Atheism through the holidays, part 1: Santa Claus

When people ask, “but how can you do Christmas without Jesus?” it makes me want to laugh. The other week Sally and I walked through our local mall, and she gave the following monologue:

 

“Look, Christmas lights! Christmas tree! Look, snow! Presents! Look, more Christmas lights! Look, horse! Look, SANTA CLAUS!!!”

 

The truth is, the Santa Claus myth, complete with reindeer, elves, and presents, provides a ready go-to for non-religious parents who want the holidays to still be a time of wonder for their young children.


In some ways, our culture has two parallel cultural mythologies about Christmas. The first is about the nativity story and the second is about the Santa. Each mythology is fairly elaborate – the nativity story has its wise men, its shepherds, and its manger while the Santa myth has elves, flying reindeer, and a toy workshop at the North Pole. Most children experience Christmas as some combination of these two mythologies. It’s not that hard, then, as an atheist parent, to just leave out the one mythology while continuing to participate in the other. It’s one of those times when you can simply leave out the religious bits without your children feeling that they missed anything.  

I mean think about it. What if the only cultural mythology we had about Christmas was the nativity story? This would make the whole Christmas thing especially tricky for the non-believing parent. In contrast, the Santa myth makes it possible – and simple – to have Christmas songs, stories, and traditions that have nothing to do with Bethlehem. It makes it possible to celebrate in a cultural celebration without feeling marginalized by religion.

Some might ask why I, as an atheist and a skeptic, am okay with participating in any sort of cultural mythology. The answer is simple: no adult really thinks or operates as if the Santa myth were real. If there were parents all over the world believing the Santa myth and sitting around waiting for Santa to bring their kids presents, I’d be concerned. But since no one actually seriously thinks the Santa myth is real, I don’t see it as problematic. It’s more of a cultural story and tradition than anything else.

But what about the kids? They start out really believing the Santa myth, right? Today the Friendly Atheist ran an article on this subject titled “Debunking Santa Is Just Practice for God.” Interestingly, I’ve heard heard a surprising number of atheists say that learning Santa was fake was the first step in their journey to skepticism and atheism. And in fact, I’ve heard Christians warn against “doing” Santa specifically because it “confuses” them, and when they learn that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny are fake, they suddenly wonder about Jesus, Mary, and the angels. As Dale Gowen argues in his book Parenting Beyond Belief,

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists — and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.

I like what Gowan says above. I don’t have a problem with the idea of Sally believing in Santa as only a small child can, because I know it won’t last forever. I’m not afraid of it confusing her. In our culture, finding out that Santa isn’t real is sort of a part of coming of age. And as Gowan points out, I think the whole Santa myth could be a great opportunity for Sally to try out her critical thinking capabilities.

But what about the whole “lying to your kid” issue? The thing is, Sally already knows about Santa and I haven’t had to lie to her once. She ran into Santa at the mall several weeks ago. Someone gave me a Santa ornament as a door prize at a party, and when I brought it home Sally immediately identified it as Santa (having already met him at the mall). I read The Polar Express to her, so she knows about Santa and his reindeer and the bells on his sleigh. When we come upon Christmas decorations in the mall or downtown, she spots Santa right away. Sally is picking up the Santa Claus myth naturally.

Am I lying by not telling her that Santa is fake? Maybe. But I’m not planning to overdo it. I won’t threaten to call Santa to tell him she’s naughty if she doesn’t behave correctly. I won’t label all her presents from Santa. And in the future as she asks questions, I won’t concoct more and more elaborate justifications to prolong her belief: instead, I’ll ask what she thinks. The way I see it, it’s more like playing a game, a game she eventually gets to be in on herself, than it is about lying.

The truth is, the Santa Claus myth provides an easy way to have Christmas traditions and Christmas cheer without Jesus. When I was a child, I was upset when I heard a Christmas song about Santa or saw Santa-themed decorations. Santa took away from Jesus, you see, and Jesus was supposed to be the whole point. Today, my perspective has changed. Songs about Santa and Santa-themed decorations are part of our cultural celebration of Christmas, and they’re a part I don’t have to give up just because I’m no longer religious.  

I also love that the Santa myth has historical and cultural roots. Every part of the Santa myth came from somewhere, and most of it goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s a cultural tradition with historical meaning and a connection to generations gone by. And having that sort of historical depth is something I sometimes miss about religion.


