Is Christmas Santa Claus a Mormon?

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Teaching Your Children the Truth About Santa Claus

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by Steve Benson

god-santaIntroduction: Praise Be to Santa!

It’s that time of year, when millions celebrate the “miracle” of Christmas.

‘Tis the season, as author Tom Flynn notes in his book, The Trouble With Christmas, to focus on the object most worthy of our collective worship:

John Lennon once said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. He was wrong. That honor belongs to Santa Claus. An estimated 85 percent of American four-year-olds believe in Santa. Only 82 percent of adults in a recent poll told Gallup that they were Christians. Among their respective target audiences, Santa outpulls Jesus by a nose. (Tom Flynn, The Trouble With Christmas (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1993, p. 128)

St. Nick and Salvation: “Is Santa Claus a Mormon?”

One Christmas season, when our oldest daughter was around eight and still a “believer” in the myth of the Jolly Old Elf, she innocently asked me, “Is Santa Claus a Mormon?”

Uneasily, I tried avoiding answering her question, but it was clear that our daughter was viewing Santa Claus as a member of God’s true church. Even for someone like myself who back then was still mired in the Mormon faith, I hoped to encourage a wider, more ecumenical world view when it came to judging the world's little boys and girls.

Traditions of Mormon Hearth and Ho-Ho-Home

Like many of you, growing up, our family enjoyed favorite Christmas traditions, especially ones geared toward the children.

By far, the most anticipated event was the arrival of Santa Claus at the Benson house on Christmas Eve. Milk and cookies were set out for St. Nick, along with carrots for the reindeer. (The next morning, the children would find the food all gone with a thank-you note left behind by a contented Santa).

The highlight of Christmas Eve was when the children gathered around the family piano, as Mom played and Dad led us in an enthusiastic rendition of “Jingle Bells.” It was our signal for Santa to make his presence known in the neighborhood.. As the children reached the chorus, suddenly Santa’s sleigh bells would be heard ringing around the perimeter of the house, accompanied by a deep, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” The children would scream and rush off to bed, where they would dive under the covers and squeeze their eyes tightly shut, knowing that Santa would not come by the home of good little boys and girls until they were all sound asleep.

But getting to slumberland often proved difficult for the children. The conniving grown-ups made it all the more challenging for them with more delightful deceptions. Out in the dark backyard, a flashlight covered in a red sock could be seen bounding across the lawn. “Look!” the adults would cry, pointing out to the children, “It’s Rudolph’s nose!”

These traditions were passed from generation to generation in our household. As the Benson children grew older and came to know the real “truth” about Santa, they, too, were brought into the secret fraternity and would participate in the elaborate ruse geared for their younger siblings who still believed. Those “in the know” would ring the bells outside the house and then sneak back inside to help shepherd the anxious little ones off to bed.

As part of the antics myself, I would dress up in a Santa suit and climb up on our roof, where my younger siblings could hear me clomping around and shouting, “On Dasher! On Dancer! On Prancer and Vixen!” One year, I nearly fell off.

Another year, the holiday hoaxing came close to being embarrassingly exposed. At the time, our family was living in the mission home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where my dad was serving as president.

The home had a large garage connected to the main living quarters by an outdoor walkway. Over the garage was a small apartment for the mission home staff.

On Christmas Eve, I was decked out in my Santa suit, holding a large garbage bag over my shoulder filled with pillows and standing on the walkway, giving my best belly laugh performance.

Peering out of the window across the way was my wide-eyed little brother, Mike. As I strutted around, bellowing and waving, the door of the mission home staff’s apartment opened behind me. The staff hadn’t been informed beforehand about the planned Santa act. Before I could say, “Dash away all!” one of the missionaries grabbed me, yelled, “Get in here, you honker!,” then jerked me inside. I struggled to break free, frantically telling them they were ruining the whole thing.

Mike later asked why the missionaries pulled Santa inside and slammed the door. I told him Santa wanted to meet with them.

Miracle of miracles, Mike still faithfully believed.

Our hokey, hallowed Santa tradition continued, as Mary Ann and I raised our own children.

After the Christmas caroling around the piano, the bell-ringing and the scampering off to bed, I would wait until the wee hours of Christmas morning, then don the red suit, strap on the beard, adjust the cap and visit the bedrooms of each our slumbering children. There, I would pat them on the head, whisper their names until they woke up, give them a candy cane and ask them what they wanted for Christmas. All the while, Mary Ann would be taking photographs of the grumpy, bleary-eyed children who, at that point in the middle of the night, wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep.

Personal Childhood Trauma: The Santa Myth Unmasked and Unbearded

As fun as it was for me as a Santa-believing child anticipating the arrival of the jolly old gift giver, finding out that St. Nick was nothing but a myth (a polite term for bald-faced lie) was a seriously disappointing—and sobering—experience.

Perhaps it raises a more important question: How beneficial is it to children to push the Santa Claus fable on them in the first place?

