This American Life, the popular radio show that features some of the most compelling stories you’ll ever hear, has a Christmas special this week and the stories, well, are kind of horrific.
The episode is 482: Lights, Camera, Christmas! And the story (one of many) that had me shaking my head were parents Glenn and Laurie Mutchler who wanted to keep extending the story of Santa for their son up until he was 13. It had such an effect that apparently their son got into a debate in front of his class at school over the existence of Santa and other magical Christmas beings which ostracized him from his peers. Later when their son found out the truth he was embarrassed, embittered and never trusting of his parents again. And, he says in an interview, he wasn’t trusting of other people including women which caused relationship issues (but he admits maybe this was taking the blame too far).
The primary culprit is the father in this story. The mother indicated she wanted to tell the truth. The problem was that their son asked them point blank if Santa was real or not and they lied to his face and kept lying even as he grew older. This was all for the sake of keeping the magic alive. To this day, their son holds feelings of resentment over the Santa hoax.
And this attitude is not uncommon. My wife told me about a coworker who is disappointed that his ten year old may no longer believe in Santa. Ten years old, in the Internet age, to still believe in Santa? That seems ridiculous to me.
I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with a little kidding around with your children when they’re six or seven about magical beings–however, I would never lie about it. I know some atheists are emphatic about exposing the Santa mythology from the start. My method would simply be to allow my child to figure it out for his or herself. If they asked me if Santa is real my answer would be leading questions: “Why do you think Santa is real?” “Do you think it’s possible for reindeer to fly?” “How does an overweight, elderly man get down the chimney?” “Have you ever seen Santa?”
In this manner, I believe a young child could get their first lesson in skepticism. Obviously, if my kid has turned ten or thirteen years of age I’m going to have to says something like, “Think about it?!” And I would have to expose the myth without the child reaching the correct solution (though I would be heavily disappointed that my kid wasn’t intelligent enough to figure it out on their own).
There is a parallel between parents keeping the Santa myth alive for their children and society keeping alive the god myth. Parents think that Christmas is better for kids when they believe and society thinks it is better for all when everyone believes, regardless if it is true or not. I think it’s time we all grow up. There’s no bearded fat guy dressed in a red suit with a naughty or nice book and there’s no bearded sky-being with a naughty or nice book either. It’s all magic.
We need to separate magic from reality. Magic is reserved for fairytales and imagination–which is why we all go to the movies or read books (or in my case, why I draw comic strips). Reality is filled with wonder (as well as horror), but lazy minds don’t want to search it out. They’d rather escape into ghost hunting, fairies (yes, people still believe in them), demons, and the most successful of all mythological characters: Jesus Christ. The real wonders of life are found in the cosmos, in our origins and in science. It’s not easy to understand and therefore we stray towards magic because it is the easy thing to do.
SIDENOTE: Don’t get me wrong. I like magic in context. What I’m trying to point out is that we are overlapping magic into reality with Santa apologetics for kids and god apologetics for adults. Let’s keep Santa and god(s) in our mythologies, our fantasy novels and movies, and our video games; but if we don’t we are creating irrational kids who turn into uneducated adults who embrace nonsense and impede progress.
SIDENOTE 2: How did I discover Santa wasn’t real? I found presents wrapped and hidden by my mom that mysteriously turned up on Christmas Eve in my stocking signed “Santa.” The jig was up. I didn’t take it too hard and honestly the holidays were still “magical’ after that because I was into books, comic strip collections and holiday TV specials (like Rankin & Bass animation). Feel free to post your own “found out Santa wasn’t real” stories in the comments.