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Dec 17 2012

No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus

(A reprint of a piece from last year. For those who aren’t familiar with the famous essay, “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” which this is satirizing/ commenting on/ replying to, here’s the original.)

“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

-Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are right. There is no Santa Claus. It’s a story made up by your parents.

Your friends have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except when they see. And good for them. Skepticism is healthy. It keeps us from being duped by liars and scam artists and people who want to control and manipulate us. More importantly: Skepticism helps us understand reality. And reality is amazing. Reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.

Your friends understand that there is plenty about the world which is not comprehensible by their little minds. They understand that all minds, whether they be adults’ or children’s, are little. They see that in this great universe of ours, humanity is a mere insect, an ant, in our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us. But your friends also see that the only way we can gain a better understanding of this great universe is to question, and investigate, and not believe in myths simply because they’re told to us by our parents and teachers and newspaper editorial writers.

Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they simply understand that Santa Claus does not freaking exist.

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. But Santa Claus does not exist. He is a story made up by your parents. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise.

And far more importantly: You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! And that would be excellent. That would be exactly correct. Fairies don’t exist, either. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, and if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? A fair amount, actually. The Santa hypothesis claims that Santa comes down chimneys on Christmas Eve and gives presents to children: if every chimney is carefully watched on Christmas Eve, and nobody sees anybody coming down any of them, that’s very strong evidence that the Santa hypothesis is incorrect. Nobody sees Santa Claus — and that’s a good sign that there is no Santa Claus. There are certainly some things in the world that we can’t see directly — atoms, black holes, radio waves — but we can see or hear or otherwise detect the effect they have on the world. The most real things in the world are those that children and adults can see, or hear, or otherwise detect. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not. Nobody has. Nobody has seen any fairy tracks, or fairy nests, or any signs of fairies whatsoever. And that’s pretty good evidence that they are not there.

Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. But we can try. In fact, trying is one of the finest human aspirations there is. We may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside — and if we do, we might get a better understanding of how the rattle works. And in doing so, in understanding how this one small rattle-shaped part of the universe works, we might gain a better understanding of the universe as a whole. But there is no magical veil covering an unseen world. And not the smartest person, nor even the united intellect of all the smartest people that ever lived, has ever given us any good reason to think that there is.

Fancy, poetry, love, romance… all of these are delightful, incredible, hugely important parts of human life. But they are part of the physical world. They are processes of the human brain, developed through millions of years of our evolution as a creative, exploring, social species. That doesn’t make them any less magnificent or wondrous. In fact, many people think it makes them even more magnificent and wondrous. Many people look at the fact that, out of nothing but rocks and water and sunlight, living beings have developed with the capacity for fancy and poetry and love and romance… and we’re knocked out of our seats by how marvelous that is. But there is no supernal beauty and glory beyond the natural world. There is only the natural world. Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

And it is completely messed-up to say that faith — i.e., believing in things we have no good reason to think are true — is in the same category as fancy, poetry, love, romance. Fancy and poetry and love and romance connect us with reality. Faith tells us to ignore it. Faith cuts us off from it.

No Santa Claus! That’s right. He doesn’t live, and he never did. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will still not exist — and no amount of fatuous, manipulative bloviating will make him real. And the heart of childhood is still made glad: by fancy, by poetry, by romance, by beauty and joy, by truth and knowledge, by love and generosity and devotion, and by the boundless magnificence of the universe.

(Oh, and while we’re at it: Your Papa is high. If you see it in the Sun, it is not necessarily so. Do not believe everything you read in the newspaper. Including this one.)

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Argle Bargle

    I’m reminded of the discussion about myths in Pratchett’s Hogfather:

    Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
    Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers?
    Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
    Susan: So we can believe the big ones?
    Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.

  2. 2
    johnstumbles

    Bzzzt! WRONG!
    .
    Not as wrong as the nauseating pack of baloney the original article was peddling (and to which yours was responding/rebutting) but … telling an 8yo that Santa Claus, Father Christmas, The Hogfather, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy or their imaginary friend DOES NOT EXIST is .. well, seems to me like taking a favourite toy from them because you think it’s ideologically incorrect.
    .
    The correct* answer is of course “What do you think, Virginia?”, delivered with a mysterious smile that says that it’s for her to find out: your lips are now sealed!
    .
    Don’t you think so?
    .
    It allows the child to hang onto the fantasy as long as they want to, encourages them to think inquisitively for themself, when they do arrive at the truth it’s their own truth rather than something you’ve imposed on them which they may resent, and when they do get it and have disposed of Santa for themselves I think they’re likely to move on to tackling other supernatural beings with their new intellectual abilities!
    .
    I don’t know what the evidence base is for one approach versus another (I think it would make a fascinating psychology project – maybe Wiseman or French might encourage it for a PhD project?). For what it’s worth, anecdotal yadda yadda, with my own kids I’ve never ‘taught’ them my atheism, preferring to ask questions that encourage them to think for themselves. When my older son was perhaps 10 or 12 he said something about how God had created everything (which I guess he got from his school) and I asked who created God. You could practically see the penny drop, or the cartoon bulb light up above his head!
    .
    .
    * IMNSHO :-)

  3. 3
    Nathair

    But Santa Claus does not exist. He is a story made up by your parents.

