At the family dinner table a couple of days before Christmas, my nephew, who is about to become a father, expressed reluctance to lie to his child about Santa Claus. That led to many stories around the table about belief in Santa.
My son Sam remembered that he was getting skeptical about Santa one Christmas when his great wish was for a Lego Monorail kit. He didn’t have much hope, however, because in his 6-year-old judgment that toy was much too expensive for his frugal parents. Then the Monorail appeared under the tree on Christmas morning in his grandparents’ house, after a long night of secret construction in the company of my similarly busy brothers-in-law. Sam’s skepticism vanished for another season.
One year my daughter Mae told her slightly younger cousins Helen and Ann that she knew “the truth about Santa” and she would be happy to pass on this knowledge. They were not ready for “the truth”, but the next year Helen went looking for clues before Christmas. She found some hidden gifts that then showed up in her stocking on Christmas.
Most Christmas movies, especially the older ones I love, like “Miracle on 34th Street”, not only assume that Santa is real, but that all good people will eventually come to believe that. In the modern remake of “Miracle on 34th Street”, when some military man testifies in court that it would be impossible to make billions of toys at the North Pole, Kris Kringle scoffs. Of course you can’t see the factory – it’s magic.
“Dear Prudence” on Slate recently argued that children don’t get hurt by eventually discovering “the truth about Santa”. She wrote that “one of the delights of being a parent is to spread a little fairy dust occasionally.” But not everyone agrees. Philosophy professor David Kyle Johnson at King’s College, a Catholic college in Pennsylvania, denounces the “Santa lie”. His argument appears to be about the immorality of lying, while most psychologists say that parental tales of Santa do no harm.
The wonderful story “The Polar Express” directly addresses how belief in Santa gradually disappears as children get older. University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley interviewed children and found that belief in Santa peaked about age 5, when nearly all children believed, and then dropped off quickly, so that by age 9, only one in three thought Santa was real. Research by Occidental College psychologists Andrew Shtulman and Rachel InKyung Yoo showed that children gradually lose their belief in Santa’s purely magical qualities as their understanding of the physical world grows. But to preserve something of Santa, they develop explanations for his impossible activities which are more plausible to them, such as that he has millions of elves as helpers to make all those toys.
My children are too old to have had experienced the Elf on the Shelf craze, and I’m happy for that. Scaring children into proper behavior with stories about magic spies for Santa is, in my opinion, a perversion of Santa’s magic into something that parents, not children, want. I might not go as far as Professor Laura Pinto, who argues that the all-seeing Elf prepares kids to accept the controversial activities of the NSA and the surveillance state, but I find the whole idea creepy.
In a New York Times opinion column, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes that Google searches for “depression” and similar words are less frequent around Christmas. Gallup surveys show Americans’ mood improves around Christmas, while the number of suicides drops. Maybe that’s part of Santa’smagic.
Can Santa really deliver toys across the world in one night? Can he squeeze down all those chimneys? Those are the wrong questions. Even in some Jewish families, Christmas is a magical time, when we all can dream of giving the perfect gift, of seeing our loved ones smile with delight as they discover what’s inside those carefully wrapped packages. For me, as long as belief in Santa might fascinate another generation of children with images of magical generosity, I’ll grin when Kris Kringle wins his case one more time.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 30, 2014