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Ask Surly Amy: Is The Santa Myth Bad?

Ask Surly Amy

Dear Surly Amy,

I read this morning about Chelsea confronting someone at the mall for telling a child that santa is real. That made me think about what I am telling my kids. My little kids beleive that santa clause is real and I let those go on because in a sense santa is real. I am
santa. I buy the gifts and I put them under the tree with labels from Santa. I encourage my older children that realize how absurd the Santa myth is not to “spoil” it for my younger kids and let them believe. When my kids do figure out who santa really is I congratulate them on being smart and encourage them to be skeptical of any outragous claim. Utimately my question is, am I terrible for encouraging this holiday make-beleive? Is it so bad to let my little children beleive in this. In our household we don’t really permit any other such nonsense but I find myself clinging to this.

~Rob/Santa

Dear Rob/Santa,

No, you are not terrible for creating Santa make believe. Not in my opinion anyway.

This topic comes up every year here at Skepchick headquarters. While some of the girls have slightly different opinions on the topic, I am most fond of Rebecca’s take on the situation. Which ultimately is the point that sure, go ahead and lie your ass off to your kids about fun things like the Tooth-fairy and Santa. The kids are going to figure out that it’s really you in the end and when they do praise them for their junior skepticism and use it at a learning exercise. Ask them how they found their evidence and then use the Santa myth as a way to explain other crazy things people believe in. That way when they come asking why your family doesn’t believe in a god but the neighbors do. You can simply explain:

Remember how you figured out there is no Santa? Well, their god is just like Santa. They just haven’t figured out he’s not real yet.

Elyse is one of the Skepchicks who feels that it is important to tell your children the truth from the get go.

Santa is a myth used to characterize good will in mankind. Mommy and Daddy play Santa.

I can completely understand this view as well. It lays down the groundwork for honesty and transparency and truth in parenting.

It’s really up to you as to which way you go with this topic and you’re not a bad parent for encouraging the Santa myth or for telling the truth. As long as it is a fun and loving experience that isn’t alienating your child from the joy of the season. Remember to have fun. To this day, I still leave presents under our little fake sparkly tree addressed to my husband that say, “From Santa” or from “Rudolph.” I don’t think he has figured it out yet and he is good every year.

Besides, I don’t play into the “War on Christmas” bullshit at all. I say enjoy the holidays. All of them. We as a community don’t need the religious aspects of the various celebrations but we do need the sense of community. So love your friends and family and share good will and good cheer.

Happy holidays everyone!

Love,
Surly Santa

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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43 Comments

  1. I don’t think my kids are going to buy into it very long regardless. (But we do the Santa story here.) I was reading the girls (age 5) some Greek myths and Sophie interrupted me. “Daddy, I don’t think Zeus is real.”

    “Why not?” I asked.

    “Because you said he throws lightning bolts, but lightning isn’t hard – so how could he pick it up? This sounds fake.”

    Nice. Poor Santa is in for it soon…

  2. I don’t have kids of my own, but I sort of take a hands-off approach to encourage thinking. So when my nephew asked me if Santa is real, I just said “What do you think?”, and refuse to confirm or deny it.

    If I ever have my own kids, I’ll probably take a similar approach. I’ll probably sneak in gifts overnight but I’ll try not to explicitly mention Santa. If that’s what they assume, then I’ll let them enjoy it until they figure it out.

    I have to admit that the Santa thing is one of the reasons I started doubting my faith as a teenager.

  3. My daughter is five and we don’t do Santa. There are specific reasons for this beyond my rational bent of thought, though. I’m a single mom, I don’t have any extended family left and I let her go with her father’s side of the family on holidays – so that means our Christmas together is just a special time for me and her. Introducing Santa really seemed to take something special between us out of it. Now that she’s in school, she’s come home talking about Santa and I’ve told her that’s a very nice story people tell, but that I give her her Christmas gifts.

    My point is that I agree with Amy – choose whatever is best for you and your family and enjoy the holiday.

  4. the Santa myth is not a bad thing.

    It teaches kids that adults are full of shit and the sooner they realize this the better off they will be.

