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