December 29, 2008

When Did Santa Come Under Fire?

For this post I used Google Books as my main source of "research", which primarily consists of attempting to discern when parents become squeamish about "lying" to their children about the existence of Santa Claus. It seems to have its genesis around the 1890s, which is not surprising given that that was an age particularly devoted to belief in the gods of science and rationalism (perhaps best symbolized by the "unsinkable ship".)

Before 1850, an arbitrary cut-off, references to Santa Claus were most always positive and of a non-controversial nature. In William Euen's "On the Importance of an Early Correct Education of Children" Santa Claus is not a subject of controversy as implied by off-hand advice to have "Santa Claus foot the bill". (Though not always. There is a somewhat cryptic couple of lines in the Knickerbocker magazine of 1850: "There is a puritanical device afoot to abolish Santa Claus! "Abolish Santa Claus!" This single exclamation, from the mouth of the juvenile 'PUBLIC', will put an end to that plot.")

The 1849 Southern Literary Messenger refers to Santa a "kindly superstition" and hopes that "these traditions don't fall into desuetude, for they find their origin in the affections and serve to brighten the rugged pathway of duty." "Desuetude" suggests disuse and outdatedness rather than outright rejection.

So 99% of books and articles of pre-1850 references to Santa didn't question his positive influence. I suspect that as belief in God began to come under fire, Santa Claus and faeries would also for fear that God would be seen in the same light. Mentions of Santa from 1890 to 1915 were filled with concern. The famous editorial "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" came in 1897. That same year in "The Arena", Santa Claus was defended in utilitarian fashon: "The myth of Santa Claus and fairy stories seem to have a wonderful fascination for the child brain."

In 1898, Emilie Poulsson well demonstrates the controversy in her "Christmas with Children":
"The Santa Claus idea has its advocates and disparagers, and there is force to what both urge for and against the children's belief in their patron saint. The only caution which I think is necessary to observe is with regard to the manner of giving the idea and explaining it as a fanciful story when the child is older. The mother must not make Santa Claus too seriously real, and must not break with rude abruptness the spell which she has woven in earlier days."
From 1890 to 1915 there are a spate of articles on the existence of Santa:


A much more recent link studies the issue (literally), through our modern view of truth (i.e. through numbers):
Serge Larivee, a professor of psycho-education from Universite de Montreal, together with fellow researcher Carole Senechal from the Univerity of Ottawa, both in Canada, performed a comparison on the way 1,500 children (7 to 13 years of age) related to the myth of Santa back in 1896, and in 1979 (obviously, not the same children), and studied the implications of the changes.

As a general rule, Larivee notes that "When they learn the truth, children accept the rules of the game and even go along with their parents in having younger children believe in Santa. It becomes a rite of passage in that they know they are no longer babies," shows the official site of the University of Montreal. Among the findings of the study was the fact that some 22% of the children in 1896 were disappointed to find that Santa did not exist, compared to 29% in the study performed in 1979.

"The constant outcome of the two studies was that children generally discovered through their own observations and experiences that Santa doesn't exist," shared Larivee. "And their parents confirmed their discovery. Children ask their parents, for example, how Santa gets in the house if there's no chimney. And even if the parents say they leave the door unlocked, the child will figure out that Santa can't be everywhere at the same time and that reindeer can't be that fast."

History shows an increase in the tendency to perpetuate the myth even after kids' discovering it as such, as it maintains a good mood and joyfulness: 54% of the parents did so in 1896, 73% in 1979 and 80% in 2000.

Perhaps the anti-Santa angst might ultimately trace back to the invention of the printing press. Neil Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death:
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 is preferable to what we have now (television & electronics).

Most interesting is what he says about our modern view of truth. I can relate to this since I do tend to view economics solely through the lens of numbers. I can also relate to the modern disdain of myth. For years I thought of the book of Genesis as completely irrelevant to much of anything - it was meaningful for people a thousand years ago, but what could it say to me today? After all, it didn't really happen that way (I wasn't then, nor am now, a young-earther). And yet during the late '90s I was blown away by an exegesis of Genesis and how crucial the first few chapters are. The incredible truth that God saw creation and proclaimed it "good" is the lynchpin of much of our theology, not to mention the Fall and Original Sin. There is as much truth and complexity in Genesis as in the letters of St. Paul, and that was mind-blowing to me. Postman writes:
Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that 'the truth' is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant...We have enough [prejudices] of our own, as for example, the equation we moderns make of truth and quantification. In this prejudice, we come astonishingly close to the mystical beliefs of Pythagoras and his followers who attempted to submit all of life to the sovereignty of numbers. Many of our psychologists, sociologists, economists and other latter-day cabalists will have numbers to tell them the truth or they will have nothing. Can you imagine, for example, a modern economist articulating truths about our standard of living by reciting a poem? Or by telling what happened to him during a late-night walk through East St. Louis? Or by offering a series of proverbs and parables..?...To the modern mind, resonating with different media-metaphors, the truth in economics is believed to be best discovered and expressed in numbers. Perhaps it is. I will not argue the point. I mean only to call attention to the fact that there is a certain measure of arbitrariness in the forms that truth-telling may take. We must remember that Galileo merely said that the language of nature is written in mathematics. He did not say everything is. And even the truth about nature need not be expressed in mathmatics. For most of human history, the language of nature has been the language of myth and ritual.
Truth thousands of years ago was conveyed through myth. By Christ's time it was parable and proverb. In our time it is through numbers. But truth is not limited by the "adornment" it carries, even though every age thinks it has a monopoly on truth.


