Monday, December 21, 2009

Santa Claus and Vicarious Faith

I was reflecting yesterday upon the modern phenomenon of "Santa Claus" in our culture. It is not at all surprising to me that people have such traditions; most cultures do have some Santa-like folk tradition. If you wanted to take an anthropological view of Santa's origin, you could connect him to many eastern European traditions in which some sort of sprite or elfin creature comes by yearly to reward the honest and punish the wicked. Sometimes the creatures are propitiated not by the moral uprightness of the individual but by the degree to which the individual placates the sprite - think of brownies, who are reputed to help farmers who leave them food and offerings but destroy the crops of farmers who fail to do this (like offering Santa milk and cookies? Hmmm...)

At any rate, I am not so much interested in the anthropological basis for Santa Claus; of course, we know the historical basis is loosely centered on the life of St. Nicholas of Myra, a Greek saint of Asia Minor who lived at the time of Nicaea. In this reflection I am more interested in the pragmatic or utilitarian view of Santa Claus: why is it that people, even in this most sceptical of all ages, continue to promulgate the Santa Claus lore? What psychological or social function does Santa Claus fulfill for the modern world?

The first thing to acknowledge is that belief in Santa Claus is not the same as belief in, say, the tooth fairy or the Easter Bunny. In the latter cases, even though parents will go along with the game and hide Easter baskets or sneak in to their childrens' rooms after dark to replace a tooth with a coin, there is a somewhat implicit understanding on the part of all concerned that these are just farces done for amusement. I don't know any child, either now or in my own youth, who mistook these games for reality; i.e., who really and actually believed in a literal tooth fairy or Easter Bunny.

Santa Claus is on a higher plane than these two other folk beings. Parents really go to extremes to convince their kids that there is indeed a Santa Claus. First there is the hiding of the presents and putting them out Christmas Eve with tags that say "From Santa." That in itself might be no different than the parents pretending to be the tooth fairy. But it can go further - parents eat the cookies and drink the milk to give the impression Santa was there; they may go to other elaborate lengths, as my father did when he had a friend dressed up like Santa come to our house Christmas Eve when I was young so as to show me that Santa and my dad could not be the same person. Some parents fabricate sleigh tracks on the yard in the morning or go to other extremes of trickery to convince their kids that Santa is literally real. There is a constant verbal reinforcement, too. "Don't listen to what those older kids say, Billy; of course Santa is real!" People do not do this with the Easter Bunny; does anyone out there know of any parents who drop little rabbit turds around the house in an effort to convince their children that the bunny is a literal reality?

But if you want the most convincing evidence of the bizarre way in which belief in Santa is treated in our culture, try going up in front of a group of kids and even in the slightest way insinuating that Santa Claus is not real. Be prepared for the ensuing firestorm (of which I have an unfortunate experience). Telling kids that there is no Santa is sure to bring down the wrath of outraged parents upon you, and they will no doubt say that you have no right to rob their children of their innocent belief. I agree with this, by the way; whether or not a family "does" Santa is between the parents and the kids. My point here is not to denigrate belief in Santa, but to demonstrate that it is in fact a true belief people try to instill in their kids and not just a simple game or fairy tale like the tooth fairy. Nobody gets angry if you tell them the tooth fairy isn't real. Santa is in a category all to himself.

So why does culture put him there? And I mean not just Catholic culture, but secular culture at large, for Santa is a multicultural phenomenon. The belief in Santa that parents attempt to instill in their children is a type of faith. They want their kids to have faith in Santa's existence and take joy in seeing this faith lived out every Christmas. I would venture to say that there is something vicarious about the way parents enjoy their children's faith in Santa. Perhaps in a world when so many have lost faith or suffer from an inadequate faith, adults get a vicarious experience of childlike faith by witnessing it at work in their kids when they talk about Santa. Perhaps the type of faith that children have in Santa is the type of faith adults wish they could have about God. Perhaps in an age where faith in God is attacked from every front and it takes heroic virtue just to maintain fidelity to the fundamental moral teachings of the faith, those who find the struggle bitter also find that the simple, sincere belief in Santa exhibited by children is like looking back into Eden, a lost epoch of personal innocence that can never be experienced again, only relived vicariously in the innocence of others.

One young person I talked to about this stated her observation that literal belief in Santa was more strongly instilled in families where the practice of the faith was weakest; conversely, in families of strong faith there was less of an emphasis on the Santa myth. Thus, (in her opinion) the zealous belief in Santa in some families is a compensation for a lack of robust faith in God, a kind of sentimental, natural replacement for the theological virtue of faith. I think this is too broad a statement to be of much value, for surely there are faith-filled families who "do" Santa and faithless families who don't. But I did at least find it an interesting attempt to come up with a psychological and spiritual cause for the Santa phenomenon.