    I’m only half kidding.

    My just-turned-nine year-old either still believes in Santa or is afraid the gifts will get cut off if she admists that she doesn’t.

    I like to play a game with her called “real or imaginary” in which I name a creature and she has to tell me if they are real or imaginary. She’s pretty spot on with cryptids and knows that bigfoot, nessies, chupacabra, etc. aren’t real. She’s good at mythical creatures (dragons, unicorns, leprechauns, etc.) and monsters (vampires, zombies, ghosts, etc.) has a slight problem with fictional characters (Batman, Harry Potter, Clint Eastwood, etc.) and sometimes thinks they’re real.

    What has me worried is, at least to this point, she isn’t catching on to the made-up-by-parents stories. She still thinks Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy are real. She says shes an atheist like daddy, something I have tried to disavow her of until she has more proof to no avail.

    I use to believe in ghosts, alien abductions, and the Bermuda triangle and yet can’t imagine why any more.

    Someone once told me that parenting is always a rough draft but if you’re good you can teach your kids to be their own editors.

    That was a little all over the place, sorry about that.

  5. To me, Santa is a game we play with our kids. I never believed in Santa myself, but I always enjoyed playing the game. It’s like playing tea party and pretending to serve and eat imaginary cake. It’s understood from the beginning that there is no cake. I don’t try to make my kids believe there is a cake. But, I don’t have to come out and say it isn’t there either. That kind of spoils the fun.

    It can be fun to pretend imaginary things like fairies, wizards, elves and the like exist.

  6. I can’t remember how old I was – probably 8 or 9, but I was doubting the Santa myth.

    I asked for a picture to prove Santa (and also the ninja turtles) were real. My mom did a nice card up from Santa with a picture of him (real man dressed as Santa) and Leonardo from TMNT (sort of fuzzy, because obv he was fighting crime).

    What gave it away though, was my mom’s handwriting.

    I didn’t tell her.

  7. While I’d had my suspicions for a while, nothing quite kills the Santa belief like being an 8 year old and hearing your mom hiss “Jim, close the door. I think he’s awake” while they’re hauling your presents downstairs.

  8. When one of my scary nieces was 3, she and her little sister were acting up, and my brother told them “If you don’t stop it, I’m going to call Santa and tell him to skip our house this year!” She called his bluff. “That would be impossible” she said. (Note the use of the subjunctive and the 4 syllable word.) “What do you mean” asked my brother. Figuring he didn’t know the word impossible, she said “You would be unable to do it.” “Why not” he asked. “Well, you could do it, but it would be like talking to a doll.”

  9. We’ve always said that Santa is a fun story to play along with just as any other valuable exercise of imagination. We have presents addressed to each of us from Santa, but we don’t make a big deal otherwise except as what the 5 year old has requested over the years.

    So we’ve never lied, but we’ve never squashed the fun of imaginary play either.

    It’s really not all that hard to have fun and foster imaginations with little kids without resorting to any kind of mean trickery that’ll get ’em mad later. Play along and enjoy the ride…they’ll be cranky teens believing nothing you say soon enough.

  10. I appreicate all of your insights. As silly as it may seem I have struggled with the hypocrisy of all this. Why would I let kids believe nonsense when I call adults on believing nonsense.

  11. Yes, it’s bad. Santa is the first in a long line of superstitions that lead all the way up to the big ol’ guy on the cross. It’s my belief that all the Xmas movies that tout belief in Santa as the key to happiness (Miracle on 34th Street, The Polar Express) are the primers to religious indoctrination – they sow the seeds of belief young, and they take better root.

    Why exactly should it be so bad for kids to know their presents come from people who love and care for them, rather than a fat old geezer who slips down their chimney? I’ve never understood.

    Sadly, although I talk the talk, I don’t walk the walk, as the missus has stopped me from revealing all to our kids. Bah humbug!

  12. @Elizabeth: This! When I started to doubt, I asked for Santa’s autograph. It was so clearly my mother’s handwriting. To this day I don’t understand why she didn’t use her left hand or something.

