In American culture the Santa Claus story is generally considered to be a fun and entertaining aspect of the holiday season. Parents everywhere get a kick out of convincing their kids that Santa is real. This deception is, of course, reinforced through popular Santa songs, Santa films, and assorted books, games, and toys, such as the now popular Elf on the Shelf interactive toy which many parents use to motivate their kids to behave better, premised on the idea that the toy elf on their shelf is actually a moral scout for Santa.
Even committed Christians tend to see the Santa story as innocuous, though some find the tale of ole St. Nick to be an unfortunate or annoying distraction from the true meaning of Christmas—a celebration of the arrival of the Christ child to a world in need of salvation. Rarely, however, is the Santa myth regarded as a direct threat to Christian belief. After all, every adult understands that Santa isn’t real and that playing along with the story is, well, all in good fun. What danger could there be in the fable of a jolly, chubby old man soaring through the sky on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer to bring joy to little boys and girls all around the world?
But let’s think this through. Consider the attributes of Santa Claus, according to the standard story. In order to visit the requisite 1.5 billion households worldwide, Santa would need to travel at a speed of more than 1,300 miles per second in an open sleigh while taking a fraction of a second (.0003 seconds, to be exact) to complete his deliveries at each stop. Such power over the laws of nature suggests something along the lines of omnipotence.
Furthermore, according to the Santa myth, he has exhaustive knowledge of all of our lives. As we all affirm when singing that popular Clausian hymn every Christmas season: “he sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good.” Clearly, then, Santa is also omniscient.
And, of course, Santa isn’t merely aware of these things. He is also our moral judge, making meticulous assessments of little boys and girls (and adults as well?). And Santa’s judgments have significant practical consequences in the form of rewards (wonderful presents) and punishments (bags of coal). Therefore, we had better “be good for goodness sake.” After all, Santa’s judgments are always right and executed with perfect justice. So Santa must also be perfectly good, an omnibenevolent being.
What all of this adds up to is a being who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good—a being that is essentially divine. Of course, again, it’s just a silly popular story that we all know to be fictional. But that is not what millions of American parents tell their children. According to some surveys, as many as 85% of children in the United States believe that Santa Claus is real, in most cases, presumably, because their parents have told them so. Many parents personally embellish the tale and play along by, say, eating the cookies and drinking the milk that they leave out for Santa on Christmas Eve or by making a point of taking their kids to the mall to tell Santa what they want for Christmas. And when their kids get old enough to register skepticism about the whole story, they are often told to “just have faith.”
So what happens when a kid discovers that the Santa story isn’t true? Some aren’t disturbed too much by it. However, many of us vividly recall what a crushing realization this is. I certainly do. And for most kids the disappointment likely has nothing to do with the number of presents they believe they will receive in the future, since the discovery that there is no Santa Claus is likewise a discovery that one’s parents are reliable providers of Christmas gifts. Rather, this revelation is a discovery in the direction of naturalism—that the world is not as magical or enchanted as one had been led to believe by the most significant authorities in one’s life: one’s parents. What else have my parents been teaching me that is actually false? What other authorities in my life have been deluding me? No doubt the questions in the mind of an eight- or nine-year-old kid are not this well-formed, but this is the basic train of thought that I have heard adults report of their own experience as kids when first learning that the Santa story is fiction.
If the Santa myth ultimately serves to generally undermine a child’s belief in world-enchantment, the skeptical effect is more specifically associated with the classical theistic traits of Santa Claus. If a kid is told for years about this omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being, only to have faith in that being dashed, then how might this impact her regard for biblical teachings about a God possessing precisely these same attributes? Again, the skeptical associations may not necessarily be conscious, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
This is on top of the more obvious problem with telling one’s kids that Santa is real, namely the fact that to do so is to lie to them. And it is not an inconsequential lie, I would argue. It’s difficult to see how a conspiracy of parental deceptions wouldn’t have the psychological effect of sowing distrust in a kid’s mind regarding their parents’ other teachings, including—perhaps especially—teachings of a theological nature.
So however popular and entertaining the Santa myth may be, deceiving one’s kids about Santa is problematic. The fact that it is a lie that undermines parental trustworthiness is sufficient reason for parents, especially Christian parents, not to participate in the deception. But the fact that it could also set kids up for religious skepticism might be the most compelling reason not to play along. Perhaps more of us ought to take seriously the possibility that the Santa story, for all it’s fun, is actually hazardous for children.