Over the past couple of months, my six-year-old son has become more and more interested in parsing out fact from fiction. With the Christmas holidays approaching, the subject of Santa’s existence starting cropping up a lot. He began asking me questions like, “How does Santa get into Daddy’s house if Daddy doesn’t have a chimney?” or “How do the elves make toys like video games?” Like a good skeptic, I kept turning it back to him to come up with those answers himself. Eventually he came to the conclusion that Santa was not real. This was his conclusion:
Santa isn’t real because there is no evidence. But the tooth fairy, she’s real, because there is evidence.
Essentially, he could find no proof that Santa existed, but the money under his pillow that appeared “while you were in your bed, Mom” was solid enough evidence of a tooth fairy for him.
Now, allow me to share a little backstory here. When I was still a Christian and fully immersed in evangelicalism, I refused to tell my kids about Santa. I believed that lying to them about an invisible character like Santa would then logically cause them to assume I was also lying about the invisible Jesus. So my two daughters grew up never believing in
a vaguely creepy old man in a red suit breaking into our home once a year Santa Claus.
By the time my son was born though, my faith had gotten very shaky, and by the time he was two years old, I had left the faith entirely. I decided then that maybe it would be fun to allow at least one child to believe in the magic of Christmas. I never went to any great lengths to fool him – no fake boot prints or “from Santa” gift tags – but I let him believe what he wanted to believe when it came time for Christmas.
A Scientific Experiment
This year, my clever little boy (I’m not biased or anything) decided he wanted to do an experiment to determine if Santa is real. His first plan was to set a trap – an actual trap to catch Santa in the act. But then he was worried that, if we weren’t the last family in the world, we might keep Santa from getting to the rest of the kids. Since we couldn’t guarantee that we could be the last family – I had to explain time zones to him – I suggested we set up a hidden camera instead. He and I discussed all the logistics and possible complications of a hidden camera, and finally we devised a plan.
He was pretty sure Santa was not real by this point, so to reward his scientific approach, I intended to simply allow the hidden camera to catch me putting the presents under the tree and in the stockings in the middle of the night. Then the next morning, we could watch the video (shot in time lapse because as he pointed out, several hours of nothing happening would be boring) and my son could confirm his suspicions that the Santa thing is all a big ruse.
But the plan developed a snag. As the days to Christmas crept closer, my son changed his mind to believe Santa was real after all. I asked him this morning what he would do if he watched the video and discovered that Santa was not the person putting the gifts under the tree. He looked at me with concern. It was getting too real now. It was as if suddenly the chance that he could be wrong started getting a little too risky. If he stops believing in Santa, will the presents stop coming? Is it really worth the risk to stop believing when the stakes are so high?
I can’t help noticing that my son is facing the same conundrum so many of us face when we start to question the existence of God. We feel confident asking questions until the answers start getting a little too real. It’s like Pascal’s Wager; if we believe and it’s not true, we lose nothing. But if we don’t believe and it is true, we lose everything.
Pascal’s Wager – the argument put forth by Blaise Pascal that it is in one’s best interested to believe in the existence of God, as it is a rational assumption and does no harm, and the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage of believing otherwise. (Dictionary.com)
For my son, believing in Santa even if it’s not true is the safest wager, because ceasing to believe means risking a Christmas morning with no presents to unwrap. For me however, ceasing to believe in God carried far greater consequences – if I was wrong. And I was so scared of being wrong, I continued to “believe” for as many years as possible, until I just couldn’t fool myself any longer.
Tonight, on Christmas Eve, my son believes Santa is coming no matter what the evidence says, because he needs this to be true. All the evidence to the contrary is right in front of him. He’s seen the tubes of wrapping paper in my closet that will just happen to match the paper on the presents. He’s seen me buy presents for his sisters and has heard me talk about buying presents for him. Even the tags on the gifts he will open in the morning say “from Mom”, not Santa. There is no reason to think that Santa is coming tonight … but he believes because he’s scared of what might happen if he doesn’t.
I was really looking forward to rewarding my son’s ingenuity with a video showing him what truly happens after he goes to bed on Christmas Eve, but I see now that he’s probably not ready for it. So I’ll be using some ingenuity of my own to keep the question looming until next year when he’s a little more prepared to face the truth. After all, I know from personal experience how upsetting it is to discover that something you believe in wholeheartedly was all just a ruse the whole time.
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Lori Arnold is a writer, overachiever, and Oxford Comma enthusiast living in Arkansas with her three children and vindictive cat. She writes about the struggles she once faced as an evangelical Christian and those she faces now as an openly atheist, divorced young professional living in the Bible Belt. You can visit her blog here and order her memoir, The Last Petal Falling, here.