Does Father Christmas exist? Why we teach our children to believe in Santa Claus

In this extract from his new book, Big Bang Theory writer Eric Kaplan explores why the Father Christmas story is passed down the generations

Eric Kaplan
Thursday 11 December 2014 20:33
People pass Father Frost as he takes a break during Orthodox Christmas' eve festival in Kiev
People pass Father Frost as he takes a break during Orthodox Christmas' eve festival in Kiev

The ontology of Santa Claus didn’t impinge on my life until my son, Ari, was in reception class. Ari did not believe in Santa Claus. He was supposed to go to the zoo in early December with his friend Schuyler, and Schuyler’s mother, Tammi, called me up and said she didn’t want her son to go because there were reindeer there, and reindeer, she felt, would lead to a discussion of Santa Claus.

Tammi’s son did believe in Santa Claus: he was still firmly a sweet child and not yet in sour and rebellious teenager territory, and she wanted him, at least for a while, to stay that way. So Tammi wanted to cancel the playdate to ensure that Ari would not tell her son, “There is no Santa – he’s just your parents”, and shake his belief.

I found this a troubling interaction because I thought Tammi was sacrificing her son’s friendship with Ari, who was real, in order to preserve his relationship with Santa Claus, who was not. Why was I so sure he didn’t exist? Not because I’ve never seen him – I’ve never seen Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli and she exists, or at least did as of this writing. And not because if I went to the North Pole, I wouldn’t see him and his elves – just a lot of snow and ice and so forth – because there are any number of explanations that would square with that. Santa might emit a field from his beard that makes people miss him, the elves might have a machine that causes light to bend, or I could have met him and then been convinced by Mrs Claus to undergo brain surgery that erased my memory.

No, the real reason, I’m sure, is that nobody had ever told me that he did, and belief in Santa Claus did not fit in with a number of other things I knew to be true – eg, reindeer don’t fly, toys come from the store, etc.

I told this story to my daughter, who’s 11 years-old, and she said: “I believe in Santa Claus.” I also asked her if she believed in the Easter bunny and she said: “Yes. I’m a kid, so I believe in everything.”

I told this story to my wife, who is a psychologist raised in Communist Romania, and she said something along the lines of “Western parents lie to their children about this stupidity, and then the children grow up and find out their parents lied to them. No wonder American children are screwed up.” I remained puzzled by Tammi’s behaviour. I could think of two possible solutions:

The liar explanation

For some reason back in the past, children were taught to believe in Santa Claus – probably because their parents thought it was a good way to scare them into being good. When the children grew up and stopped believing in Santa Claus, they decided it would be a good idea to trick their children into believing. So society is basically divided into two groups of people – the liars and the lied to. The liars have motivations ranging from the benevolent (parents presumably) to the self- interested (the sellers of Christmas merchandise, politicians who want a national myth that will unite a nation of immigrants). Let’s be blunt and call this the liar story. I’ve observed evidence that the liar story is true. I work in Hollywood, which pumps a lot of images and stories out into the consciousness of the globe.

When we were writing an episode of a television show called The Big Bang Theory, in which the character Sheldon kills Santa Claus in a Dungeons and Dragons game, one of the writers wanted to be sure that our story left the existence of Santa Claus open, because his kids were going to watch the show and they believed in Santa Claus. Of course, since he was a writer for a US sitcom that is supported by commercials, his benevolent motivations for lying meshed with the less benevolent motivations of our advertisers.

The crazy explanation

Another solution to the puzzle was that something in Tammi’s mind is divided or dissociated. So, according to this theory, it’s possible that a part of Tammi’s mind does believe in Santa Claus. She doesn’t talk about it when she talks to other adults, but when alone with her child, she believes. The part of Tammi that believes in Santa might not even be a part that has access to her mouth. So she might never say, “I believe in Santa Claus”, but she is disposed to have dreams, fantasies, and feelings related to Saint Nick.

As a consequence, she is uncomfortable with having her son lose faith in Santa Claus because some system in her brain believes, too. How can one person believe and not believe in Santa Claus? If you are a strong proponent of the conspiracy story, you may not believe that this is the case – you might think that if she ever does confess to Santa belief, she is just lying. After all, she buys toys at the store – how can she honestly maintain that they come down the chimney?

Santa Claus and Krampus (devil) on an Austrian Christmas card from around 1910 (Imagno/Austrian Archives)

But people believe different things at different times and in different contexts. Let’s imagine that Tammi goes home and goes to bed. As she drifts off to sleep, she hears a voice in her head, one that sounds like her own. It says, “Santa does exist. I remember waiting for him to come. How do I know he didn’t? Yes, part of me thinks he didn’t come and never will, but why should I listen to that part?” Tammi has a couple of different Tammis inside her. She has the Tammi who once believed in Santa but now buys toys from the store, and she has the Tammi who still does believe in Santa. This Tammi feels good when she thinks about Santa and angry when she thinks about my son not believing in Santa. This Tammi can effortlessly respond to Santa images and Santa television shows and songs about Santa.

