Who is Santa?

Do adults struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy?

Growing up in New York, and attending a Jewish primary school, I don’t have a very intimate relationship with Santa Claus. Of course, I knew the story — fat man, presents, chimneys, reindeer — from television, and from Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, but it was more or less of a piece with the tooth fairy, Spiderman, and Mickey Mouse. That is, when you’re 7, you may have a heated discussion over the details of Spiderman’s backstory, and which other characters he knows (he may know Captain America; probably doesn’t know Santa or Mickey Mouse), and what he might do in the future, but that doesn’t mean he’s real, in the sense of inhabiting the same world that we do. Magical beings are something you play make-believe with, tell stories about, act out stories about.

(I remember when I was 3, my brother told me that there used to be a Santa Claus, but he was killed falling off a roof. I guess that did seem plausible to me at the time.)

What I only learned much later that for many (perhaps most?) in the US (and the UK, apparently) Santa Claus (Father Christmas) is a different sort of magical being. Children seem to genuinely believe he exists, and, even more strangely, adults seem to think it important to encourage them in that belief. It’s not just, “Let’s pretend on Christmas that a magical man comes and brings your gifts”, but “No, really. He really does come.” And making significant effort to prevent anyone from revealing the wicked truth. I was reading about a weird spat on American television, about an online article that suggested portraying Santa not as a white man, but as a penguin. The article was criticised on right-wing Fox News, but what I found most interesting was that the television reporter Megyn Kelly apparently began the discussion by announcing “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.” She was heavily criticised for prejudging the issue of the skin colour of a fictional character, but she was just following the prescribed line of pretending publicly (whenever children might be listening) that Santa Claus is real. Not “real” in the “let’s pretend” way that the child’s mudpie is really a cake. Really really real.

(This reminds me of an account I read many years ago, of a Christian missionary in India bringing to his superior the question that villagers had posed to him, of what Jesus’s skin colour was. The missionary thought that answering white or black would both have undesirable implications. The superior suggested it would help them  to relate to Jesus’s divinity, and avoid the association with the white/black dichotomy between the Europeans and themselves, if he told them Jesus had blue skin, since they were already familiar with Krishna, also fruit of a virgin birth. So he told the villagers, who acted like he must be crazy. “People don’t have blue skin!” they exclaimed.)

There is a substantial genre of December journalism, where people write about how they lost their faith in Santa, or ruined someone else’s, or are now wondering about what to tell their children. I’m baffled. While atheists like to promote the identification between God and Santa, the fact is that people who emphatically do not believe in God generally do not encourage that belief in their children (though they may give them religious education for other reasons). Some wish they did believe in God, or think the world would be a better place if more people believed in God  — that seems to have been Benjamin Franklin’ line. I don’t know of any comparable example, of a belief that parents encourage in their children, that they don’t hold themselves, at least on some vestigial level.

I’m not criticising, exactly. I don’t think anyone is harmed by it — though on the atheist side, some argue that the Santa disillusionment is a first introduction to free-thinking, which should perhaps give otherwise religious parents pause. I’m just wondering what the motivation is. It seems peculiar, and it doesn’t seem to fit into any behavioural category that I’m otherwise familiar with.

It makes me wonder whether adults have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy, and understanding the importance of each. It seems to me that children are generally capable of taking fantasy play very seriously, without losing their tether to reality. Perhaps many adults are incapable of engaging profoundly with fiction and fantasy, and so they suppose that the only way their children could take the fantasy of Santa Claus seriously is to believe literally that it’s true. And so, in their plodding, literal-minded, grownup fashion they make reindeer prints on the roof and post the letter to Santa and eat the cookies.

In this context I should also mention a line I just came across in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the early 1970s State of Emergency. After Doctor Who was described as the most violent programme on television, the Times remarked that comparing Doctor Who‘s violence with realistic violence was “like comparing a game of Monopoly to the property market in London. Both are fantasies, but one is meant to be taken seriously.”

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