Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

AI: Who is Doing Santa?

The answer to that question might be Mrs. Claus or the elves.

But really the actual question I am getting at is who is celebrating with the Santa story as part of their holiday festivities?

Every year a battle is waged in two camps of the skeptical and the atheist communities. One camp says that it teaches a terrible message to the children that parents are big bad liars if they perpetuate the Santa myth. The other camp says that letting children figure out the holiday lie teaches a wonderful lesson in skepticism an critical thinking. Plus, it’s fun and less alienating from the community to simply play along.

Won’t someone PLEEEEEEAAAASE think of the CHILDREN!

Also, this. Just because it’s awesome and it’s now part of my holiday tradition.

So tell me readers, who is playing along with the Santa myth this year and who isn’t. And why is that?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. The Santa myth is different in Norway. Santa comes in person on Christmas eve to give the kids their presents. And, at least when I grew up, there isn’t the same pressure to keep Santa’s non-reality a secret. When the kids figure out that the guy in the mask is dad, you don’t pretend he’s just standing in this year because Santa is busy, you just say “Yeah, but don’t tell your little brother. ;)”

    And the time Santa arrived in a one horse open sleigh, wore a big fur coat and came while neither my dad or my uncle “had to get some more firewood” was totally awesome, despite me being 7 or 8 (possibly even older) at the time and not believing in Santa.

  2. We don’t do Santa, instead we have The Xmas Shoggoth… but that aside…

    I learned critical thinking as a child from my dad, not because he was a kind educator, but because he is a writer and was always telling big, overwrought half-truths about anything and everything. It was a game to catch him at it, and the only way to win was to puzzle out the facts vs. fiction. If you’re into that, it was a fun way to learn. Santa was one of those. I still remember sneaking around in the middle of the night on Christmas eve, collecting evidence to disprove the whole Santa thing.

  3. I like the Santa myth. It has nothing to do with religion and it’s a game. Sure Santa isn’t real. And the kids aren’t really soldiers or cowboys or zombies when they play that, either. No Santa? Might as well not dress up on Halloween, either…

    Of course, I have another reason for liking Santa. My family’s tradition was always to open our presents from each other on xmas eve and then we’d wake up to more presents from Santa on xmas morning. Two rounds of presents! (Then it was “gimme gimme gimme!” and now I have far more fun giving.)

    1. I agree. It’s fun, it teaches kids good imagination skills, and when they figure it out, it gives them that clear boost into “now I’m a big kid, and I share a secret with the grown ups”. There’s nothing better than seeing a newly-awakened child go back into a Christmas party and go out of their way to keep the myth going for the ‘little kids’.

      It boosts empathy, gives kids a selfless role model, and makes Christmas a little more fun.

  4. I never actually told my kids Santa exists. I did ask them questions, though. The older one eventually asked me outright and I replied with, “What do you think?” He said no. I nodded and said, “But Grandma likes to pretend, so maybe you can play along.” He seemed OK with that. The younger one hasn’t brought up the subject lately but I’m guessing he’s been humoring Grandma for a while now.

  5. Never believed in Santa myself (I was a skeptic early on), but I liked the Pagan influence. My brother and I officially still believe in him, because otherwise, we don’t get stockings. For us, it was an extra surprise, something wildly impractical or cool that we weren’t expecting at all. We celebrate Yule (my fiance is a Heathen), so Santa has no Christian associations for us. I draw the line at the Krampus, though. Google it on images and you’ll understand…

  6. Christmas was never religious when I was growing up, but my parents did pretend that Santa existed. The presents under the tree were always labeled as to who they were actually from, but the little presents in our stockings were “From Santa”. We left cookies for him too. It eventually became my duty to eat the cookies to maintain the illusion for my younger siblings who hadn’t figured it out yet, a duty I did not object to!

  7. I am aghast by the full-on Santa deniers amongst us.

    Do we no see the proof of his miracle each Yule time? Was it not handed down through time immemorial that he is to be revered within the heart of every child? Do his ash covered heels and sooty cape not grace the fire pits of the lowliest amongst us as well as the richest?

    How, you say, can you believe in something that has never been seen you ask. If we examine the literature we find the following description in A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore.

    He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,
    And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
    A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
    And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack;
    His eyes how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
    His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
    His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
    And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
    The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
    And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.
    He had a broad face, and a little round belly
    That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
    He was chubby and plump—a right jolly old elf;
    And I laughed when I saw him in spite of myself.