    At ten my mom told me that she had to have a serious talk with me. She said, “I’m sorry but you need to know that Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy aren’t real. But God is real. Never doubt God.” The parallel between the Santa belief and the God belief didn’t even occur to me until she mentioned it.

  13. “That way when they come asking why your family doesn’t believe in a god but the neighbors do. You can simply explain:

    Remember how you figured out there is no Santa? Well, their god is just like Santa. They just haven’t figured out he’s not real yet.”

    Wow.

    That’s – that’s one of the most arrogant things I’ve ever read. It’s not the atheism; I’m used to that. It’s not bringing a child up atheist; religious parents bring their kids up religious, it would only make sense that atheist parents do likewise. It’s the implicit assumption that everyone reading this post is an atheist.

    I get that (and why) the vast majority of skeptics are atheist. I get that (and why) a very sizable fraction of the skeptical community – the majority, if how vocal they are is any indication – believes that any theist cannot be a skeptic. I get that you, Surly Amy, fall into that camp. But either you are writing only for such people – in which case I get to feel even more excluded from the movement that I feel I’m a part of – or you are operating under the assumption that virtually everyone who reads your posts is an atheist. which demonstrates the profoundly arrogant assumption that all your readers are ‘like you’.

    That said, I’m sure it’s quite possible that I’m missing a third option that is far less troubling.

  14. @EvoEdu:

    Typically, if someone writes to us about Christmas and is not a non-believer, they mention that. It’s a pretty safe assumption to make.

    Besides, Rob/Santa is not required to follow this advice verbatim. He wanted Amy’s thoughts. She gave them.

    I fail to understand the outrage.

  15. @EvoEdu: You have every right to feel that my statement arrogant. However, that was not my intention.

    Yes, I am speaking from my viewpoint as a vocal atheist. If people ask me for my advice I am not going to sugar coat my opinions for fear of offending. I do understand where you are coming from as I am often surprised by the arrogance of religious claims. That is just one of the reasons why I don’t ask pastors for advice. I have to assume that a person who writes in to “Ask Surly Amy” wants my honest account.

    As for feeling like an outcast in the skeptical movement, well that is something that I can not control. Yes, it would seem that the majority of skeptics are atheist or agnostic just as are most polled scientists. That doesn’t mean that that a theist-scientist is any less a part of science or is incapable of doing great work and the same goes for skepticism. I would hope that you will set your feelings aside when a topic on this or any other skeptical blog is not something you agree on, as I often do in the presence of my religious friends.

  16. I think it is extremely important to never lie to your children, when you do it messes them up. But I think the Santa myth is a very useful teaching device. When asked “is there a Santa”, one can truthfully say that “some people believe there is, but I have never seen him, but then I have never been to the North Pole.” I am divorced and when I would drive my kids over to my place on Christmas day, I would always warn them in a very serious voice that “I did not hear Santa’s reindeer on the roof last night”. Their maternal grandmother channels Doris Walker of Miracle on 34th Street, so they know Santa is a myth. The same types of belief metaphors can be used when talking about religion. I have 2 siblings that are “born again”, so understanding that teaching children about religion is important so they don’t get sucked into a cult (one sibling was in a cult, his church now is only cult-like).

    I don’t think it is at all arrogant to tell a child that God is like Santa for grown ups. I think it is kinder and gentler (but still essentially a truth they can understand) than the real truth (while they are still children), which is that God is an angry vengeful bogey man that the self-proclaimed religious leaders made up to frighten people and trigger Stockholm Syndrome so they will follow orders so they can be abused and exploited by those self-proclaimed religious leaders.

  17. I have an opinion on this, and, surprizingly, it’s related to why I spend so much at Hallowe’en.

    My kids don’t believe, but they pretend to. It’s all a part of social cohesion, a “white lie” that is more true than bare cynicism.

    That someone would give a gift with no expectation of gratitude is characteristic of “Santa Claus” as much as it is of the parents who credit him, and even more that the parents can’t even expect recognition. It is a lesson that generosity of this type is precidented, acceptable and even expected and a duty, a “spirit” that really exemplifies the best we as social creatures can aspire to.