For years, I was one of Santa’s true believers. I “knew” he was real, lived at the North Pole, had many elves who made toys in his workshop, kept track of all the good and bad boys and girls, and flew through the air circumventing the globe on Christmas Eve, pulled by magic reindeer, to deliver toys or coal to all the deserving recipients.

I knew this was true because my parents told me it was.

And parents don’t lie.

Trouble was, I had a next-door neighbor friend named Clark, who claimed to know otherwise.

One day he informed me that Santa Claus was a fake. With vivid memories of my family’s Christmas Eve antics dancing through my head, I absolutely refused to believe him.

“Feel his beard when you sit on his lap,” Clark advised me. “It’s fake.”

So, when we visited Santa that year at the department store, I waited anxiously in line for my turn, dreading what I might discover. Sitting on Santa’s knee, I was hardly listening to him as he asked me what I wanted for Christmas, concentrating instead on gingerly twisting a bit of his beard between my fingers. But having never felt a beard before, I couldn’t tell whether or not it was real and returned home, troubled and unsure.

From there, the cold icicles of doubt began to creep into my mind: Was Santa really real? I wanted so much to believe, but my eyes were, well, beginning to be opened.

One Christmas morning in Salt Lake City, as we were unwrapping our presents around the tree, I noticed something rather perplexing about the big box in which my much-anticipated dinosaur set had come.

It sported a retail price tag from Skaggs department store. I asked my dad why this was so.

“Aren’t the toys made in Santa’s workshop?”

He replied, “They are, but then Santa’s elves take them to the stores.”

My eyes were beginning to open even wider.

The final, devastating moment of truth came during my eighth year. By believer’s standards, I was old. Most of my friends no longer bought the Santa story, but I had struggled desperately to hold on, wanting to believe that all I had heard and seen through my life really was true.

One day, I was walking through the kitchen and spotted a small paperback book on the kitchen table. It had a picture of a boy and girl on the cover, running and smiling. Authored by Frances L. Ilg and Louse Bates Ames, it was entitled The Gesell Institute’s Child Behavior: A realistic guide to child behavior in the vital formative years from birth to ten (New York, New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1955).

I have saved that fragile and tattered book as part of my childhood collection of artifacts chronicling my journey through this veil of tears. What its now-yellowed pages revealed to me that fateful day was to prove to be of some importance in the formation of my skeptical attitude toward authoritative claims made by others.

As a child, I liked to read, so I went to my room with the book and opened it to the table of contents. There, under Chapter 17, in capital letters, were the words: “WHAT TO TELL ABOUT SANTA CLAUS, DEITY, DEATH, ADOPTION, DIVORCE,” p. 323.

Nervously, I opened to page 323 and under the sub-heading “Santa Claus,” scanned the words I had feared:

”There really isn’t a Santa Claus, is there, Mummy?” Six-year-old Peter regarded his mother searchingly.

Mother hesitated for a moment. She had known that this day would come--but still--questions about Santa, like questions about sex, often pop up when we’re not quite prepared for them. She decided to tell the truth.

“No, Peter, there really isn’t any Santa Claus.”

I closed the book, as a twinge of anxiety and sense of betrayal hit my stomach.

Now, I knew I had to ask the same question.

So, I returned to the kitchen, where my own mother was preparing a meal.

“Mommy,” I asked, “Is there a Santa Claus?”

“Yes,” she replied.

But recalling what I had just read on page 323 and unable to suppress my own doubts any longer, I persisted: “I mean the big fat man with the beard.”

My mom hesitated, then, without looking directly at me, said, “No. Daddy is Santa Claus.”

With emotions of disappointment mingled with a triumphal sense of “ah-ha!,” I replied:

“I know. I read it in a book.”

That day, at the ripe old age of eight, I learned a vital lesson:

You can’t trust adults to tell you the truth.

As I look back on that experience, I realize that losing faith in both “the big fat man with the beard” and in adults who vouched for his existence played a pivotal role in the development in my own mind of a certain degree of skepticism and distrust of authority figures--ranging from Mormon prophets, to parents, to God himself.

In Sacred Silliness: St. Nick’s Bag of Technicolor Tricks

Of course, reason, knowledge, observation and experience inform us that Santa isn’t--and can’t be--real.

Even when the truth of Santa’s non-existence was confirmed to me as a child, I thought to myself, how could it be otherwise? After all, looking at the facts, anyone could see that Santa’s an imposter.

Take, for example, the staggering task of gift-delivering facing St. Nick each Christmas Eve.

According to Spy magazine:

--Excluding non-Christians and bad children, Santa must visit 91.8 million homes within the 31 hours of Christmas Eve darkness afforded by the Earth’s rotation.

--He must travel at least 72,522,000 miles, not counting ocean crossings.

--Given his 31-hour deadline, he must maintain a speed of 650 miles a second.