    In this description of the visitation by the spirit in his St. Nick guise we see that he is indeed manifest and real. He may be known by other names such as Santa Claus (via the Dutch Sinterklaas), Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, and many more but in our hearts and souls he lives every year.

    Mongomery Ward may occasionally saddle him with additional reindeer, Thomas Nast may try to steal his countenance, and Coca-Cola may attempt to profit from association with his likeness but still his motives remain pure.

    As Francis P. Church once said when replying to little girl named Virgina;

    Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world…

    Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

    Come to think of it, that’s a load of horseapples. Santa Claus is a harmless lie that, as long as it is not perpetuated beyond the child’s first questioning, can serve as a valuable lesson about life;
    The sooner they learn that the sooner they can keep from being exploited.

    Wow, that got dark.

  8. It was made clear that if I stopped believing in Santa, I would no longer get presents from Santa. And with a bow and a nod, to this day, at 42, I profess belief in Santa. (Note…no god belief involved, simply Santa belief.) I think I’ve made it into a decent critical thinker nonetheless. But, then again, I’m one of those folks who like pink PlayStation controllers, so my judgement isn’t necessarily to be trusted :)

  9. I don’t remember if I ever really believed in Santa, but we still put the biggest gifts, things we couldn’t wrap, and the stuff in the stockings out on Christmas night and label a few things as being from Santa. My mom started a thing that my sister keeps up, which is labeling gifts as being from the dog, the cat, and now her baby as well as Santa. It seems awful to me to take that away from kids when all their friends are doing it, just like I always felt sorry for the Jehova’s Witness kids who couldn’t have birthday cupcakes at school. The whole point of skepticism is to not be unreasonable zealots about our beliefs. I see no reason to act like participating in a harmless tradition that has lost any vestiges of religious connotations is somehow sinning against Skepticism.

  10. My husband and I have no problem pretending Santa with my daughter. She is three and has never ‘believed’ in Santa. Santa is in the same category as the easter bunny and Dora. We love reading fun stories and she likes to see Santa at the mall. (Honestly, it adds to the fun!) I think that most of this stuff is a nice thought and it is apart of the community celebrating. Do we ‘believe’ in Santa; no. Do we play and have fun; hell yes…year around in fact! :)

  11. I honestly cannot recall what my brother and sister-in-law are doing with the girls re: Santa.

    Completely unrelated, am I the only one who hates how “brother and sister-in-law” sounds? It sounds like a shortened version of “brother-in-law and sister-in-law”, but the alternative, “sister-in-law and brother” sounds completely wrong as well; I have the same problem with “sister and brother-in-law”, though less acute, since I lack sisters.

  12. First, dig the Surly reindeer! May have to skip over to Etsy momentarily.

    Well, I love to eat homentashen, and charoset on matzo, and have never been Jewish, so I can’t throw stones at my atheist compadres who do Santa.

    My favoritest xmas tradition is going to see the ultimate Christmas ballet that not once references baby jesus, Mary, stables, stars, myrrh, peace, goodwill, crosses, god, etc? A Christmas ballet basically dedicate to childhood greed in which a little girl falls in love with a toy, dreams about candy and adolescent romance? In which the best adult character is a slightly insane scientist-doctor? A “Herr Doktor” at that? SUCK IT, BABY JEBUS! I love the Nutcracker!

    1. Must. Start. Proofreading. Before. Hitting Submit. Button.
      Meant to change all those question marks to periods.

  13. We don’t pretend Santa is real. To my 4-year-old daughter, “Santa” is a story. She even said “Reindeer can’t really fly, right?”

  14. We “do” Santa. I’m not even that coy about it with my son. If he asks if Santa is real I say, “Heck,yeah!”. There’s plenty of time for him to learn there’s no real magic. He’ll spend the majority of his years well grounded in reality. Why not let him believe in magic while he’s still capable of it? When he grows up he’ll lose the ability to believe in magic and he’ll be a good critical thinker, but for now he gets to be a character in a fantasy story where beloved little boys have their dreams come true once a year.

  15. My son is way too young for Santa, but the plan is to tell him that it’s a make-believe game that some parents play with their kids, and that we can play too if he wants. Best of both worlds, imo.