    Made up by your parents? That’s a rather vindictive invention. In our culture Santa, Elmo, Thomas the Tank Engine and all the rest are all but impossible to avoid. Explicitly blaming parents for personally creating the cultural background noise is just wrong.

  4. 4
    emburii

    I’m not sure about the concept of Santa Claus not doing any harm. Santa is supposed to bring presents to the good children…so a child in a poor household, whose parents or extended family don’t have the resources or abilities to get them the things they want, is being told every Christmas that they are a bad child. Meanwhile, a rich child can be the most horrible monster in the world but the presents under the tree from Santa are poisonous reassurance that they don’t need to change.

    At least if a child knows that the gifts or lack thereof are from their parents, they don’t feel guilty or ashamed (or proud) of their behavior over circumstances that are beyond their control.

  5. 5
    Tabby Lavalamp

    I’m not sure about the concept of Santa Claus not doing any harm. Santa is supposed to bring presents to the good children…so a child in a poor household, whose parents or extended family don’t have the resources or abilities to get them the things they want, is being told every Christmas that they are a bad child. Meanwhile, a rich child can be the most horrible monster in the world but the presents under the tree from Santa are poisonous reassurance that they don’t need to change.

    I’ve long been troubled by the concept of telling children a strange man watches them all year long and then one night breaks into the house to leave them gifts (often after they’ve sat on his lap to tell him what they want).
    Sadly it wasn’t until this year that I realized he’s also an elitist asshole who leaves more and better presents for children whose parents have more money while often skipping the children who need him the most.
    The whole concept of Santa seems benign at first glance, but is deeply troubling when viewed closely. Pretty much exactly like gods.

  6. 6
    Greta Christina

    …telling an 8yo that Santa Claus, Father Christmas, The Hogfather, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy or their imaginary friend DOES NOT EXIST is .. well, seems to me like taking a favourite toy from them because you think it’s ideologically incorrect.

    johnstumbles @ #2: I wouldn’t volunteer the information if I wasn’t asked. But if a child asks, plainly and directly — which is exactly the situation being responded to here — then I assume they want to know the answer, and are ready to let go of the fantasy. “What do you think?” is also a good answer, letting the kid figure it out on their own (possibly with some Socratic help). But I am highly reluctant to think that there is any one “correct” way of doing skeptical parenting. Giving direct answers to direct questions is also entirely valid.

    I’m not sure about the concept of Santa Claus not doing any harm.

    emburii @ #4, and others who are asking similar questions and raising similar points: I’m basing my assertion on psychological research, showing that telling kids small fantasies like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny doesn’t actually do any harm. I personally wouldn’t do it — I have a reflexive aversion to lying to children — but there’s no evidence that it does any harm, and no reason for parents who want to enjoy this game with their kids not to.

  7. 7
    Eric Reid

    Santa Clause is real, or rather was real. He was Greek, lived in what is now Soutehrn Turkey, and he’s been dead for about 1700 years. So don’t tell them that Santa is real, just tell them that Santa’s dead!

    (Not seriously)

  8. 8
    Argle Bargle

    Tabby Lavalamp #5

    I’ve long been troubled by the concept of telling children a strange man watches them all year long

    He sees you when you’re sleeping
    He knows when you’re awake
    He knows if you’ve been bad or good

    Santa Claus, jolly old elf or stalker?

  9. 9
    Eric Reid

    I was thinking more thinly veiled allegory for angry Christian god.

  10. 10
    Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters

    I’m Jewish, and when the Spawns were little, they were in a preschool that was predominantly Christian and did some Santa stuff. They’d never heard of Santa and asked. We told them Santa was a fun pretend game that Christians played with their kids, all about generosity and love and hugs and that we played other games in our family. We advised them not to tell their friends Santa wasn’t real, since that would mean their kids couldn’t play the fun pretend game. Worked great – my kids never asked to visit Santa or expressed an ounce of interest in the game, but they also never told their friends Santa wasn’t real.

    The Tooth Knight, on the other hand… At some point SonSpawn noticed that The Tooth Knight seemed to write in Spouse’s handwriting while collecting his baby teeth.

  11. 11
    antialiasis

    If the kid is saying “My friends say there is no Santa Claus; please tell me the truth”, then you should damn well tell them the truth. The fact they’re asking the question like that means they want to know more than they want to believe; they may be disappointed if the answer is no, but as they say, what is true is already so, and owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. They may still want Santa to exist, but they no longer want to believe in him if he doesn’t. They’ve started to care about reality, and that’s something that is to be encouraged.

    Encouraging them to think for themselves is for the openish questions. God is at least an openish question in the sense that a lot of people do earnestly believe in God, but Santa Claus is just a conspiracy of adults winking and nodding at each other. To pretend it’s an open question of any kind, in the face of a child who asks plainly for the truth, does disservice to the very notion of truth.