But what about the concerns that Santa helps promote rampant consumerism? Personally, I don’t think the Santa myth is, as its heart, about consumption – or at least, it doesn’t have to be. Santa can be about love, service, and generosity as well as selfishness. Santa is a symbol of goodness and cheer. In my home, Santa isn’t going to be simply about getting but rather also about giving.  

And so, when it comes to Christmas, Santa will play a part in my family’s traditions.


 

Future segments of this series will include:

 

What to do about “baby Jesus” – The nativity story is a part of Christmas and a cultural meme whether we like it or not. I’ll explain how I plan to deal with this as an atheist parent.
Carols, cookies, and holiday cheer – There’s more to Christmas than Jesus – or Santa. I’ll discuss the other cultural aspects of the holiday that make Christmas, well, Christmas.

Family, generosity, and the true meaning of Christmas – What is Christmas really about, deep down? I’ll explain how answering this question for your family provides focus for the holidays.

How to deal with religious relatives - However we decide to handle Christmas with our children, there will always be those relatives who see things differently. What to do?

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://openid.aol.com/finam87 Fina

    Telling your child about Santa, or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth fairy, or anything like that isn't lying to them – it's telling them a story. Stimulating a childs imagination is hardly wrong.

  • http://www.inappropriatemetaphor.com Colleen

    That sounds much the same way that I celebrate Christmas as a non-Christian. (I'm not an atheist, but it still presents difficulties.) I still have a Christmas tree, with presents under it, and a kitchen that smells like cider. It has, indeed, become a cultural celebration, and one that is much less fraught with difficulty than Easter. (As an adult, it's really hard to celebrate a cultural Easter.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00180993672268077454 JW

    I think telling kids about Santa and the Easter Bunny is a bunch of nonsense myself. What is more tragic is that when a person examines the characteristics of Santa, he essentials takes on the traits of God.I don't have kids but if I did I would still give them presents, celebrate the birth of Jesus, and also do something in the community to demonstrate a spirit of giving. I think that otherwise we play games with kids and they don't learn valuable lessons in life. That is just my thoughts.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    My parents are both atheists (pretty much unconcerned about religion actually) and they live far away from the part of the family who is religious to care about putting up a front even if they needed it. Still, we did all the Christmas-y things like the tree or the nativity and the three wise men (because they are the ones who bring the presents here instead of Santa Claus). I remember those times as good except for the fact that my parents tried to hard to force us to believe in the three wise men… once my brother and I knew it was our parents why keep up the charade? I don't know what I'll do whne I have kids but both stances: keeping up with the myth of Santa Claus or the Befana or the three wise men bringing presents because of tradition, community, inclusiveness, … OR just celebrating as a family who lovingly exchanges presents with each other as we do as adults in our house are fair options to me :D

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17500128753102750833 Mommy McD

    We never celebrated Christmas as a Christian holiday growing up (because the Church of Christ is weird and stuff etc) so I never had to overcome any kind of uncomfortable religious implications. And I am now pagan and what is left of Christmas traditions is as much pagan as it is Christian. I am like you about Santa, I don't avoid it, but I also don't go out of my way to convince them who and what he is. I don't think my 4 year old knows the full story of Santa, or can really understand the idea of someone living at the North Pole or what it means to deliver presents to everyone. Santa sometimes gives her a present – the ones we have at Christmas parties or at the mall – but the bulk of the giving she understands as from family and friends. I doubt it will affect her very strongly one way or another when she is old enough to fully understand Santa, but I think she will enjoy it either way and that is what is important to me.Skipping ahead a bit – she knows absolutely nothing about Jesus at the moment, except that it is something mommy says sometimes when she is mad (Jesus Christ and balls are my main explicatives which is really funny to me when they repeat them). Last year she went to Sunday school with my mother in law a few times and learned that there was a baby Jesus, but she was far more interested in the angel, star and animals. I guess I don't think she is quite old enough for Jesus mythology mostly because she doesn't have any kind of context for it yet. If you have ideas on that, I eagerly await them!

  • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

    Most people are atheists and all of them celebrate Christmas and care more for Christmas than I as a Christian do. I don't believe this was the actual day Jesus was born and ideally one would celebrate him every day but still we have chosen this day to celebrate him so I do. I also want to spend a good time with my family which is hard for me to do otherwise since we live several hours apart.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring

    I like what Fina said, Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus etc. are games adults play with children in our society. When a child figures out that Santa or the Easter Bunny aren't real, then they get to play on the grown-ups team. At least that's how I always explained such things. Every time a child asks me, "Is Santa Claus real?" I answer, "What do you think?" Everyone like a chance to share their thoughts. Kids are not different.If they are my children, and they say "You're really the tooth fairy (or Santa or Easter Bunny), aren't you?" then I reply "You figured out the game! Now you get to play on the grown-ups side. It is so much fun!" And if they are not my child, and they say they don't believe Santa is real, I tell them I don't either, but it sure if fun to pretend to still believe. If they are uncertain, I always add, "maybe that's why Santa doesn't bring me presents anymore" and encourage the kid to talk to his own parents.Life is meant to be fun! Make believe exists in every culture. My Norwegian friend told tales of trolls and giants. She even had a story that cavity trolls climb up your teeth and pick holes in them,so that's why you brush in the morning and after meals, to knock down their ladders. =D Hey, it works in her culture.Personally, I really want to go to India for Holi! Now THAT sounds like a fantastically fun holiday. It's on my bucket list.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15824217102632813598 Tanit-Isis

    I grew up celebrating a secular (Santa based) Christmas. The only thing I ever felt I was missing out on was the advent calendars (which my mom disapproved of probably as much for the daily dose of chocolate as the Jesus-is-coming aspect). When my kids were born I wasn't a sufficiently thoughtful atheist to even question whether to bring them up "believing in Santa". When I finally thought about it (when my oldest was four or so and it was definitely too late), I decided I could justify it on two levels: 1) importance. Believing or disbelieving in Santa doesn't have any implications for your understanding of science or acceptance of a reality-based world, and 2) the transitory nature of Santa belief. The question "Is Santa real?" is part and parcel of the myth—something kids pose each other even as they tell the stories and sing the songs. Nobody grows up to believe in Santa (although I did worry, when I was eight or so, that I wouldn't figure it out and would have kids and wake up on Christmas morning expecting Santa to have brought them presents and he wasn't real and hadn't so everyone was devastated.)Oh, I guess there's a third reason for going with the Santa mythos for your kids: fun!

  • chatterbox

    I dont 'do' santa with our kids just cos i couldnt find a way of doing it, which didnt feel like i was telling a bare faced lie, i am hugely crap at deceit of any kind! Plus when i found out as a kid i remember feeling rather betrayed and very foolish so i guess i felt really uncomfortable with the whole thing and couldnt pull it off if I had tried! Nothing against dear old santa, we play the santa game but my kids know he's not real really.Really looking forward to the other christmas topics you mention libby – after many years of the hols being all about jesus birth and all the traditions that surround that, i feel a bit in limbo about it all now i'm no longer a christian.

  • chatterbox

    Oh not that i'm saying parents are neccesarily being deceitful – just that i struggle to be anything other than transparent which often gets me into trouble!My Mother in law thinks i'm wicked and cruel, ruining christmas etc etc cos i dont tell them santa is real – oh dear – i cant please everyone!

  • Disillusioned Ex-homeschooler

    Another aspect of the holiday we enjoy and talk about as a family is its connection to the Winter Solstice. For me, the human proclivity to revel in hope and light and generosity at the very darkest, coldest, time of year is very meaningful. We've talked about that with our kids a lot (and it really hits home since we live in a cold climate). We talk about how human beings have always chosen to celebrate and embrace hope even when things are dark and cold, and how there are different ways of celebrating that. (If you google "Winter Solstice" you'll find all sorts of holidays from all over the world and across history; it's amazing how many of them have to do with light, hope, and generosity). I feel like it helps my kids connect to the broadest possible swath of myths (and thus to the broadest possible swath of humanity).

  • Anonymous

    i was always happy my parents didn't tell me about Santa. i would have felt really violated if my parents had convinced me something was real that wasn't. i just don't see what is fun or cute about taking advantage of a young child's inability to do a proper fact check. i don't see a child and think "wow, it's so cute the kid believes in Santa Claus!" it just seems like part of a broader program of providing children with something other than the truth so that the adult can view childhood as some sort of idealized, carefree "innocent" time or can avoid discussing issues that they don't want to. when i see a kid who believes in Santa, i guess what scares me is i see how easily it is for an adult to get a child to believe in something. i guess at heart i'm just really uncomfortable with any form of deception, no matter how seemingly playful. i just keep thinking that /*i wouldn't think it was cute or funny for someone to be doing that to me*/.

