I never believed that Santa Claus actually existed. I have a multitude of memories of conversations with my parents in which we agreed that it was “fun to pretend”, and they always encouraged an imaginative Christmas experience for me and my siblings, but never did I actually think (though I might have secretly hoped, as I strained to hear reindeer hooves on our roof while I tried to fall asleep) that he was real.
God, on the other hand--I always assumed that God was real. For at least an hour per week since pretty much the time I was born, I visited a place where I was surrounded by a community that not only took for granted but also publicly proclaimed the fact (so to speak) that there is a God and the Bible is the truth about Him. I never questioned it. I attributed all mysterious and coincidental things to Him, and yet every small noise that came through the ceiling above my bed over all those Christmas Eves I regretfully but quickly dismissed, knowing that it could not possibly be Santa’s sleigh.
Isn’t that weird? Decades in the fold, and I honestly never found it strange that Santa Claus was nonsensical to me and God was a given. But now, as an ex-Christian, and especially during this time of year, I think about these things and a sort of lighthearted embarrassment for my younger self sets in. I and many others consider it strange and pitiful when a child who seems too old to be believing in Santa Claus still does so, and yet it is largely acceptable, at least in U.S. society, for people to go their whole lives maintaining a stable and active belief in a literal deity. Why is this? And why did I, an intellectually and critically-oriented person, do it too?
Well, first of all, we know who puts the presents under the tree. Only the most unobservant (or intentionally myopic) of kids with the sneakiest of parents go their entire childhoods without realizing that all that stuff comes from mom and dad. And, if one doesn’t realize it when one is young, one will certainly have to figure it out when one has offspring of one’s own. In other words, the science of Christmas is pretty basic. The science of our world, however--the science of the universe--is still largely undiscovered. There is so much we humans don’t understand about how all this got here and even how the world works, from the micro to macro levels, on a daily basis. This is where religion and theism have come in; this is where magical thinking helps: as an explanation, a reason. Yes, in an increasingly scientifically-oriented world, our species is moving toward a more rational comprehension of where all the cool stuff we see every morning comes from, but it is also understandable what purpose a deity or set of deities could serve for humankind--including my significance-seeking self--in this regard.
Similarly, we grown-ups know that it’s physically impossible not only for a human to travel to every household on the planet to drop off presents over the course of one night, but also for a bunch of flying reindeer to be his mode of transportation on this incredible journey. It’s not just grown-ups who know this, of course; for many clever young children, coming to this realization is the beginning of the end of their belief in Santa. Yet many Christians and other theists who know that the mythic story of Santa cannot happen still readily believe that this world is full of miracles that would not be physically possible but for the supernatural intervention of a god or gods. Perhaps the persistence of these beliefs goes back to that seemingly intrinsic need we humans have to identify some concrete reason for mysterious events, whether it be scientifically demonstrable evidence or the existence of metaphysical power that must be taken on faith. Even given that, though, it seems a contradiction. How can a Christian believer accept that miracles are a fact of the universe and at the same time be weirded out (at least one would expect) by an adult who sincerely believed in Santa? Paradoxical as it may sound, I know that these types of believers exist and I know that I was one. In the end maybe it’s just basic confirmation bias leading to the most widespread form of hypocrisy: we tend to keep going with what we’ve already invested in, and we tend to forget our own fallibility when we’re looking critically at others.
Finally, there’s what is perhaps considered the most troubling part of the Santa Claus story: the idea that he is keeping tabs on every person all year long, and that he then uses this information to determine whether he will give a person a delightful gift or a mean, shitty one. Adults know, generally, that the line between good and bad behavior is not quite so precise and categorical in “the real world”, and that often, regardless of behavior, one does not always get what one deserves. Still, many Christians, including the one I used to be, do believe that there is God who is watching over us at every moment--not just in a protective way, but in an investigatory way. And--though there are Bible verses to contradict it--many believe that, generally speaking, God gives to or withholds from people according to their obedience. This is called "the Prosperity Gospel," and at its most extreme it involves an expectation that God wants his people to be rich and healthy and overall comfortable. In my experience, most Evangelicals participate in a more subtle form of the prosperity gospel that doesn’t necessarily have as much to do with material wealth as it does with emotional convenience. In any case, though, the situation begs the question: why is Santa’s spying creepy and God’s is not? It could be because grown-ups know that sometimes we have to tell some bizarre stories to keep children in line as they’re learning to navigate the world in a safe and compassionate way, thus using Christmas presents as a carrot becomes appropriate in context. Wouldn’t adults, though, want to be free of the watch-dog? Isn't that the privilege we earn by growing up? I know that I’ve enjoyed relying on intrinsically motivated morality as a non-believer much more than I ever did basing my actions and choices on fear of divine punishment or reward...but maybe that’s just me.
The more I think about Santa Claus, the more comforted I feel about my decision to be honest about, rather than fight against, my deep-seated non-belief. I wish I could say I saw behind the curtain of theism as an adult just like I knew it was merely “fun to pretend” in Santa as a kid. But, for better or worse, my belief in God was devout, sincere, and literal, well into my 20s. Clearly there are reasons why a person chooses to participate in visions of the world that are belied by the physical realities we see in front of us, but, much like a human develops with increasing sophistication from certain modes of thinking and acting to others as she ages, as a species we seem to be evolving past the need for a fundamentalist supernatural narrative on the whole. I hope this is a good thing. I do think there is a place for mythology, magical thinking, and all the like in human life; in fact I think they're quite worthwhile (I am a writer, after all). But it's also crucial to know when a story is a story, and be honest about it. It's not that fiction is less important than fact; it's that it serves a different function. If we mix them up, things become dysfunctional. If we're going to pretend, let's pretend responsibly.