--Assuming 2 pounds of presents a child, his sleigh must carry a load of 321,300 tons, plus a hefty Santa.

--The massive sleigh requires 213,200 reindeer to pull it, increasing the total Santa payload to 353,430 tons.

--The 353,430 tons of reindeer and presents traveling at 650 miles a second would create massive heat and air resistance, with the two lead reindeer absorbing 14.3 quintillion joules of energy a second each, causing them to burst into spectacular, multi-colored flames, almost instantaneously!”

(“Magazine reveals stirring statistics on Santa’s trip,” The [Tacoma, WA] Morning News Tribune, 22 December 1990, p. A8; and “Seen, Heard, Said,” The Seattle Times, 25 December 1990, p. F2)

The Crime of Being a Santa Skeptic in a Santa-Sanctified Society

Raising questions about Santa in a culture which hangs on desperately to the joys of myth and superstition can be highly unpopular. As Gamaliel Bradford lamented:

“The fairies are gone . . . the witches are gone . . . the ghosts are gone. Santa Claus alone still lingers with us. For heaven’s sake, let us keep him as long as we can.” (Flynn, pp. 148-49)

In other words, don’t rock the boat. It feels good to believe.

And those who challenge the myth do so at their own peril.

The pressure from society to believe and deceive was well described by psychiatrist Renzo Sereno, who noted sadly that “[a]ny adult who dares tell a child the objective truth on the matter” of St. Nick “is considered worse than blasphemous.” (Flynn, p. 129)

A similar view was held by playwright and novelist W. J. Locker, who warned:

“He who would destroy a child’s faith in Father Christmas, and thus annihilate the exquisite poetry of childhood, should be kept chained up beyond the reach of his fellow man.” (ibid.)

Flynn recounts the particularly harrowing reaction of society when a national news network exploded the Santa myth:

During World War II, labor leader John L. Lewis called a coal miners’ strike just before Christmas. NBC opened its radio newscast with the words, "John L. Lewis just shot Santa Claus." In the next hour thirty thousand calls inundated the network’s switchboards. A Texas boy despaired and downed a bottle of castor oil. So frightening was the reaction that NBC hurriedly staged an “interview with Santa Claus” to reassure Americans that the jolly old elf was still alive. The actor portraying Santa Claus reported that “John L. Lewis just missed me . . . ” (Flynn, p. 136)

In our Santa-centric society, speaking the truth about the myth of St. Nick is often done at one’s own peril. As many of you may have also discovered, finding out that truth—not to mention speaking it—can be difficult, especially when the forces of society are plotting to keep it covered with a thick North Pole snow job.

Profiles in Christmas Courage: Tales from the Files of Outspoken Santa Debunkers

Over the years, I have collected news stories dealing with the Santa myth. This hobby is, no doubt, grounded in my own sense of personal betrayal concerning the fable of St. Nick.

It has been heartening to me, however, to see that despite objections by society at large against those who would topple Santa from his magical pedestal, truth-tellers have refused to remain silent.

The Priest Who Dared Declare Santa Dead

Those of have burst the Santa bubble have incurred the wrath of even God’s servants.

In an article headlined, “Christmyth: Priest says parents lie, Santa dead,” a man of the cloth was tagged and gagged by his own church:

A priest who told youngsters that Santa Claus is dead and that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer doesn’t exist was acting on his "zeal to emphasize the spiritual dimension" of Christmas, church officials said Tuesday.

The Diocese of Metuchen issued a statement to clarify comments by the Rev. Romano Ferraro at the St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church in Colonia [New Jersey] on Saturday.

Ferraro also had said that parents who tell their children Santa exists are liars.

"He tried to kill Santa," said Joanne Apolonia, a mother who attended the weekend Mass at the Church with her "Confraternity of Christian Doctrine" class. "That’s how the kids took it."

The sermon started "very nicely," with Ferraro explaining St. Nicholas’ history and telling the children that the saint distributed presents to the poor, a forerunner of gift-giving, said Apolonia, who attended with her daughter.

But Ferraro than said that just as Saint Nicholas is dead, so is Santa Claus, she said. He also said there is no North Pole and no Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. . . .

During a discussion after Mass . . . a fifth-grader asked whether the sermon meant parents were liars, Apolonia said.

Ferraro answered, "yes," Apolonia said, and told the kids, who ranged from first-graders to sixth-graders, "If you pretend to be sleeping (on Christmas Eve), you’ll catch your parents putting presents under the tree." . . .

"The emphasis on the birth of Christ and his love is to be paramount at Christmas," said Father Francis J. Sergel, pastor at St. John’s. "It is unfortunate that Father Ferraro . . . may have appeared to diminish the importance which many, especially children, attach to some of the cultural and secular aspects of the season.

“We regret any lack of sensitivity and any disappointment or disillusionment on the part of the children.”

Sergel also apologized for any awkwardness or difficulty the comments may have caused parents. . . .