It is interesting to note that all the Santa films do place an emphasis on pseudo-faith; that is, on the act of believing over the object in which belief is placed. Kids are urged in these films (The Polar Express, The Santa Clause) to maintain faith in Santa or the "spirit of Christmas" above all else, as if the faith itself is the most important thing; one could contrast this with a Christian view, in which faith terminates in seeing and is a means to an end. A study of faith in Santa films could be an interesting post in and of itself, but I bring it up here only to point out the element of pseudo-faith (or perhaps sentimental faith) these films exemplify. In Christianity, there are certain things we hold to be objectively true, and thus we believe in them; in the Santa films, it is inverted to where the belief of the child somehow is connected with the reality of the object of belief. Take The Polar Express, where the child can only hear the bell if he "believes" he can hear it. Those who lack this amorphous "belief" cannot hear. If The Polar Express was a Christian film, the miraculous wringing of the bell would be heard by believer and non-believer alike, as glorious and unapologetic before an unbelieving world as the tilma of Juan Diego or the Shroud of Turin. People would come from miles around to hear the bell and it would ultimately wind up in a shrine somewhere with its own chapel and gift-shop attached.

Please don't mistake my intent here. I too often find on this blog that when I am simply trying to explore or discuss an issue I get blasted for "condemning" something or taking sides. I'm not taking sides on Santa here; in my house, we go along with the Santa myth but my children also know it is only a myth, and that the real Santa was a Saint. I just think it's interesting that Santa is so sacrosanct in our culture that people will get quite angry at you if you insinuate to their kids that it is not true and will go to elaborate lengths to convince their kids otherwise. Is it a type of vicarious faith that substitutes for authentic faith? I don't know, but I do know that the true meaning behind all of our Christian holidays tends to get obscured by more popular folk traditions that have little to do with the Faith. As for me, though we do go along lightheartedly with the Santa myth (and I mean lightheartedly, as in, they know its not real), we make sure that Santa is unambiguously kept subservient to Jesus, just as the real St. Nicholas was subservient and humble before his Lord and Saviour.


Alexander said...

Here's my take, and it is in no way Boniface's:

Telling your kids Santa is real is lying and that is intrinsically wrong. Why lie about Santa when you can just focus in on Christ and his Mother for Christmas and the 12 days after?

Juan said...

I fully agree with the above post from Alexander. And not only on theoretical grounds, but from my own case, which BTW was also a confirmation of Boniface's observation that "belief in Santa was more strongly instilled in families where the practice of the faith was weakest."

When at age 7 I discovered that Santa Claus and the three Magii (a companion pseudo-faith in Latin American countries, where parents would leave a recipient with water for the camels) were lies, I made the logical conclusion (for a 7-year old) that EVERYTHING supernatural was a lie and became an atheist. The very same thing happened to a friend I knew in adulthood, also at age 7.

And I see that as tragic, not funny. For 7 years (I discovered, or rather started discovering, God at age 14) I lived not knowing God and not being guided by his will in the process of self building, with the consequence that much of what I built was wrong and had to eventually be taken down and restarted from the ground up.

So, instilling in children the belief about the visit of Santa and the Magii is just lying - and certainly not of the inoffensive kind -, an intrinsically disordered behaviour that cannot be made good or just by good intention (CCC #1753).

Moreover, everything the CCC says in #2483-2486 applies to this case. Let me quote:

To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. (Exactly.)
The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, ... and the harm suffered by its victims. (What about losing faith?)
By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. (And pay attention now =>) The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray. (Exactly again, as losing faith is literally deadly for the soul!)

Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships. (Exactly again! When I discovered the lie I lost confidence in my parents.)

Juan said...

Whereas the psychological and spiritual cause of the Santa phenomenon is exactly as Boniface says, we have to be aware of an additional economic cause for promoting the Santa myth.

The figure of Jesus, born in poverty and having "nowhere to rest his head" in adulthood, does not fit with the consumption binge the system wants to induce. His teaching "do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear" is exactly the opposite of what the system wants: that you eat to death (sometimes literally) and buy clothes to fill your closets. The system wants you to fill your shopping bags, not to "provide yourselves with bags that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy."

Therefore the system needs to replace the figure of Jesus with something bland that does not interfere with the "buy, buy, buy" message. And Santa just fits the bill.

If good St Nicholas had foreseen that his figure would be used to keep Jesus' out of sight, he would have probably chosen to be a hermit or anything that would let him remain anonymous.

Boniface said...


You are absolutely right...who could deny the economic aspect? It is huge...and it definitely can make one lose faith.

"Hey son, remember that guy Santa I told you about who is invisible, can see everything you do and rewards the good? Well, that guy is fake. Sorry. But this other invisible guy God,now He's the real deal..."