Atheism through the holidays, part 1: Santa Claus

Atheism through the holidays, part 1: Santa Claus December 14, 2011
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?
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