Robert Madison, whose child also attended, said the parents "are going nuts" over the priest’s comments. Ferraro has "taken away something very special to little children," Madison said.

The Rev. Robert Wister, associate dean at the School of Theology at Seton Hall University said, "The priest’s main purpose was to focus the people on the centrality of Christ and draw them away from the commercialism of the holiday.

"I’ve given sermons with that theme, but I never killed Santa."
(Associated Press, dateline: Woodbridge, New Jersey, reprinted in The Arizona Republic, 10 December 1986, p. D2)

The Little Girl Whose Anti-Santa Stance Caused a Class to Cry

Others, including even little children, have paid the price for telling the truth about Santa--including being taken out of school.

In a news story entitled, “Pupil kills cherished Santa belief, classmates sob,” the kindergarten teacher of student Cherish Stutts ordered her “not to say such things” when the teacher overheard Cherish tell “other students that Santa Claus wasn’t real.”

As a result of the teacher’s action, Cherish’s mother decided the girl was:

going to stay home from school for the rest of the year to defend her right to [not believe in jolly old St. Nicholas] . . .

“I’m going to home-school her,” the mother said. “The children were discovering that not everybody thinks alike. That is a fact of life.” . . .

Cherish’s teacher violated the girl’s rights when the teacher took the pupil aside . . . and asked her to keep her skepticism about Santa Claus to herself, Debra Stutts said.

But Principal Gradon Axtell said the teacher talked to the girl only after several crying classmates told her about Cherish’s opinions.

Axtell said he stands by the teacher’s actions.

“Here (pupils) are all excited about S. Nicholas, and here is a little girl coming along and saying there is not a Santa Claus,” Axtell said.

In a related story, Cherish’s mother "said her daughter never has believed in Santa Claus because she was told the true story of how Santa came to be."

(Associated Press, dateline: Green Bay, Wisconsin, reprinted in The Arizona Republic, 9 December 1989; and “Pupil fights for right not to believe in Santa,” reprinted in The Phoenix Gazette, 9 December 1989, p. B6 )

The Case of the Santa-Sacking Gym Teacher

David Henry--a P.E. teacher at Fairwood Elementary School in Kent, Washington--landed in hot water when parents of five- and six-year-old students said it wasn’t:

his business . . . .[to force their children] to put away their visions of sugar plums and view the world with Scroogelike realism. . . .

Henry . . . touched of an unseasonable controversy . . . by attempting to destroy one of the most cherished myths in Christendom.

. . . [F]or reasons he will not disclose, Henry sat down children in gym classes from kindergarten to third grade . . . and told the students that Virginia had been deceived: There is no Santa Claus.

“He told them mommy and daddy were Santa Claus,” said Rob Robson, whose daughter Amanda is a kindergartner at Fairwood. “I was really upset. He’s a gym teacher and I think it’s way out of his realm to be talking about Christmas and things that really don’t pertain to what he teaches.” . . .

Henry’s action violated no rules, [Kent School District spokeswoman Judy] Parker said.

“This is not considered an infraction against any district policy," she said. “We do not have any policy on Santa.”
(“Truth hurts: Gym teacher gives lowdown on Santa,” dateline: Kent, Washington, reprinted in The Phoenix Gazette, 1 January 1994, p. A2)

Fake Santa Tells the Kids That Santa Is a Fake

Then there was the case where children got it straight from the ho-ho-hoer’s mouth.

Headlined, “Mall Santa loses clout with kids: Sorry Virginia . . . gift says he’s fake,” a news story described how one storefront Santa delivered a blow to his own myth, along with his gift:

Santa Claus handed a book with a singularly blunt message to the suburban Virginia tots who sat on his lap at Tysons Corner Center last week: There really is no Santa.

After listening to what the youngsters wanted for Christmas, letting them tug on his beard and posing for pictures, the jolly old elf at the Vienna, Va., shopping mall gave each child a stocking stuffer from his sack: a children’s book called “A Pee Wee Christmas.”

The book’s disclosure that Santa doesn’t exist caused trouble. . . . [A]fter a Vienna mother complained, the mall pulled the books from Santa’s sack. . . .

After [Linda] Smyth brought it to their attention, red-faced mall officials quickly reread the book, and by Saturday, Santa was offering Christmas stickers and fingerprinting kits instead. . . .

“What can I say?” Tysons General Manager Jim Foster asked Sunday. “We screwed up.” . . .

“It’s just so absurd, the irony of it,” said . . . Smyth, a nurse who took her 4-year-old son, Logan, to visit St. Nicholas . . . . “Here’s Santa handing out the one thing saying he doesn’t exist. . . . ”

(originally published in The Washington Post, reprinted in The Arizona Republic, 26 November 1989, p. A3)

santa-godThe Negative Effects of Perpetrating the Santa Myth

Just how psychologically and intellectually healthy is it to foist upon children the lie that Santa is real?

