Wednesday, December 21, 2011

I used to think Santa was a myth

'Tis the season for anecdotes...

I didn't ever take Santa very seriously when I was younger.  Or at least, not as far as I can recall.  And I thought that no one else took Santa seriously either.

I mean, kids believing in Santa, that's just something that happens in the movies, right?  There are countless movies depicting little kids who believe in Santa Claus.  They'll write letters to Santa.  They'll wait excitedly at the stairs for Santa to come, deliver presents, and eat the cookies and milk.  Kids believe in all these elaborate legends and rituals, sometimes even in the face of disbelief from their parents or older kids.

Of course, in these movies, Santa also happens to be real.  But Santa isn't real.  So why should belief in Santa be real?  For me, belief in Santa was all part of the mythos, along with the elves, reindeer, and red suit.

But some time ago, my dad told me that he and my mother made a conscious decision not to emphasize Santa Claus.  (They also made a decision not to emphasize heaven and hell, but that's another story.)  The reason?  Apparently, one of my uncles had a very negative experience with Santa.  One year, he found out Santa wasn't real, and he broke down crying.  He had a huge tantrum, and IIRC, also questioned the existence of God.

And then the next year, he forgot that Santa wasn't real.  And then he found out again and had another tantrum.

So it turns out that my childhood experience was not identical to other people's childhood experiences.  And plenty of kids really do believe in Santa, as well as the Tooth Fairy.  In a study I found, about 70% of 3-year-olds believe in Santa, as opposed to 78% who believe in the garbage man.  83% of 5-year-olds believe in Santa, and a third of 9-year-olds believe in Santa.

This just boggles my mind.  Next you'll tell me that kids actually write letters to Santa (what does the post office even do with them?), actually leave out cookies and milk on Christmas Eve (don't they go bad?), and parents actually dress up as Santa to fool their children.  This entails a much greater societal investment into the legend than I previously thought.

And what a bizarre legend it is.  Often, it's about the conflict between the believing children and disbelieving adults.  And as the narrative goes, it's the children who are in the right for believing.  Why??  Why is belief for its own sake a value?  It's one thing to claim that it has some value for child psychological development, but I hardly think that the legend has caught the public imagination because of psychological research.

I used to believe we lived in a world where children only believed in Santa in the stories.  That world made much more sense, but now I know that is not the world we live in.  I guess I learned a valuable lesson in critical thinking.


Anonymous said...

In my family, we left milk and cookies out for Santa, and they would get devoured by my mom as she placed the final presents "from Santa" (usually meaning picked out by her) under the tree. So that explains the milk/cookies thing, at least some of the time. And I think any letters to Santa I wrote would be written on the refrigerator. Come to think of it, as a kid I realized Santa was pretty much equivalent to Mom anyway.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember a time that I believed in the existence of Santa, but I do remember trying to test the hypothesis... I had realized that all the things that supposedly came from Santa's workshop were available in local stores, so I asked for a unicorn for Christmas because of my weird child-self's logic: if Santa exists then he is magical enough to give out presents around the world in one night and if he is that damn magical, procuring/producing a mythical creature should be easy; however, if Santa is my parents, a unicorn is out of the question /flawless argument. Needless to say, I didn't get a real unicorn, but a doll unicorn from a store, which didn't give me much confidence that Santa was real. And then to avert what I thought would be a potential loss of presents, I continued to act like I believed. So basically, I actively participated in the deception, because children will happily lie if they think it benefits them. I wonder how many kids feel obliged to do that with the Santa mythos.