  16. I’m down with playing along. I actually think the Santa myth can be a very valuable teaching tool for children in terms of critical thinking and learning to question beliefs. For many, many, many kids, the process of gradually coming to understand there’s no such thing as Santa is their first introduction to the process of questioning cultural beliefs and coming to their own conclusions. That’s a pretty important thing! Personally, my process of becoming atheist was DIRECTLY related to the process of concluding there was no Santa (I clinged to the latter belief with all my little heart).

    1. Santa was important in my becoming an atheist too. Though they gave me a secular upbringing, my parents told me there was a God. They also told me there was a Santa. When I realized the latter was fictional, it seemed only logical that the former was as well.

  17. We don’t do Santa in our house. And I’ve been told that my children are going to grow up deprived and without any imagination. I’ve been told I’m ruining Christmas. I’m reminded every year that I’m a terrible parent. People make me promise at knifepoint that my kids won’t be the ones to reveal to other kids that Santa isn’t real. I will undo the magic of Christmas for everyone in the world. I am stepping into revolutionary, unprecedented and dangerous territory. Because there’s no such thing as a childhood without Santa.

    So every year I just put a little money,folded inside a “Sorry I ruined your life” card,into my kids’ stockings. I explain to them that we’re saving up for their bail money for when they become drug lords. And remind them that Mama gets a discount on barbiturates and benzos.

    1. There’s no way for a mom to win, is there? I get told I’m ruining my son’s life by LYING to him and that when he finds out what a big old LIAR I am, he’ll hate me and his father and spend the rest of his life mistrusting all other people because his mom is a horrible LYING crotch!! No wonder I drink. To hide from my shame. I can’t wait until he’s old enough to make me a decent cocktail. Hmmmmm, maybe Santa can bring him Baby’s First Bartending Set. In blue, of course.

      1. Kammy, in that case, the only choice is to ramp up the weird, and hope they back off enough to leave you alone about the little stuff.

      2. @Kammy
        Those people need to be loudly and vigorously told to STFU.
        That’s my opinion anyway.

        I’ve always wanted to get business cards made with the following message;

        Thank you for taking an active interest in the welfare
        of our family. Your opinion has been duly noted and
        filed and if the occasion should come that it is needed
        you will receive a timely thank-you note.
        Until such time we ask that you please mind your own
        damned business and kindly file this card in a place
        where sunlight cannot reach it.
        Thank you,
        The Management

        Unfortunately I feel like I would be on my third printing at this point. That is unless I were to ask my mother for her stack back; first printing in that case.

    2. Jebus people can be real pieces of… of… work sometimes!

      Do they set down a necessary reading list to assure your inclusion in the parenthood club too? What happens if you skip Goodnight Moon?

      You should introduce them all to Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo. That aught to shut ’em up.

      Santa is just another story, if you don’t decide to partake why is it any of their business? Honestly.

      1. People have a lot of emotional hangups about Santa. I am really uncomfortable with the idea of lying to my kid.

        I think in the end though, what bothered me most about Santa was the lengths parents will go to in order to keep Santa from being discovered. Rather than encouraging them to explore the clues and figure out the truth about Santa themselves, parents work very hard to thwart their kids’ critical thinking skills. From weaving elaborate webs of lies to threatening them with no presents if they stop believing. THAT makes me uncomfortable.

        But people get really angry with me… I must answer pointed questions like what SPECIFIC harm came to me personally from growing up in a house with a Santa? Like I dare do anything different from other parents if it didn’t result in irreversible trauma.

        But the thing about kids is that you don’t have to tell them something is real for them to make it real. To my 4 year old son, Lightening McQueen and Buzz Lightyear are no less his real friends than anyone at his school. I didn’t have to tell him that cars actually talk for him to make that happen. And I won’t have to tell him that cars don’t actually talk when he eventually moves on to new “more real” friends one day.

        One thing I’ve learned is that I don’t get much say in my kids’ imaginations. Their heads are plenty capable of creating all kinds of magic without me interfering.

    3. I got the same response to the fact we don’t do Santa at our house. My brother came out with your cruel, he won’t have any imagination etc as well. Actually they disagreed with our calling Christmas day present day as well.

  18. Just smile, plant your tongue firmly in your cheek, and tell the kids Santa likes single malt Scotch and dark chocolate, same as (insert parental caregiver name here). Problem solved.