  • Vivi

    Heh. For all that I have little memory of my childhood, I still remember this scene: Me, age 6, insistently trying to give my 21 year old brother back his Christmas present, which he had just pulled out of his bag and told me to keep it for him, because at the moment he was pretending to be Father Christmas (in a red bathrobe, and with a fake beard and a rather creepy mask). I did not understand why the adults were making such a charade out of the whole process. Kids are much more perceptive than you'd think. I don't think I've ever believed in Father Christmas, but what mattered was that I got stuff from my family because they loved me. The more down to earth rituals of the holidays were much more important to me as a child. Baking cookies, decorating the tree, wrapping the presents, opening the Advent calendar each day, going to the Christmas market… basically activities that I could participate in, rituals that made waiting easier, things that speak of a concerted effort being made to make everything cozy and special, and of time spent together.When I was little, my protestant-raised-but-mostly-atheist mother still insisted I watch some kind of nativity story on video, to further my education. But it was never presented as something to believe in, more as a basic cultural myth that I should know, just like Grimm's fairytales (incidentally, since my part of the country is fairly non-religious, the nicer Christmas markets had life-size scenes from popular fairy tales right along the nativity scene – you know, gingerbread houses and that things like that). We gave up on the educational part when I was maybe 8 or so. From there on, our "Christmas" was entirely secular (it helps that the holiday is simply called "sacred night" in my language) and I watched "The Last Unicorn" instead. (Which for some reason would be aired every Christmas during prime time, i.e. just when I was waiting to be allowed to open my presents (we do that on Christmas Eve here). Easter had even less connection to the Christian holiday in my family. Again, just family rituals: egg painting, candy searching in the garden, collecting spring water at dawn (old germanic fertility ritual).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05625462836126526088 Cailin

    I believe in God.I believe in courtship. I'm not trying to be mean, but ma'am, how could you turn away from the Lord? You went to college, and you listen to the people the Bible warns you about! Please, look back into your faith, how can everything you see around you, be made by a mistake? You say you are free, but who can you look to for help? Who will listen to you, no matter what? Who will always be there for you? My parents raised me in the Christian faith, though , at first I had doubt, I now have the outmost faith. I look forward to telling God about my day. Ma'am, you say you are free, but you are not. Ma'am. I pity you. I'll pray for you everyday, and I'll pray for all the people that support you in this.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    Oh, my!

  • Brawne Lamia

    Oh, Cailin, if you haven't read through all of Libby's About Me and a huge chunk of her blog, I'd do so. It explains how and why she "could turn away from the Lord" and why she doesn't need to look back into her faith in the way you're suggesting. You might not agree with her, but there is nothing about her current convictions that hasn't thoroughly thought through. Also, you ask who she can look to for help and who she can tell everything to. Friends, Family, trust me, being someone who listens no matter what and who helps is not the strict domain of a deity. And on the topic at hand… Yay Santa! Life is just more fun with a dose of make believe and magic. Deep down, I'm 5 and love Santa. I love Shadowspring's take on it, the two sides to the game, I think it makes so much sense. Now I love playing Santa and sneaking my own gifts into stockings when no one's around and not telling them (It usually surprises my mom on Christmas morning because she does all the stockings).

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    @Cailin: As Brawne Lamia has said, Libby Anne has er friends and family which are way better than an inexistent entity tat even if existed doesn't seem to take a lot of interest in the lives of his/her/its followers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05625462836126526088 Cailin

    People say that they need to see it, to believe it. Believing, is seeing. Not, seeing is believing. When we die, what will happen to us? I'm not telling everyone what to do, but, if Darwin's theory is true, what is the harm in reconsidering?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    "Believing, is seeing. Not, seeing is believing." Isn't it interesting that this sphere of thought is only used in religious/spiritual matters? In no other area of life(that I'm aware of) do we first will ourselves to believe a proposition, and then find its "truth", as opposed to the much more common, discovering credible evidence for a proposition, and then believing the truth of it. Hmmm.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    There are plenty of hurtful things that come to believing in God, at least how it's painted by most religions. For instance, becoming a judgmental person who comes to proselytise to other people's blogs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03737088496139901541 Jude

    Of course it's a lie to tell your child about a myth as though it's reality. I let my children believe in Santa Claus because they wanted to believe, but I *never* lied to them and told them that Santa was real. When they asked me, I'd tell them that I don't believe in Santa Claus, but they can believe in whatever they want. I hate Santa Claus. It takes the credit for presents from where it belongs–me–and gives it to something that doesn't exist.

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