In answer, author Tom Flynn offers ten compelling reasons “Why Thoughtful People Should ‘Just Say No’ to Santa Claus.”

Reason #1: ”To teach and perpetrate the Santa Claus myth, parents must lie to their children.”

Flynn contends that the Santa story “is not innocent ‘sharing of fantasy,’ as defenders claim. It is a lie, and one in which parents are always caught, eroding children’s trust at a critical time.”

Flynn notes that children who discover that they have been lied to by their parents about Santa may cause damage to them in later years. Flynn quotes the observation of John Shlien, who warns that the destruction of belief “leaves a cynical disillusionment which occasionally shows up among the trauma in case-histories of maladjusted adults.”

Flynn also cites the warning of Dr. Lee Salk, director of pediatric psychology at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center: “A child should be told from the beginning that Santa is a make believe person or it might create an early credibility gap between parent and child.”

The components of the Santa lie are sweeping and subversive. Describing some of these deceptions as “uncomfortably reminiscent of a childlike view of God,” Flynn offers a sampling of the lies parents “must tell to initiate kids into the Santa tradition:”

--A benign force reigns over the world from a headquarters at the North Pole.

--Santa sees--and records—everything that happens. On the upside nothing is overlooked. On the downside, no child has privacy.

--Every child receives his or her just desserts each year, based on a global judgment whether the child has been "good" or "bad."

--Santa physically visits every family with children in the world in one night.

--Since Santa is the source of all the bounty of Christmas, holiday cheer originates outside of the family and is unrelated to the family’s emotional or economic needs.
(Flynn, p. 129)

Flynn then asks tough questions about long-term consequences of, in the name of Santa, deceiving vulnerable children:

What price are we paying for lying to children about Santa Claus? It may be steeper than we think. Because the myth panders to childhood credulity, some have implicated it in the rising incidence of scientific illiteracy among the young. Because it encourages children to build their world views on authority, not on independent thinking, others have related it to the abysmal judgment supposedly displayed by young adults. Can parents honestly be surprised when children do not consult them before experimenting with sex, drugs, crime, or destructive relationships--so soon after their parents have made it clear that children cannot trust them to provide accurate knowledge of the world? A Christian parent put the issue clearly in a letter to the editor:

“Certainly we can’t get away with lies for seven to ten years and then expect children to “outgrow” Santa . . . then suddenly expect them to believe us when we mention high intensity moral issues.

“Simply being honest with our children, in my opinion, would outweigh anything Santa ever brought.” (Flynn, pp. 129-30, 132, 148)

Reason #2: ”The Santa Claus myth exploits characteristic weakness in young children’s thinking, perhaps obstructing their passage to later stages of cognitive development”.

Flynn explains how lying about Santa exploits childhood tendencies to accept simplistic religious claims:

Parents who lie about Santa Claus catch their children at a vulnerable age. Youngsters have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality as it is. . . .

Recent research suggests that the Santa Claus myth attracts the young because it exploits the same cognitive predispositions that help children learn religion . . .

Young minds might embrace religious ideas of varying complexity at characteristic ages. A . . . study by child psychologist Fritz K. Oser . . . [showed that] . . . [a]t the ages when belief in Santa peaks . . . children tend to hold a blend of two naïve religious views. The simplest [Stage One] imagines God as a distant, powerful ultimate being and a stern, unpredictable judge. . . . At the next level [Stage Two], God is still imagined as an external judge, but . . . [this latter] . . . deity can be influenced by good behavior. Such ideas echo the religions of sacrifice, familiar from ancient history and the pages of the Old Testament. . . .

Like the stage One God, Santa Claus is external and powerful. He observes from a distance and metes out justice (presents or coal) based on what he sees.

Like the more advanced State Two God, Santa Claus can be bought. Children learn that they can purchase Santa’s blessing and guaranteed themselves a merry Christmas by “being good.”

Flynn also debunks the notion that belief in Santa Claus produces good behavior in children:

According to the stereotype, the Santa myth . . . is said to help children outgrow the selfishness of early childhood and develop adult ideas about generosity and giving. Research suggests otherwise. When educational psychologists David J. Dixon and Harry L. Hom sought links between charitable acts by children and their belief in Santa Claus, they came up empty. So much for the idea that parents can justify lying about Santa because it makes their children better people. . . .

Like a true virus, the Santa Claus myth turns the wheels of society toward purposes unrelated to human welfare. It exploits the nascent religious sensibilities of children, if such there be. It compels parents to tell, and later to defend, insupportable lies. At the end, the Santa Claus myth benefits only itself.
(Flynn, pp. 132-34)

Reason #3: ”To buoy belief, adults stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child’s developing intellect”

Flynn describes how the Santa lie breeds distrust and cynicism in children toward everybody:

Disillusioned eight-year-olds don’t just learn that their parents lied to them, they learn that society invested tremendous energies to drag out the lie a little longer. No one can be trusted.