Enbrethiliel said...


If we use the metaphor of language instead of numbers, then we can say Santa Claus is an old-fashioned idiom which self-conscious speakers don't want to use anymore. To them, it's as embarrassing as still using "groovy" when everyone else has started saying "cool."

As far as I can remember, "Father Christmas" doesn't appear in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol--another great contributor to the symbolic language of Christmas--but that's because the Ghost of Christmas Present is there in his place. For about 150 years (an estimate you may want to check with a real historian), the world has wordlessly associated the abundant generosity of God--an abstraction--with the larger-than-life joy symbolised by Santa Claus in all his forms.

HokiePundit said...

I think Poulsson may have it closest: when everyone knows what's going on, talking about Santa Claus is no different than talking about the sun rising: we know it's not true, but it's no big deal. There's no real lying there if everyone's in on the myth. When parents, whom their children trust completely, tell their kids that something's true and later reveal it not to be the case for no discernable good reason beyond their own enjoyment, that's different.

Good research!

TS said...

...tell their kids that something's true and later reveal it not to be the case for no discernable good reason

But there is a good reason. It's for the kids, not themselves, in invoking wonder. Chesterton was pro-Santa for the children. And what particularly interesting is the thought that it is "lying" to children - that seems like a very modern thing. That study shows that "when they learn the truth, children accept the rules of the game and even go along with their parents in having younger children believe in Santa. It becomes a rite of passage in that they know they are no longer babies".

What I wasn't able to really discern is at what moment in history it was perceived as "lying" in giving children the gift of Santa. I'd also love to know what the saints (like Cardinal Newman) thought of the practice.

Terrence Berres said...

It's not just a figure of speech.

"Drug traffickers in a Rio slum opened fire on a helicopter carrying a Santa to a children's party, apparently mistaking it for a police helicopter." Santa's Copter Shot Up Over Rio, by Noah Shachtman, Wired's Danger Room

TS said...

Ha TB, and who says this blog isn't (unwittingly) current as the day's headlines? :-)

RB, I shouldn't have said "good" reason, since if it's really a venial sin there's no good reason to sin period. Which is the source of the wonder: when did it become a venial sin (if it is)? (It's hard to believe Chesterton is espousing sin, for example.)

Anonymous said...

smockdaddy and i worried over this whole santa business when we started our family. i wanted the wonder of santa, but was squeamish about the lying [i was in fact very pissed when i found out all of the grown ups had duped me into believing in santa - not sure what that says about my personality, but there you have it]. smockdaddy wanted the smocklings to understand that WE, the parents, worked hard for the presents that they received. in the end, basically, we compromised. we never actually introduced santa to any of the smocklings...they heard what they heard from books and friends. we celebrate the feast of st. nicholas -- mamaT is a HUGE help there. we've taken no mall santa pictures EVER and the gifts under the tree are from mom and dad ... the little trinkets left in the stockings are left as a sort of "love offering" by santa.

Banshee said...

I've been thinking about this lately. Part of the thing is that it's a joke or game, shared across the whole culture. It's very similar in many ways to the Sherlockian's smiling insistence that Arthur Conan Doyle is Watson's literary agent.

The other thing it reminds me of is the traditional reticence of the more informed to tell the less informed youngsters all about sex. Piers Anthony of all people hit this one on the head; there's an "Adult Conspiracy" which most people willingly perpetuate and join when they grow up. So perhaps the non-serious game of Santa Claus prepares kids for the more serious gradual process of learning about the birds and the bees?

Have there been other gradual disclosures like this in other cultures?

TS said...

Yes Maureen, that's the sort of thing I'm looking for. There's some subtext to this Santa thing that I can't quite get at.

I wonder if part of it may be that parents now tend to think of children as their friends and maybe think of them as little adults, though obviously that's the opposite of the case with many of our hardcore traditionalist parents in St. blogosphere. It's interesting.

But as Derbyshire wrote - back in the old days parents were far more cavalier towards their children, looking at them as not quite chattel but...but certainly then things were more hierarchical in general, less democratic, and I think it applied to kids. Like fraternity hazing, rites of passage, the whole thing was one of not treating children as equals - including in their "right" to know whether or not Santa exists. Now hazing rituals have fallen out of favor perhaps because it's undemocratic, in treating freshman different from juniors.