Written by Dr Alberto Giubilini.
As we all know, Santa Claus is a good and benevolent old chap: he brings presents and tries the best he can to fulfil children’s wishes. But he is also fair: he only brings presents to those who have been good, and coal to the naughty ones. He makes the rules, and you have to play by his rules: you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, and, well, you know why.
Because no one has ever seen him, many people think that Santa Claus does not exist. But many, many others think that he does. In the US, for example, 85% of 5 year old children believe that Santa Claus exists, and the belief remains quite strong up to the age of 8. In the UK, 92% of children 8 years old or younger believe in Father Christmas – he’s still Santa, by a different name -, at least as reported by their parents (this datum might be a bit inflated by the fact that some children do not want their parents to find out that they – the children – have stopped believing, so they keep their parents’ illusions alive for as long as possible).
To date, there is no conclusive evidence to settle the dispute about Santa’s existence. Thus, one can at best be an agnostic, not a non-believer. As is often the case, believing in something that you cannot see comes with a load of other beliefs. In particular, those who believe in Santa will also believe that he sees you when you’re sleepin’, he knows when you’re awake, and he knows if you’ve been bad or good (hence, just be good for goodness sake). That is quite remarkable, and makes you think that Santa is more God-like than human.
Now, the question is: should children (be allowed to) believe in Santa? I think so. But some experts think otherwise. Although there is no conclusive evidence to drop or uphold the belief in the existence of Santa, there are psychological and moral issues at stake that suggest that it’d be better not to believe in Santa.
Some psychology and philosophy experts interviewed by the Conversation think that believing in Santa can be harmful or at least “not helpful” to children. Some of them think that the non-believers, especially in their parental role, should, if asked, convince the believers, especially their own children, to join the non-believers group. The way they should do so is, according to the experts, very simple: if asked, just don’t lie about the existence of Santa Claus.
Now, since we cannot know for sure, one cannot technically “lie” about Santa’s existence. It would be a bit like lying about the existence of intelligent forms of life somewhere in the universe, outside planet Earth. But we can rephrase the experts’ point here by saying that non-believers should not lie about what they themselves believe. If they believe Santa does not exist, they should simply say so; however, to be more credible, they should make their statement not as if it expressed a propositional attitude,, i.e. “I believe that Santa does not exist”, but as a statement about matters of facts, i.e. “Santa does not exist”.
But why not lying about Santa, at least for a few years of a child’s life? True, lying in general is wrong and finding out that your parents lied to you can undermine your trust in them. However, most people get over it quite easily and everybody at some point forgives their parents for having lied about Santa. Besides, isn’t one’s memory of one’s childhood time spent waiting for Santa Claus, and sharing hopes and happiness for the presents with one’s family, one of the dearest and most meaningful memories a person can have? Why take all this away from children? Many people grow up and abandon the religious dimension of Christmas, but very few of them also abandon the spirit of Christmas and the desire to pass it on to new generations.
According to one of the experts interviewed by the Conversation, “Santa supposedly encourages imagination but (…) you’re really asking children to suspend criticality and believe a fiction. (…) [f]antasy and imagination work because we choose to believe what we know isn’t true. Far from promoting wonder, the Santa story encourages children to be consumers of others’ ideas”.
And we don’t want children to suspend criticality and believe in fiction for a few years, do we? We want children to critically engage with evidence and arguments, as adults do. Yes, we do.
Admittedly, the idea of an old man with a long beard who knows everything about you, who knows whether you’ve been bad or good even if you never get to see him, who rewards the good people and punishes the naughty ones, who makes promises only by proxy (in most cases, through parents of young children who claim to know better what he thinks) might concede too much to children’s imagination and hopes. Adults do not believe such things, do they? It’d be good if children started thinking and behaving like grown-ups as soon as possible.
Also, by believing in Santa, children might also believe that good behaviour is valuable not only or even not primarily intrinsically, but just as a means to get the promised reward and to escape punishment. Children might stop being good when they change their mind about the existence of Santa. So it is better if children learn that doing good is a moral requirement and that the value of doing good does not reside in some future reward. That is what adults do: they do not do all the good things they do just because they expect to be rewarded by a god-like being, do they?
All in all, children’s happiness, hopes and sense of fulfilment in finding out they have been good enough to deserve presents from Santa on Christmas day is not worth all the damage that the belief in Santa will make on children’s capacity for “criticality”.
