrected Jesus from the dead — or that the Tooth Fairy left him a dollar, the wardrobe leads to Narnia, Superman is faster than a speeding bullet, or Cinderella’s prince finally found her — can attest that there is real, spiritual truth even to that which can’t be proved to exist.

And to Christians who don’t want to pollute their celebration of the Lord with a gift-giving fantasy, one might answer that allowing children to discover the unreality of Santa for themselves does them a religious service. Young men and women who have been allowed their imaginative lives as children grow into adults with a more nuanced appreciation for the distinct concepts of faith, belief, and truth. To discover that George Washington did tell a lie, may not have chopped down a cherry tree, and did not hurl a silver dollar across the Potomac River should not undermine a person’s patriotism or her reverence for the Founding Father. Growing into knowledge is oddly seamless: one day, we just know that the old stories are myths. It’s not shocking or disturbing. Indeed, we often know it has happened only after the fact, in retrospect. By that time, we’re on to other questions, the kind that lead us to lives of faith, or perhaps apostasy, with an intellectual honesty whose time has come.