    Little kids probably can’t understand the philosophical underpinnings of the idea, but when they are more capable, the example is instructive.

    http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474978807259

  18. I’m so glad Norway has a different Santa-tradition. If Santa comes with your gifts in Norway he comes in person on Christmas eve and asks if there are any good children in the house. Kind of makes it hard to fake for older children. I can’t even remember believing in Santa, although I was a bit impressed when he arrived in a one horse open sleigh one year and no adult male in the family had gone out to “get more firewood from the barn”.

  19. I don’t have kids yet. But i remember when i was one: my parents tried to keep the santa myth alive. I just couldn’t believe them, so wanting to prove them wrong, and confirm this for me, i tried to stay awake, set up traps for “Santa” to wake me up… every year in the last years of the Santa myth i tried to surprise my parents putting gifts under the tree. Unfortunately, as a child, i never could wake up, not even when the “traps”, like a bell tied to a string to the door, worked.

    In the end i figured it out by myself. I sure do remember that some of my buddies at school had a real hard time believing me when i told them Santa was not real. Some even spent that whole day in silence, almost crying. The will to believe is so strong that no matter what you say people will be hurt and sad when their beliefs are being contradicted.

  20. @mrmisconception:

    I pretended I believed in Santa much longer then I actually did simply because I didn’t want to hurt my parents feelings. After all, they worked pretty hard to keep the myth alive, going as far as picking all of the carrots out of the snow after I threw them out for the reindeer the night before Christmas. Plus I had a bit of the Peter Pan syndrome (:

  21. My sister, who is 10 years older than me, took it upon herself to inform me Santa was fake when I was about 5 or so. I think she was pissed at mom for making her watch me.

    It really didn’t upset me. I think I was relieved – it explained why “Santa’s” gifts sucked. My mom was not an imaginative stocking stuffer. Plus, it also explained why Santa used the same wrapping paper as mom.

    I don’t really think it’s all that bad but my husband hates it. Good thing we don’t have kids.

  22. “Ask them how they found their evidence and then use the Santa myth as a way to explain other crazy things people believe in. That way when they come asking why your family doesn’t believe in a god but the neighbors do. You can simply explain:

    Remember how you figured out there is no Santa? Well, their god is just like Santa. They just haven’t figured out he’s not real yet.”

    This comparison also really rubs me the wrong way, and I do think it comes across as condescending and arrogant, although I agree with Amy and Rebecca that it’s great to let your kids to believe in Santa, then later praise their critical thinking skills when they realize he isn’t real. I plan to do this with my own kids.

    Then again, I feel in general that it’s a mistake to teach our children that people who believe in God are deluded, or naive, or foolish, and just haven’t come to see the light “yet.” They can make up their own minds about that later. Seems like a guaranteed way of helping them develop an instant superiority complex, and makes them no less insufferable than the kids going around confidently believing that non-believers are headed for an eternity in the fiery pits of hell.

    I realize most people here will disagree with me, and that’s fine — like Elyse says, there’s no right way to parent.

  23. From the Fox dictionary.

    Santa: A cultural and sometime religious iconic figure who’s modern representation is based on fictional literary archetypes and early Twentieth Century advertising campaigns. Also a perfectly suitable tongue in cheek tradition used by parents to enhance the imaginations and seasonal enjoyment of small children. Actual belief in said character is best avoided by parents and children alike given the potential for residual emotional distress.

  24. It reminds me of a conversation between my 4yo niece and my sister. My sister took the position that Santa is a fun game we like to play at Christmas, while my niece was insisting that Santa is real.

    After a few exchanges, my sister said “ok, if Santa is real, then I don’t need to buy you a present.”
    My niece replied “Oh, Aunty, he’s not THAT real!”

    So, who knows what the best strategy is. Kids entertain a richer fantasy world than adults do, and (at least to me) seem to be better able to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

    If adults were really good at distinguishing between fantasy and reality, would woo or religion even exist?