Deception about Santa begins at home. Kids begin to notice how many Santas there are at the mall. They spot the present from Santa that is wrapped with the same paper as gift from Mom and Dad. They ask how Santa can visit every house in the world in one night. It gets harder to confine the kids to their room after lights--out on Christmas Eve--time parents need to set the stage for the drama of Christmas morning. As the lies become more elaborate, and correspondingly hard to keep straight, some parents begin to feel “like a burned-out secret agent ready to come in from the cold.” . . .

Moreover, the Santa lie, on the one hand, discourages the development of critical thinking and, on the other, fosters belief in the preposterous.

Notes Flynn:

As boys and girls detect successive contradictions in the myth, always to get smokescreened by fast-talking adults, they learn to distrust their own observations and their powers of deduction. In place of independent discovery, they learn to settle for the leaden substitute of data presented by authority figures and learned by rote. . . . Too often children keep faith in Santa until they have lost faith in inquiry. . . .

After we spend our children’s formative years lying about Santa Claus and sabotaging their early efforts to unravel the myth for themselves, we stand before them revealed not merely as liars, but as the architects of an elaborate deception. Yet we are unashamed. Should we wonder when our children grow up as quick to lie as we were, or when they stumble into adulthood even easier to deceive than we? . . . Children can hardly be blamed for growing up to prefer magical thinking, paranormal beliefs, or exotic sectarian creeds to reality and critical thinking, or for grasping at any glittering lie to "add a tinsel splendour to the plain straight road of our life."
(Flynn, pp. 134, 137)

Reason #4: ”The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear.”

It is unwise parents who hold Santa over the heads of their children as a god-like promise of reward for good behavior and as a divine threat of punishment for bad.

Flynn writes:

Children see Santa as an all-seeing judge who holds in one hand the carrot of Christmas, in the other a stick shaped like a lump of coal. The temptation for parents to abuse the myth is strong. “Mothers get a lot of mileage out of Christmas,” Erma Bombeck once observed. Parents do not imagine the damage they may do when they use the Claus as a club.

This omnipresent Santa figure, like the myth of an all-seeing God, reminds children that there is no place for them to hide:

The Santa myth teaches kids that they live in a world without privacy. The idea of a watcher who overlooks not a single forbidden actions or a single wayward thought--even one parents miss--can hardly fail to terrify some children. . . .

In essence, Flynn argues, parents who use Santa to produce compliant children are making “coalitions with God by:”

. . . extract[ing] obedience by threatening children with divine punishment. The children believe that God sees what they do, knows what they think, and punishes wrong actions. Viewed like this, God is the equivalent of Santa Claus. . . .

[I]f parents can harm their children by claiming that God is their back-up, using Santa Claus that way is probably harmful, too.
(Flynn, pp. 137-38)

Reason #5: ”The number of characteristics that Santa Claus shares with God and Jesus verges on the blasphemous.”

Children do, indeed, make definite connections in their minds between Santa and God. As Flynn notes:

Research studies, personal anecdotes, and press reports illustrate the links between Santa Claus, God, and Jesus in the popular mind. One psychologist . . . [reported] that children’s belief in Santa Claus “lays the groundwork for later belief in God.” . . . Arnold Gesell, director of the Yale Clinic of Child Development, revealed that three-year-olds he had studied understood the concept of Santa Claus before they knew the concept of God. John Shlien reported that four- and five-year-olds would not eat candies shaped like Santa Claus, a behavior thought to show reverence. Another writer complained in the 1930s about overhearing his daughter praying to Santa Claus.

Examples of the similarities between Jesus and St. Nick in the following areas have been provided by Idaho secular humanist Ralph Nielsen:


Santa Claus: Flying reindeer
Jesus: Angels

Santa Claus: Covering the world in one night
Jesus: Bringing the Word to all nations

Santa: Bottomless bag of toys
Jesus: Loaves and fishes


Santa Claus: Elves
Jesus: Apostles

Santa Claus: Letters to Santa
Jesus: Prayers (especially pledges of good behavior in return for favors)

Santa Claus: Milk and cookies
Jesus: Bread and wine

Santa Claus: Immortal
Jesus: Immortal

Santa Claus: All-seeing, all-knowing
Jesus: All-seeing, all-knowing

Santa Claus: Rewards and punishes behavior
Jesus: Rewards and punishes behavior

Santa Claus: Lives at white, pure North Pole
Jesus: Lives in white, pure heaven


Santa Claus: Fat
Jesus: Thin

Santa Claus: Jolly
Jesus: Serene

Santa Claus: Creature of winter
Jesus: Lived in deserts

Santa Claus: Brings toys, luxuries
Jesus: Brings health, spiritual necessities
(Flynn, pp. 138-140)

Reason #6: ”The Santa myth harms children’s cognitive and emotional development and damages family dynamics.”