    It’s cool to play pretend, and although I personally cringe at the idea of lying to children even implicitly, it’s fine to let kids believe while they earnestly do. But when they start asking questions on their own, you should be straight with them. Lying in response to an honest question isn’t pretend or make-believe; it’s just lying.

  12. 12
    cag

    Children everywhere except for one state received presents at Christmas. This all changed one year after Santa Claus received a terse message from Francis Pharcellus Church that stated

    Yes, Santa Claus, there is a Virginia.

  13. 13
    John Horstman

    Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm.

    Well, it sort of depends on how we define “harm”. Believing in Santa Clause and then not is a widely-experienced life event, to the extent that it’s normative. I’m willing to bet all of those psychologists deciding whether it’s harmful experienced it themselves. That makes them poor judges – it’s part of their baseline ‘normal’, and we measure psychological problems by deviation from normal. While it’s a bit of an extreme shift, I can draw an analogy to the way rape culture works. Lots of people don’t realize that coercive or otherwise boundary-ignoring sexual behaviors in which they engage are or can be harmful because the behaviors are normalized. But they ARE harmful, and not only in the really extreme cases. Belief in Santa Clause may work the same way. At the very least, it may serve to validate magical thinking from a young age – given how difficult even people who try can find it to completely ditch magical thinking, we might want to re-evaluate how we define “harm” in this case Were those psychologists doing that research you mentioned Christian or some other identity group that doesn’t think magical thinking is bad? Might that skew their views?

    In my own case, I’m quite certain I never implicitly trusted my parents after they revealed they’d been lying to me for my entire life (though I may have been not implicitly trusting them before that; I don’t really remember). As someone who suffers from a mental illness (and has since childhood), this lack of trust may have contributed to my blocking myself off from my parents, a process that certainly was a barrier to me seeking treatment sooner and made my risk of suicide much higher. While I didn’t kill myself, I did engage in a number of self-harming behaviors. Now obviously the Santa Claus myth wasn’t the proximate cause for this, but it’s at least plausible that it exacerbated an existing problem by contributing to my reticence to seek treatment. And, you know, my parents might think it sucks that I don’t implicitly trust them – I haven’t asked.

  14. 14
    John Horstman

    @8: Inclusive or and you’ve got it.

  15. 15
    hellboundallee

    Santa Claus was not made up by parents, but he was the end-result of mythology going back at least a thousand years. BTW, I’ve read that most theologians think Saint Nicholas is also an amalgamation of stories. And his mythology comes from earlier sources. I mean, he certainly did not put dead, chopped-up children back together. One claim is that there were two Nicholases. Another claim is that the altars of Saint Nicholases were monuments to a Hold Nikar.

    And that pipe Santa is smoking? It’s not from the tobacco store. Home-grown, baby.

  16. 16
    chrismorrow

    The original “Yes Virginia” is a fascinating example of human adult double-think, or maybe “earony”, that strange combination of irony and earnestness. (An example of “earony” would be many college students’ love of Pokemon — they’re being “ironic” because Pokemon is targeted to children and they know this, yet earnest because they truly find the video games pleasing, not just “so bad it’s good”.)

    Adults don’t believe in fairies. Yet some of them wish they did. Still others wish they could wish they did. This is the nature of belief in belief. This strange semi-postmoden smorgasboard along the lines of “Ah, yes, the fairies are really there, but then we grow old and society swallows us up and we lose our childlike nature and don’t see the fairies anymore.” It’s a disgusting reification of nonsense and nonsense-based thought.

    That’s why I have such mixed feelings about the Santa deception. On the one hand, I want to say that it can serve as a concise object lesson in so many principles of truth and rationality, that it’s bad to argue from authority (even one’s own parents!) and that objections to the complexity of a hypothesis (“How does he visit all those houses in one night?”) are often well-founded.

    But ours is not a rationalist culture, and as a result, the Santa thing ends up being more a matter of praciticing for religion and irrational thinking, oddly enough. Of course Christians and others can’t admit that, because to do so would admit of the strong similarities between Santa and Jesus. Yet to a Martian it’s got to be clear as day/

  17. 17
    Allison Stelly

    Greta, thank you! I’ve been griping about the whole Santa deception for a while now. A few other points to consider:

    When a child comes to an adult and says, “I don’t think Santa is real. How could he possibly visit every child in the world?” or “But what about my Jewish friends? They say Santa doesn’t visit them.” or “But I think Santa’s handwriting looks a lot like my Dad’s.” or whatever, the response from the adult is, typically, “No, no, you’re imagining things,” or “No, no, Santa is MAGIC. He can do anything.” Etc.

    These kids have exhibited great critical thinking skills! Great attention to detail! Reasoning, logic – hurrah! And the typical response is to shut them down. Make them doubt their own reasoning, mistrust their own thinking.

    And finally, I’m pretty annoyed that I am, essentially, required to play along with this deception with kids in my life, otherwise I am the big asshole who RUINED CHRISTMAS AND THEIR CHILDHOODS.

    Isn’t it possible to appreciate a mythology without believing in it?

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