  25. My parents’ insistence that Santa/the Tooth Fairy/the Easter Bunny/etc. were real is one of the things that turned me into a skeptic: I remember at *five* coming to my mom and dad and saying that my best friend saw her dad put the money under her pillow, so there was no Tooth Fairy. They immediately claimed he was the Tooth Fairy.

    I mostly remember being annoyed that my parents were so thickheaded as to never admit that these beings were fictional. I think they thought it was cute that I was a little skeptic.

    Mind you, at the same time I thought that if I wished on the first star of the evening, I could get wings. I spent many evenings trying to watch the sky for the first star, and worrying over the variables: did it count if the first star was really a planet? If I looked at the star again after I wished on it, did it negate the wish? Did it count if I saw the first star, but another star was out behind a tree? Etc.

  26. Fun and games aside, if your child really asks you “for real” for the truth, you have to tell it to them, or talk to them in ways that they can figure it out for themselves.

    I disagree that there is anything wrong with telling them that God is like Santa for adults because it might make them feel superior. Knowing how to read, do math, and think clearly might also make them feel superior to those who cannot, but no one is suggesting keeping children illiterate and innumerate to keep them from feeling superior.

    Religious parents are teaching their children to feel superior because God loves them and doesn’t love people who don’t believe in Him or who worship Him in ways different than how the parents worship Him. They are also teaching their children to hate and treat badly people who do not believe as they do, for example with hate speech against gays and Muslims. Maybe not all religious people do this, but virtually all religious people do give religious people who do practice hate speech a free pass. A majority of Californians voted against allowing gay marriage.

    People who have put aside myths that are used to divide people against each other, to discriminate and to hate groups that are not like them are entitled to feel superior to those who have not. Feeling superior doesn’t entitle you to abuse people, but not abusing people does entitle you to feel superior to those who do abuse people. Such people should feel superior because they are.

  27. It’s a nice game. I grew up in god-free household, we did Father Christmas and I did it again with my son. I don’t know if I ever really believed, any more than as an adult I believe in Neo, when I’m watching the Matrix but I still think anyone telling me, “It’s not real, you know, a man could never move like that” is a bit of a killjoy.

  28. I have no intentions to be honest to my children about most anything. A parent does their kids a disservice by not forcing them to figure out things. Giving one’s kids all the facts all the time teaches them to trust authority rather than to figure things out. I can’t wait to bullshit the fuck out of my kids.

  29. My kids get the full-on Santa lie. They also get a load of magic tricks, and for exactly the same reason. Sooner or later, they need to figure out that people lie and cheat and that things aren’t always what they seem. Better they work this out in a safe, rational and forgiving environment than in the real world of scams, hustles, quacks and cults.

    Right now (preschool) they have no problem believing that Daddy can magically produce chocolate coins from thin air, which is fantastic.

    If you’re worried about your kids falling prey to the woo, bear in mind that while God has abstinence, crucifixion and damnation, Science has Dinosaurs, Rockets and Robots. Science totally wins.

  30. @daedalus2u: …but no one is suggesting keeping children illiterate and innumerate to keep them from feeling superior.

    No one here is suggesting that (AFAIK), but isn’t that exactly what the separatist religious nutjobs (specifically, the quiverfull and similar groups) are all about? And by not being superior, they prove their superiority. (Actually, it’s about paternal power, but they justify it that way.)

  31. @Buzz Parsec: That is exactly what theists complain about when they want their beliefs to be given a pass and not be treated with skepticism.

    Theists want your children to be taught that their religion is as good as (actually better than) your skepticism. They do want your children to be kept ignorant of the psychology behind religious myths.

  32. @daedalus2u: I think we’re agreeing…? Keeping kids ignorant so they won’t feel superior to other ignorant kids is a dumb argument, but I think these nut jobs are doing exactly that to prevent their kids from feeling superior to *them*, especially their girl kids to keep them from feeling superior (or even equal) to their fathers, brothers, boy children and potential inseminaters. I know this is off in a tangent from what you were saying. It just struck me a another reason why it is important for children to have reality-based education. Not that there is anything wrong with fantasy, but learning to tell the difference is a major point of education, as far as I’m concerned.

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