It is part of what Flynn describes as the “emotionally twisted subtexts” of Christmas celebration.

For starters, Flynn notes that Santa’s promise of reward or vow of punishment is simply too vague for small children to meaningfully comprehend:

If a merry Christmas depends on being a good boy or girl, they will struggle to be good even if they are not sure what “good” or “bad” means.

Flynn quotes Steven A. Gelb who, in his article, “Christmas Programming in Schools; Unintended Consequences” (Childhood Education October 1987), argues that:

Telling children to be “good” so that Santa will be pleased and give them presents . . . is counterproductive—not only because it encourages children to look outside themselves for standards, but because the words “good” and “bad” convey little information, especially to young children.

Citing Eric R. Wolf, Flynn further notes that the Santa myth harms parent-child relationships by serving to enforce upon children their parents’ “own distorted, nostalgic vision of a ‘golden age of childhood.’” Noting the observations of psychiatrist Renzo Sereno, Flynn writes that parents who do so are themselves “seek[ing] meaning, comfort and reassurance in religion or mystical ideas.”

Santa also plays the role of a convenient scapegoat for parents:

[According to sociologist Warren Hagstrom], [i]f a child has fixed his or her heart on a gift the parent cannot afford, or receives the wrong present because a Christmas list was misunderstood, the parent can always resort to the callow argument that “Santa knows best.” . . . [Santa Claus is also useful] in allowing parents to give gifts without appearing to demand anything in return. As social psychologist Barry Schwartz noted, accepting a gift which one cannot reciprocate is an admission of social inferiority that even children can understand.

Finally, Flynn cites Sereno’s view that parents employ the Santa Claus lie “as a buffer because they are unsure whether they deserve their children’s love:”

”[Parents] need the reassurance of such deceitful acts in order to secure from their children the feelings and the conduct which should be their right and their duty to expect. Instead of letting their love flow, the parents attempt to strike a bargain . . . The child . . . begins to nourish doubts about the love of his parents, and resents being obligated to a mythical ludicrous stranger, rather than being tied by love to those he loves most . . .[P]arental love—diffused through a maze of pointless and never explained ceremonies—is wholly lost.” (Flynn, pp. 141-42)

Reason #7: ”The Santa myth stunts moral development because it encourages children to judge themselves globally, as good or bad persons, rather than to judge positive or negative behavior.”

Flynn points out the confusion generated by the Santa lie in the minds of children as to their individual, personal worth:

. . . [T]hey will strive to be “good” even if they do not understand the distinction between being a “good child” and being a child who usually does good things.

The distinction matters. Do we want to teach our children to evaluate their behaviors, to see which can be improved? Or do we want them to score themselves as persons? Most child psychologists prefer the first strategy. When it is time to judge actions, positive or negative evaluation are applied to the acts, not to the child’s personhood. It is healthy to explain to a child why he or she has done a foolish thing but harmful to say that because of that behavior, he or she is a foolish child.

The Santa Claus myth gets it backwards. Christmas morning is the biggest report card of the year. Presents--or coal? A year’s worth of behavior funnels into that stocking; either you were a good child or you were a bad child.
(Flynn, p 142, original emphasis)

Reason #8: “The myth promotes selfish and acquisitive attitudes among children.”

As if the commercialized orgy of the contemporary holiday season is not bad enough, Flynn notes that the St. Nick lie “prepares children to become docile members of consumer culture:”

In a study of children’s letters to Santa Claus, kids always asked Santa for material items, not new skills, intangible benefits for other family members, or good health. By contrast, when the same children listed their desires in contexts not associated with Santa Claus, fewer than half of their requests concerned material objects. (original emphasis)

Citing “masterful” research in this area, Flynn says that Santa becomes a key figure in seducing children into becoming “materially indulgent” commercial feeders by :

[teaching them] that life is so full of free lunches, there may not be enough noontimes to eat them all. In this way kids are groomed to assume their roles as American consumers, grasping for happiness with each new purchase. . . . [Thus,] . . . virtue is not its own reward, but if we are good enough a reward will eventually appear. (Flynn, pp. 143-44)

Reason #9: “Children may not enjoy the Santa Claus drama as much as parental nostalgia suggests.”

Contrary to what parents may want to think, many children--particularly the younger ones--view Santa Claus with a certain amount distress and uneasiness. As an indicator of that, recall how many small children recoil, protest and cry when placed on Santa’s lap in the mall. (Flynn, p. 144)

Reason #10: ”Contemporary authorities who defend the Santa myth on psychotherapeutic grounds fail to make a convincing case."

Contrary to the assertion of self-proclaimed “friends of Santa” who say that discouraging belief in the St. Nick myth throws children into an unfriendly world, Flynn notes that no evidence exists in the literature “that children denied the Santa Claus myth grow up “to hate reality.”