  19. My memories of Christmas as a child is that it was fucking awesome. I can’t remember ever being that excited at the prospect of something. I guess because of that I understand parents wanting to let their kids experience it. It’s the only time you can believe in made-up nonsense without fear of ridicule from people like us. :)

    That said, I applaud parents who have the “decency”, to tell their kids the truth.

    My arse hurts from sitting on the fence.

    It’s probably difficult decisions like these that make me glad I don’t have children.

    Merry Christmas,


  20. I find this whole topic massively confusing. I can’t remember ever believing Santa was anyone but dad in a beard and a red hat, and it strikes me as really weird that any kid would actually fall for it. I mean, it was such an OBVIOUS lie. Once me and my brothers got a little older and clearly too embarrassed by the masquerade, we switched to simply leaving all the gifts under the tree on the day before christmas eve, and then having one of us (usually me or my youngest brother) handing out the gifts on christmas eve after the traditional Disney reel.

    Yes, Sweden has a traditional Disney reel on christmas eve. This is a very strange country. The funny thing is I didn’t use to like it when I was a kid, but these days it’s hilarious. The whole family knows every crappy line by heart by now.

    1. Norway has the same, but whole generations of Norwegian prefer the version dubbed in Swedish. Not because Swedish is a better language, but when we grew up it was either Swedish Disney on SVT or American Disney on NRK. Now that we’ve got Norwegian Disney we don’t like it, since it’s not how Christmas is supposed to sound.


      1. Haha, really? Well, to be fair, I think the Swedish dub of Jungle Book is better than the original. Actually I think that goes for a lot of Disney cartoons, but that’s probably because I can’t stand the excessively … american style.

        (But of course Swedish is a better language! ;) )

      2. There were two highlights on Xmas eve in Norway when I was a kid. The Disney and other cartoons on NRK, and the presents (obviously) … and of course there was Narnia during the Xmas week.

        There was nothing better than getting up in the morning, getting dressed, smelling my mothers cooking while watching cartoons all day on TV :)

  21. One of my favorite jokes as a kid:
    Why doesn’t Mrs. Claus have any kids?
    Because Santa only comes once a year, and that’s down the chimney.

    One of the posters at the A/A forum, 1meow, has a wonderful approach to this:

    I don’t recall ever believing in Santa. My older brother and I were good at finding the hidden presents. When my brother was very young, he saw our father eating Santa’s cookies, and he figured it out. Of course he told his little sister! No trauma. Santa was just a happy pretend story for my family.

  22. We do St. Nick on 5th December (local Czech Custom), while Xmas for me is: visiting parents/ex-inlaws, buying kids presents and generally getting exhausted and flustered in the snow, whereupon it is considered (by me) valid to get regularly snockered just ot survive.
    Yes, White Wine in the Sun is going to be a regular feature.

  23. We don’t do Santa Claus at christmas, but we do celebrate Sinterklaas on the 5th of december. I don’t really see the harm in pretending he’s real. Kids find out soon enough and from that point on it becomes an ordinary holliday (with lots and lots of chocolate!). No big deal. And I guess it can be considered an exercise in skeptical thinking for them to find out, but I’ve never really thought about it that much.

    (Of course the easter bunny is an entirely different matter! Damn that lagomorph fiend!)

  24. I really love that song by Tim Minchin <3

    I actually just posted an animated version of the song on my own blog just the other day. The same that PZ Myers posted.

  25. I have a 10 yr old daughter and a 20 month old son. We do Santa, although I’m quite sure the daughter has it figured out and the 20 month old hasn’t a clue.

    Just not the kind of guy to suck the fun out of my children with my adult-seriousness shop vac 2000. We also tend to watch Christmas cartoons instead of War and famine documentaries and go Christmas light watching excursions instead of OWS protests. Call me old fashioned.

  26. Santa – isn’t – real?!

    *Teary eyes*
    *Runs crying into next room.*

    In all seriousness, it depends on how it is played. I found my parents’ assertions that Santa existed embaressing, because I’d obviously figured it out.

    I think it’s fine to play along, but as long as you come clean if the kids call you out on it it’s fine (and a useful lesson about believing something just because someone says so).

    Play along, pretend, but if you get called out on it, get the kids to talk about why they think that and congratulate them on working it out.

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