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No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus

I’m doing a full court press in December to finish my new book, “Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.” Deadline for going to the typesetter is January 2. So for most of December, I’ll be posting retreads traditional holiday posts, as well as a few cat pictures. For those who aren’t familiar with the famous essay, “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” which this piece is satirizing/ commenting on/ replying to, here’s the original. Enjoy!

santa claus 1“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.

santa claus 2And 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.

santa claus 3Not 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.

santa claus 4No 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.)

Comments

  1. says

    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?

    This is extremely dangerous advice: consider that sending lots of men (no women? what are you thinking?) onto roofs in snowy or icy conditions is likely to result in many injuries and concomitant liability issues; and consider further that if you are wrong and there is a Santa (and from the evidence of my own eyes I’m certain there are lots of him) then to do his work he must be traveling as a considerable fraction of c, so the shock wave will likely kill any close observers,—not to mention the effects of the fireball!

    (nice essay though :-) )

  2. Wylann says

    These days, with so many (even young) kids having smartphones, they might just be smart enough to get an app like SmartSentry…. (it uses the phone’s camera as a motion sensor and takes pictures).

    That could be amusing. :)

  3. Chaos Engineer says

    Sigh, so cynical!

    I’ve always thought that it makes more sense to look at Santa Claus as the subject of two different stories: There’s the “outer story” that everyone knows, about the kindly man who lives at the North Pole and distributes toys out of selfless generosity, without asking anything in return. (In theory the toys are a reward for good behavior, but my experience is that the bar for “good behavior” is set pretty low.)

    There’s also an “inner story”, which not everyone knows. For the benefit of the younger readers I’m not going to post it here; I’ll just note that it’s also a story about selfless generosity. The original “Yes, Virginia” editorial alludes to it in this passage:

    Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.

    That said, knowing the “inner story” carries some obligations, and one of them is to keep an eye out for people who say things like, “Santa gives all the best toys to rich kids. That means that they’re morally superior.” or “Santa is planning to reduce deliveries to neighborhoods where gay marriage is legal” or “Santa prefers chocolate-chip cookies to oatmeal cookies, and that’s why I’m forced to use drone strikes/suicide bombings against liars who claim to believe the opposite.”

    If things ever get that out-of-control, then we might need to let everyone know about the “inner story”, and stop telling the “outer story” completely. But so far that hasn’t been an issue. (For the Santa Claus stories, I mean.)

  4. says

    “Reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.”

    More important, ok. More interesting, that’s debatable, as I’ve seen very interesting art.

  5. says

    Please, don’t replace lies with lies. Reality is not a great thing. Reality is a dismal thing that drives an alarming percentage of the population to suicide. It drives an even larger percentage to self medication. Reality is a thing that we spend most of our lives trying to escape the pain of.

    So, as long as you’re destroying everything this kid clings to for some sense of security, why don’t you come out and tell her that reality sucks, her school is most likely going to dope her up and destroy her mind to keep her quiet in class, that she’s going to spend her whole life being exploited, being judged and hated for things she can’t do anything about, constantly having to work her butt off just to survive, how she’s going to endure constant headaches from being expected to take sides in ridiculous political disputes, and how she has a pretty good shot of having to attend the funeral of some friend or relation who died in a pointless war.

    Go on, don’t pull any punches. Chances are nothing you can tell them about reality will be news to the children of today.

    You know, I saw a very nice special on the history of Christmas on the History Channel this year. It explained all about how Santa Claus was a literary invention without the need to crush or traumatize any children watching.

    So, actually you could take this in another direction. You could say, “Yes, there is a real Santa Claus. He is a real literary character.” And then you could run on and on about what a wonderful thing literary characters are, and what a magical thing it is that everybody can potentially invent them and gain fame and fortune from them.

    Think about that. Even though he’s no longer under copyright or trademark, Santa makes a heck of a lot of money for a great many people each year. Can you honestly say that a thing that makes money for people has no reality?

    There must be some kind of reality there. It must in some way exist. And I think that’s what the original article was getting at – that the reality of Santa Claus is not that of a physical person, but the reality of an idea – an idea which some hold as having great value. It could even be said that Santa exists in multiple states of reality, none of which you can just reach out and touch, but which do create effects that can be measured and proven.

  6. zibble says

    @5 ThorGoLucky

    More important, ok. More interesting, that’s debatable, as I’ve seen very interesting art.

    The source of all art is experience. Experience is the intersection of objective reality and personality. All art expresses the reality of nature and the nature of the artist.

    I learned a while ago that it’s not physically possible to create something as complex or beautiful as the universe or the things in it. You can only distort reality in a way that pleases human prejudices; because, as social animals, we are drawn to the mind of another human more than the reality that mind attempts to express.

  7. zibble says

    @7 PerriPrinz

    So, as long as you’re destroying everything this kid clings to for some sense of security,

    I’ve never met a child who cared nearly so much about Santa as their parents.

    The entire world is magical to children. I think it’s wrong for parents to lie to their kids just to giggle at their gullibility and vicariously enjoy their ignorance.

    So, as long as you’re destroying everything this kid clings to for some sense of security, why don’t you come out and tell her that reality sucks, her school is most likely going to dope her up and destroy her mind to keep her quiet in class, that she’s going to spend her whole life being exploited, being judged and hated for things she can’t do anything about, constantly having to work her butt off just to survive, how she’s going to endure constant headaches from being expected to take sides in ridiculous political disputes, and how she has a pretty good shot of having to attend the funeral of some friend or relation who died in a pointless war.

    These aren’t inherent, unsolvable problems. They’re all political issues that could be solved if not for all the people who devalue reality.

  8. Nathair says

    There must be some kind of reality there. It must in some way exist.

    Clearly you have never, ever spoken to a small child. Subtle nuance is emphatically not within their grasp. (Although, if we’re being honest, your “some kind of reality” isn’t nuance, it’s sophistry.) A carefully couched deception like that is exactly the same as a lie to a small child.

    When a kid asks a question they deserve the best answer we can give, every time, not having sunshine and rainbows blown up their ass.

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