December 21, 2008

In Favor of Santa

Father John Dietzen: Dec. 12, 2008

Do believe in Santa

Q: My question isn’t very deep, but with Christmas coming I am concerned about the attitude of some friends who don’t want their children to “believe in Santa Claus.” From almost infancy, they tell their children there isn’t really a Santa and that it was all made up to sell more things at Christmastime. I think they’re missing something, but I’m not sure how to tell them. What do you think? (Florida)

A: I too think they are missing something — very big. It’s always risky to analyze fantasies, but maybe it’s worth trying for a moment.

Fantasies, perhaps especially for children, are critical ways of entering a world, a real world that is closed to us in ordinary human language and happenings. They are doors to wonder and awe, a way of touching something otherwise incomprehensible. Santa Claus, I believe, is like that.

No one has ever expressed this truth more movingly and accurately, in my opinion, than the great British Catholic author G.K. Chesterton in an essay years ago in the London Tablet. On Christmas morning, he remembered, his stockings were filled with things he had not worked for, or made, or even been good for.

The only explanation people had was that a being called Santa Claus was somehow kindly disposed toward him. “We believed,” he wrote, that a certain benevolent person “did give us those toys for nothing. And ... I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

“Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

“Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking.

“Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic good will.”

Are not parents of faith blessed, countless times over, to have for their children (and for themselves) such a fantastic and playful bridge to infinite, unconditionally loving Goodness, the Goodness which dreamed up the Christmas event in the first place?

Call Santa Claus a myth or what you will, but in his name parents, and for that matter all of us who give gifts at this special time of the year, are putting each other in deeper touch with the “peculiarly fantastic good will” who is the ultimate Source of it all. Plus, it’s fun!

I hope your friends reconsider.


Anonymous said...

This is a tough one, and I'm not too hard on those who choose otherwise, but I come down on the side of parents telling children the truth. I expect complete honesty from my kids at all times, no excuses. And I want them to trust that whatever I tell them will be the truth as well. (My brother used to say that he stopped believing in God when he found out Santa wasn't real.)

So what's the truth about Santa? It's a great story. We tell the stories. We read the poems. We sing the songs. We greet Santa in the marketplace. It's fantasy, and a fun one - but the important thing is that they know it's a fantasy. Like Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. They can enjoy it plenty without being deceived by their parents.

By the way - it's about bleeping time you added comments!!!

And Merry Christmas to you and yours!

TS said...

Well given your personal experience (i.e. your brother), I sure understand why you're not taking a chance with your children.

When your kids ask about a pregnancy, I'm thinking you don't mention the stork as having anything to do with it? :-)

And yep I suppose seven years without comments was long enough.

TS said...

They are doors to wonder and awe, a way of touching something otherwise incomprehensible.

Can one experience wonder and awe while knowing something is false? Would your children be as enraptured by Santa as a child who didn't know he wasn't real?

Jim Curley said...

I agree with Jeff-too long without comments. I can't tell you how many times I was going to email you something cause I couldn't leave a comment....

We come down on the same side as Jeff. We may talk about Santa, but really as a story. We answer the question-and about pregnancy too by the way-just at their age level. If they want to know more, (and if they are ready) they'll ask.

We (my 11 bros and sis') didn't believe in Santa growing up-and I turned out okay....I think!

TS said...

Nice to see you here too Jim. Feels like old home week or something, with everybody dropping by. Bill Luse is out of town else he'd be around I'm sure.

On the question of this post, it's always surprising when you guys differ from the great Chesterton!

Jim Curley said...

I am surprised too-although I shouldn't be. Chesterton was a great fan of fantasy... I am not. Tolkein leaves me ... who cares?

I can relate to what he said about lessons and worldview. But kids don't need me to tell them something is true that isn't. I also don't tell them it is false unless they ask.

Anonymous said...

"Can one experience wonder and awe while knowing something is false?

That question answers itself. Should anyone want to experience wonder, awe, etc., at something that is false?

Would your children be as enraptured by Santa as a child who didn't know he wasn't real?

They're not as enraptured at Santa Clause as I was at their age, but the nativity of Jesus Christ has plenty of magic, wonder, and awe of its own, don't you think? And it's real. That has to count for something!

TS said...

The Santa issue actually isn't that important to me except inasmuch as it's fascinating when you guys differ from Chesterton, and what that says about 21st century America.

Recall how many saints without documentable histories were banished from the church calendar around the time of the 2nd Vatican Council. It's a similar situation: the Church, our mother, doesn't want to lie to us anymore. She doesn't want to teach us to believe in saints that don't exist. Something happened to fathers like Jim and Jeff, just as something happened to the Church.

I tend to think that's either the Protestant (Puritan) influence since the Catholic Church came under fire as early as the 1600s for having saints they said were merely legends, or the product of the Enlightment and rationalism that insists truth being only what actually happened. It's probably why fiction and poetry has fallen out of favor and why reality television is so popular.

It's probably just the fact that when society changed from oral to written around the 1500s everything changed. In fact, that's what Neil Postman says in "Amusing Ourselves to Death".

TS said...

A snippet from Postman on the dominating influence of the printing press:

Typography fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and integration. Typography created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Typography made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into mere superstition.

Postman argues not that truth is relative, but that the media affects the way we view truth. He goes on to say that every medium of expression has benefits and drawbacks and that typography obviously has many benefits and, of course, is very preferable to what we have now - television.

Anonymous said...

"It's a similar situation: the Church, our mother, doesn't want to lie to us anymore. She doesn't want to teach us to believe in saints that don't exist."

Ah, but the Church never lied to us about the existence of saints. Those saints still exist, despite being dropped from the Novus Ordo liturgical calendar for highly dubious reasons. (They are still commemorated on the traditional calendar, fully approved by the Church.)

The Church stopped commemorating those saints in the midst of a great crisis of faith, when theologians were embracing the historical-critical method and "debunking" the Bible itself.

The modern world decided all at once that saints, God, miracles and Santas are for children, without distinction. Grown-ups don't believe such foolishness anymore, but isn't it great for the kids! And with the waning of religious belief, things like the Santa Claus myth become much more important.

Apart from this discussion the old manuals of Catholic morality are clear: even the most harmless little white lie is, at minimum, a venial sin. As I tell my kids, God gave us lips to speak the truth, and never to deceive. God is the author of truth; Satan is the father of lies. Choose your side!

TS said...

Well as we all know there are saints with grandiose stories that even my ultra-orthodox pastor rolls his eyes at. (This at a parish that strongly discourages Communion in the hand.) It's likely just the difference between an oral culture and a written culture.

Millions of devout, saintly Catholic parents over centuries told their kids Santa existed so I tend to think that you are reacting to something in the water. Something in our culture. That's precisely what I find fascinating. Maybe both religious and seculars are becoming more fundamentalist. We certainly see it on the "scientific" side with global warming and other items.

But I think if your children, like your brother, could be offended by the "lie" of Santa, then it's best not to give scandal. Which is likely why the Church removed some saints from the calendar too.