Tammi’s self could be divided; she could be more than one of her Tammis at the same time – that is, she could have one voice in her head that says, “Of course Santa Claus does not exist”, and another voice that says, “I hope he brings me something good!” Or her self could be divided across time. That is, she could make fun of Santa Claus all year long until Christmas season and then talk during the Christmas season as if she does believe in the jolly old saint. Since it invokes voices in the head, let us call this, uncharitably, the crazy explanation.

The liar and the crazy explanations are similar on a deep level because while liar appeals to dissociation on the interpersonal level, crazy appeals to dissociation on the intrapersonal level. Societies run by conspiracies built on lies are schizophrenic; crazy people lie to themselves.

In the crazy explanation, there is some kind of disunity within Tammi – there is a part of her that believes and a part that doesn’t believe. In the liar explanation, there is a disunity – there is a part that believes and a part that doesn’t believe. And in both, there is something sort of screwed up about the relationship among these parts.

You can even switch the explanations. You can say that Tammi is lying to herself, or that we’re a little crazy on the subject of Santa Claus. Is the liar or the crazy explanation correct? Versions of both of them are found throughout rationalist critiques of religion and scientific accounts of human behaviour in general.

Barrack Obama dances alongside Father Christmas at the lighting of the US National Christmas tree

For example:

Marxism – liar. Priests lie to people to keep the powerful in power: “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.”

Psychoanalysis – crazy. People’s minds create irrational beliefs to defend against all the psychic pressure they’re under, what with death and wanting to sleep with their mothers and so on.

Neurobiology – crazy. People have evolved modules in their brains that perceive humans as existing because it was evolutionarily important to know if somebody was in your cave with you. When we think that Santa exists, it’s because that chunk of nerve tissue is firing when we don’t need it to, just as hay fever comes when our sneeze reflex is triggered by some antigen that’s not really sneeze-worthy.

Meme theory – liar because crazy. Memes are programs of cultural DNA; they replicate if, and only if, they force us to believe them and spread them.

In discussions like this, we are usually ready to have our beliefs challenged and to hear the experts lay down some science. However, one thing science can’t do is tell us what stand to take on science as an approach to reality and the rest of our lives. Some scientists and philosophers of science will deny this and say that of course science tells us how we should approach our lives and the rest of reality. Obviously, science tells us that we should do it scientifically. But when they’re saying that, they’re not doing science – they’re doing science journalism, or maybe science advocacy.

Science doesn’t tell us what we should think about science. To see how this is so, all you have to do is take any of those explanations above – Marxist, psychoanalytical, neurobiological, or meme – and apply it to itself. Thus, Marxists believe in Marxism only because it’s in their class interests to do so; psychoanalysts believe in psychoanalysis only as a defence against anxiety; neuroscientists believe in neuroscience only because their brains have evolved to see causation; and meme theorists believe in memes only because the meme complex called meme theory has hijacked their brains and made them replicate it.

These theories all explain themselves just as much as they explain Santa Claus. So it can’t be the case that just because something has a supposedly scientific explanation, we should stop believing in it, or we would stop believing in scientific explanations.

Father Christmas tastes the 12 ice-creams of Christmas at the opening of Harrods Christmas World department (Getty Images)

You might think it’s obvious that if Tammi says that she believes in Santa, she is crazy or lying, and back up your argument by the correct points that crazy people don’t know they are crazy, and liars usually lie about whether they are lying.

But I’d like to formulate the issue of Santa Claus as one of resolving an internal tension within a self, and an external tension between one self and others. It lets us get at the issue that there is something a bit funny about believing in Santa Claus without appealing to murky notions of correspondence between the content of internal beliefs and external reality.

I’m interested in the things that we are not sure we believe, half believe, believe sometimes but not always, maybe hope we believe but don’t as much as we want to, maybe wish to stop believing but are not sure who we would be if we did. I want to investigate what the best attitude is to take towards these things, both personally and as a community, and to see if we can come up with something better than screaming at each other (or at the recalcitrant parts of ourselves) “you’re a liar!” and “you’re crazy!”

If Santa Claus is that for you, fine. If you happen not to believe in Santa Claus, maybe because some wise-ass kid like my son told you that he doesn’t exist, pick something you believe in but isn’t universally acknowledged as real. I would suggest the point of your life and, in fact, everything. Your life will end someday, and so will everything else – given that, what is the point of doing anything at all?

If you’re like most people, I would guess that you don’t have a single firm answer to the question “What is the point of your life?” and that you oscillate among several, so whatever your answer is functions as your own personal Santa Claus.

‘Does Santa Exist?’, by Eric Kaplan (£12.99, Little Brown) is out now

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