Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

My Youth as a Santa Skeptic

When the Darwin children tore the wrapping off their Christmas presents last week, they bore tags like "From Mom and Dad" and "From Grandma" but not "From Santa". Santa has never made an appearance in Darwin family mythology, primarily because I was one of those aggressively skeptical children who refused to suspend disbelief in Santa starting around the age of 3 or 4.

I pestered by parents with questions: How does Santa get into houses without chimneys? How does Santa really know if people are good or not? How does Santa visit all houses in one night? Why does Santa seem to give the same sorts or presents that Mom and Dad would?

My parents didn't want to set a precedent of lying to their children, so I quickly sensed that the answers they gave me were highly qualified. "Maybe if Santa can't reach all the houses, he lets parents know what he would give and so the parents deliver the presents for him."

I smelled a rat and zeroed in for the kill: "There isn't really a Santa, is there? It's just a story that parents tell children."

Why go to all the work to spin stories for a child who insists on cold reality? Santa died: not with a bang, but with a whimper. Feeling in my youthful heart that I had now overturned one of the great frauds in history, I worked to spread the word. Other children, however, seemed less interested. Other adults were also not necessarily as free thinking as my parents when it came to unmasking the Santa game. In third grade I was ordered to the principle's office for blowing the whistle on our teacher, who had skipped over a few pages in the book she was reading aloud after lunch -- in which the main character's older sibling informed him that Santa was just Mom and Dad. Our teacher must have thought we still needed to be spared this harsh reality, and the rest of the class wasn't bothering to read along and didn't notice the skipped pages.

"Now why did you do that?" the principle, our one remaining nun -- and not a very severe one -- asked. "You teacher says one of the girls in your class was crying."

"It's true," I responded, dogmatically.

Sister sighed and told me to sit in the chair outside her office for half an hour and then go back to my classroom.

Now, in our family, there were three gift holidays in the lineup. On St. Nicholas Day cookies and chocolate coins and such showed up in our shoes, placed there by St. Nicholas. On Christmas there were presents and stockings, and on Epiphany there were one or two small presents in celebration of the Three Wise Men.

I'd quickly driven Santa from Christmas, such that my younger siblings never even heard of him, except as a pop-myth which other families believed in. However, I was much more hesitant to question whether St. Nicholas really had anything to do with the little presents that showed up in our shoes. I think it's mostly that I was worried it would be disrespectful to publicly question a saint.

Eventually, at around age six, I performed an attempt at a double blind test which for the longest time suppressed my willingness to dig further in that regard. The Jewish kids in the next apartment over had, of course, never heard of St. Nicholas day. When I realized this, I started talking it up to them (get candy before Hanukkah!) and encouraged them to put out their shoes and see if candy appeared. I figured that if it really was St. Nicholas, then he would know the shoes were there in the next apartment over, and the candy would duly be delivered.

Sure enough, candy appeared, though theirs was marked with pictures of Menorahs and the Star of David. Years later, my mom recounted to me that the kids had talked it up so much to their parents that they had figured they'd better provide candy lest the kids be disappointed, so the Hanukkah candy was dipped into early. (Another experiment foiled by the inability to control for all factors.) However, it was several years more before I dared directly question whether the saint was directly involved in delivering St. Nicholas Day treats.

9 comments:

AnotherCoward said...

I don't much care for the notion of Santa, but my wife insists we must have it. I think it just sets a bad precedent in the formation of faith, and I get a little concerned by all the needling questions my son asks and/or the assumptions based on Santa that he boldly proclaims. My wife insists we keep Santa because he's fun - maybe he is for everyone else. Not so much for me.

Tim said...

I've got a problem with the Easter Bunny because I don't know of any connection between bunnies and Easter, though I suppose it's possible there is a connection. But to me Santa Claus has always been Sa(i)nta NiColaus so I don't have any problem with Santa. His being a saint explains a number of things, including how he knows if everyone has been bad or good.

Tim said...

I think I got confused trying to be clever with Santa Claus being found in Saint Nicolaus. It should look like this: Saint(a) NiColaus.

Cody said...

I've always been fond of the "demythologizing" Santa approach. Say, "Kids, Santa doesn't actually exist, but he exists in your hearts in the spirit of giving."

AnotherCoward said...

See, Tim, I wouldn't mind that, except that it seems to be popular (and is the case in my household) that there's a mysterious distinctio between Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas is a Saint, thus in heaven. Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. Saint Nicholas got around on foot. Santa Claus has magical modes of transportation. So, my kids are aware of the mysterious distinction despite the supposed parity of persons.

Daddio said...

I agree with everything you said here. We told our kids the truth from the beginning.

peregrinator said...

I have hard time with the notion that "keeping" Santa Claus could do much harm.

My siblings and I were very unbelieving as kids, too. So much so, that I have trouble imagining that any kid over 3 years old really believes in Santa Claus. (And any kid 3 and under has such a fuzzy line between imagination and reality that belief in Santa doesn't count for much.)

My parents never tried to perpetuate the Santa Claus myth to their bunch of little skeptics, but I do remember my father suggesting to my younger brother, sister and me shortly after we'd finished reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe together (we were roughly 9, 7, & 5) that we start checking cupboards in the houses of friends for ways into Narnia. "Dad," we said, pityingly, "Narnia's not real."

On the other hand, we willingly, 'though perhaps not quite believingly, inspected the ears & feet of each new sibling for signs of hobbit heritage...

Jennifer F. said...

This was me! I remember when I was seven planning to tape some paper to the interior of our chimney to see if it would be ripped up when Santa *supposedly* came through.

I didn't realize until I read this post that I am uneasy about the whole Santa thing w/ the kids...although our parents would have one of those interventions that you do for people who have joined cults if we ever tried to have a Santaless Christmas.

Anonymous said...

My siblings and I believed in Santa when we were little, and I, being the oldest, was the first to figure out the literal truth. I remember feeling excited to be in on helping the younger ones pretend.

My parents never got too technical on the mechanics of Santa (though my mom did write out the gift tags in a wavy looking script much like J.R.R. Tolkien did with his kids). This added an air of authenticity. As a child, Christmas seemed to me like a naturally magical time--but a sort of sacred magic that involved the nativity scene as much as the stockings. Hey, if the Son of God could become Man, who am I to question someone coming down the chimney to give gifts in His honor?