Not so fast, though. Some of the experts say that you should tell your children that (you believe that) Santa does not exist only if explicitly asked. This sounds strange. Let them believe in Santa, put presents under the Christmas tree, and don’t forget milk and biscuits for Santa’s reindeers, but this all must stop as soon as children ask. As psychologist Ameneh Shahaeian, a research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, puts it, “[o]f course we don’t need to sit down and discuss this with every child and at any age, but if the discussion comes up or if the child asks the question, then the correct answer is the best”. This is because, according to her, “when a child asks the question as to whether Santa is real or not, they’re already at a developmental stage to distinguish between reality and fictional characters”. I don’t know what evidence she has for this claim. It seems that she thinks that children would ask this question only when they are mature enough to accept the idea that Santa does not exist. But I don’ t see why we should think this is the case on most or even on many occasions. It depends a lot on when a child asks, and in what circumstances, and on the reasons why they ask (maybe they overheard an adult or an older child speak about Christmas presents?). Evidence suggests that around the age of 7 children tend to figure out by themselves that Santa is not real (but we should say: they start to believe that Santa does not exist). Unless we assume that a child always asks when psychologically ready to know the truth, and therefore when deep inside they already know the answer, there seems to be no reason not to lie about Santa Claus, at least if we think that there is no reason to start the conversation ourselves and tell them the truth when they are still very young and much younger than 7. Why think that lying is not ok, but letting children believe something that is not true and behaving in a way that supports their beliefs (e.g. putting presents under the Christmas tree) is ok? If it is not acceptable to destroy a child’s innocent illusion, one that gives them a kind of joy they will probably remember with pleasant feelings for the rest of their life, by starting the conversation, it seems it is not acceptable to tell them that Santa doesn’t exist if explicitly asked either, unless the child is old enough. But if the child is old enough, then it seems parents should also start the conversation themselves without waiting to be asked.
Perhaps the problem is that the illusion is not so innocent, after all. As philosopher Peter Ellerton notes in the same Conversation piece, the problem with lying about Santa is that “if only good children get presents, what does that say about poor families? What value judgments are being formed? What if children themselves are poor? How does this narrative impact their sense of self-worth?”. No evidence is provided for the suggestion that receiving lower quality presents for Christmas significantly impact on a child’s sense of self-worth. In any case, other narratives we commonly accept might have the same impact on children’s sense of self-worth and therefore be not so innocent, including religious narratives ( why does God treat some people better than others? Are wealthy people simply more worthy than poor ones by divine order, since neither have any responsibility for who they are and where they were born?). Also, children typically associate positive feelings with Santa Claus and the childhood memories they build through Santa Claus. If you think that it would be better to forego this whole dimension of one’s childhood experience to avoid an alleged cost in terms of diminished sense of self-worth, then some evidence for the harmful impact of Santa Claus in terms of sense of self-worth is needed. Absent that, it seems the positive aspects of the whole Santa’s experience, including for poor children, outweigh any consideration about alleged loss of sense of self-worth.
But one might still think that the mere possibility of the impact on children’s sense of self-worth when they compare their presents with those of their wealthier peers is sufficient reason to dismiss this whole Santa Claus business. It does not matter that other things already impact on children’s sense of self-worth. The point is that we need to do something about this. So why not start by eliminating Santa Claus? After all, it seems as good a starting point as any other.
So, here we are: farewell Santa Claus. I am sorry, but we can’t let children indulge in the idea of a god-like benevolent and fair man that knows everything about them and rewards the good ones and punishes the bad ones. Dear Santa, this is just not what adult human beings do. Even if they will stop believing in you at some point and you will only be a sweet memory throughout their adult life, there is simply too much at stake, from a psychological and ethical point of view. Yes, farewell Santa.
Thus, to answer the question in the title, here is the bad news: no, we should not believe in Santa Claus. Too dangerous. But I also have some good news. The first good news is that Santa Claus does not really care about what you or your children believe, and he will not be upset and will not punish you if you don’t believe in him. So there is no harm in not believing. And here is some more good news: whether or not you believe in him, he will still be doing his job every year, and you can always see him in shopping malls taking pictures with children, on tv ads, or walking in the street raising money for charities. Only, he is not the real Santa Claus, the one that knows if you’ve been bad or good. But who needs the real one, when we can simply use our imagination?