Ultimately, Flynn says, the problem with the Santa myth is that:

. . . Santa is viewed not as myth or metaphor, but as fact. . . .

American culture treats the figure of Santa Claus too literally for the myth to function as a true fable. It is time for mental health and child development professionals to reopen their minds and ask whether the Santa myth is good for children.
(Flynn, p. 146)

santa_mormonConclusion: Chucking Santa in Favor of Checking Reality

As recovering ex-Mormons who have learned through our own difficult and painful experiences not to depend on harmful magical, superstitious, and “godly” beliefs spoken to us in authoritarian tones by God's supposedly designated conveyors of "truth," what should we consider teaching our children about the Jolly Old Elf?

That can be a tough question--given that we live in a society fixated on perpetuating fantasies for a variety of deep, psychological reasons--but at a high cost to authenticity.

In an article entitled, “Is Santa Claus real? Question never grows old for children,” Maureen Downey of Cox News Service writes:

Santa Claus brings children toys and parents a quandary.

Do you pretend that St. Nick brought the tricycle, or come clean on who fills the stockings?

Should you fall back on the old “Santa is the spirit of love” speech?

Ethicist Judith Boss of the University of Rhode Island advocates honesty, saying, “Children depend on their parents for a realistic view of the world.” . . .

But even if a parent opts for candor, children may still insist Santa is real, says Atlanta psychologist Cathy Blusiewicz.

“It is going to be hard to convince them, because a lot of other people are pushing the idea--grandparents, nursery school teachers and peers,” she says.
(The Arizona Republic, 22 December 1991, p. G7)

Still, psychologists suggest that honesty is the best policy with children, when it comes to debunking the Santa myth.

In an article entitled, “Kids weigh evidence, make own decision on Santa’s existence,” Nancy Curry, a child-development specialist at the University of Pittsburg, notes:

“Once they [children] start to question, you know they’re getting ready to want to hear the real answer.” . . . .

Curry recommends to parents that “[w]hen the child starts to ask the practical questions, then throw it back to them and say, ‘Well, what do you think?’”

The article continues:

Curry said talking to children about whether Santa Claus exists is a little like talking to them about sex.

“Usually, the children will ask questions and not need great, long full explanations,” she said.

“Usually, it’s good for adults to listen to children and get what their ideas are.”

The article further notes that according to:

[a] study by two New York psychologists of more than 500 children, . . . on average, children believe in Santa Claus until they are about 7-and-a-half years old, often carefully weighing the evidence before coming to a conclusion.

Most children believe in Santa Claus because books, advertising, the entire culture tells them he is real, said Cynthia Scheibe of New York’s Ithaca College, co-author of the study with John Condry of Cornell University.

“The evidence clearly supports that Santa Claus is real, given what (children) know, give the fact that most adults say Santa Claus is real, that he brings you presents and you can see him,” she said.

“For adults, it’s an issue that Santa couldn’t get to all the houses in one night, but magic is a pretty good answer for kids." . . .

Scheibe said it is best for an adult to confirm the truth only if a child has strong doubts after wrestling with the question of Santa Claus’ existence.

"If kids come to the conclusion on their own, they feel a sense of accomplishment," she said.

“It’s sort of a rite of passage.”

Curry said it is fun to put out cookies and milk for Santa, help kids mail wish lists to the North Pole, and clean out the chimney on Christmas Eve, but she cautioned against using Ol’ St. Nick as a means of discipline.

“The ‘you better watch out,’ that kind of stuff, that can be kind of manipulative,” she said.”
(Associated Press, dateline: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, reprinted in The Arizona Republic, 25 December 1987, p. D6)

Flynn offers five specific suggestions to help parents “steer clear” of encouraging negative Santa myths that are damaging to the emotional, psychological and intellectual well-being of their children:

--"Tell your kids that the Santa Claus myth is not true.

--Make clear to children that it is parents and relatives, not supernatural visitors, who put those presents under the Christmas tree.

--Do not call Santa Claus a metaphor, an allegory, or 'the spirit of giving.' Just say that Santa Claus is a false belief that other people sometimes teach their children. Present it as you might a peculiar religious doctrine: If other children believe in Santa, that is their right, and their sincerity in so believing it oughtn’t to be impugned. But none of that requires entertaining for a moment the idea that belief in Santa Claus is either true or beneficial.

--Tell children why Santa Claus has no place in your household.Instill elementary principles of critical thinking: a realistic outlook, a respect for truth, and an appreciation for cause and effect.

--Encourage (or at least permit) children to share their Santa skepticism with friends, at school, and during recreational activities. This is vital even if it leads to confrontations with neighbors, relatives, or teachers who accuse your kids of 'ruining other children’s Christmas.' Should this occur, defend your children’s open iconoclasm. Challenge critics who stoop to such negative stereotypes as ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Grinch.’ Most important, be sure children know that—and how—you supported them in their stance.” (Flynn, p. 147, original emphasis)

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