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Magical Thinking

Confusing Santa Claus With God

What do kids reveal about grown-up beliefs?

Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Every year about this time, we get what should be a powerful insight into our own behavior, and every year most of us refuse to take it in. It's simply this: Kids are as gullible about Santa Claus as we are about God. The two beliefs are nearly identical and the only reason kids stop believing in Santa Claus is that we, the adults, tell them it was all a lie. If we didn't stop the game, they probably wouldn't stop believing. Why would they? By then there’d probably be megachurches for Santa and slick TV Santologists asking for donations.

Willgard Krause/Pixabay
Source: Willgard Krause/Pixabay

That should tell us a lot about ourselves. Santa Claus meets a profound human need to believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful human-like figure with superpowers who looks after us and has our best interests at heart. Both God and Santa may have magical powers, but they are sufficiently human for us to connect with. They are not “abstract” or “beyond our understanding.” We know they both have agendas and we’re encouraged to live our lives accordingly. And we know that God and Santa both control powerful consequences for us.

If you were thinking of starting up a new religion, Pascal Boyer (2001) has offered a blueprint for a successful God figure. It turns out you couldn't ask for a more effective candidate than Santa Claus. Santa checks off all the boxes in Boyer’s list of effective God qualities. Not surprisingly, it doesn't take much for kids to accept Santa Claus, believe in his power, and try to please him. In fact, it is easier for a child to believe in Santa Claus than to resist such belief. Similarly, it takes less effort for most adults to believe in God than to become atheists. This has nothing to do with the “truth” of such beliefs. It simply reflects the way supernatural beliefs map onto the cognitive architecture of our minds, and how widely and conspicuously supported such beliefs already are in our culture.

It doesn't hurt that Santa gets a lot of outside help. He’s a good “meme” (Blackmore, 1999). Society reinforces and enables Santa by making him a major part of popular culture. People talk about him, sing about him, and show him in popular movies and books. It's really a shame that we blow the whole Santa thing almost overnight for the kids. In doing that, we leave them with a huge hole in their psyches. They still have that abiding need for a magic, caring, all-powerful figure, and we are only too glad to replace Santa Claus with a more up-to-date version that even the adults can participate in.

Santa Claus is really God with training wheels

Once they've had practice believing in Old Saint Nick, kids don't require much shaping to accept another magic figure in the sky who has essentially the same abilities and wants the same thing from them. Pleasing Santa, pleasing God, what's the difference? The bottom line is, there is someone all-knowing and all-powerful who cares about you, and who watches over you.

In the case of God, who is geared to a more adult audience, the requirements are a little more sophisticated, and so are the consequences. We adults are in it for more than toys and candy canes. Our needs are bigger, although we don't hesitate to beg and bargain just like a child. Unlike Santa, who either comes through for you or doesn't, God is a lot more powerful. The way we've constructed him, God can actively punish. Just read the Old Testament. This is a being who doesn’t hesitate to let you know his displeasure in more devastating ways than withholding a Game Boy.

Talking to a magician

Some years ago, I had an animated conversation with magician and social critic Penn Jillette, whose wife was expecting their first child at the time. Penn told me in no uncertain terms that he would not allow Santa Claus into their home. I believe the phrase “God with training wheels” emerged during that conversation. Penn hoped to immunize his kids against theism by keeping Santa at bay. The idea is certainly not without support. Belk (1987) analyzed similarities between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, including the role of miracles, gifts, prayer, and omniscience, and concluded that Santa Claus is a secular version of Christ.

Speaking as an evolutionary psychologist, I asked Penn if he really believed he could insulate his children from latching onto a magical omniscient, omnipotent character by keeping Santa Claus out of his home? I told him I thought he was fighting a rear-guard action against some powerful evolutionary wiring that predisposed us to accept powerful controlling figures. It begins with our parents, and moves on to our grandparents, and “tribal elders” such as teachers and doctors. The progression is obvious in the way kids latch onto Santa Claus. But Santa is just an early choice; God is the ultimate version for most people. Could Penn really banish such a hardwired human pattern?

“It doesn't always work,” he pointed out. “Look at you and me. We didn't fall for it.”

What do kids believe?

I wondered what we really knew about kids’ beliefs. Working with my student Stephanie Tytus, we interviewed kids ages 4-6 to learn what they believed about Santa Claus and God. The results were remarkably consistent and in some cases pretty amusing.

In general, kids had a difficult time distinguishing between Santa and God. Often when they started talking about one, they ended up talking about the other. They knew both were human-looking, had magical powers, and lived “up there” as many of them put it. Some of the youngest ones got confused and reported God living in the North Pole and Santa living in heaven. Interestingly, such confusion is not confined to children. [Footnote 1]

Kids believed neither God nor Santa were hemmed in by the laws of physics and could move freely through time and space, including being in two places at once. Kids saw the similar physical appearance of God and Santa (both are old white guys) and reported that they had similar agendas (they want us to be good). They knew it was useless to try to fool either character—the "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" syndrome. Many kids quoted the line “He sees you when you're sleeping/He knows when you're awake,” but many weren’t sure whether it applied to God or Santa or both.

This post is not about being the Grinch

I love Christmastime and, unlike Penn Jillette, I enjoy the idea of sharing Santa Claus with kids. It's a joyous childhood fantasy. I don't think you're going to change Human Nature by boarding up the chimney and keeping Santa out of your house.

But there is another part of human nature that I also value. I cherish our quest for knowledge and understanding, even when the results of adult understanding don’t sit well with our childhood beliefs. Having the ability to examine and analyze things with a clear eye is also a part of what makes us human. Questioning and doubting what we see and hear is a wonderful part of what our species can do. I reached many conclusions as a child. Some of them served me as a child but no longer fit within my adult understanding of myself and the universe around me. There comes a time when hanging onto such beliefs, simply because they feel good or avoid conflict with family, isn’t enough. [Footnote 2]

I don't remember the moment that I realized Santa Claus wasn't real. I can only imagine it wasn't a very pleasant experience. It was costly. It took away some of the innocence and joy that was part of my childhood. But it had to be done. Santa was replaced by an alternate understanding of Christmas morning that didn’t rely on a supernatural being. It was my parents giving me those gifts, not a magic guy in a red suit. In its own way, this was even richer. It was part of the real world, and it was filled with love. I couldn't have imagined how that richness felt while I still believed in Santa Claus. But I took a leap of faith and moved into a more adult understanding of the world. It paid off and I found other ways to fill the void. We don't need to base our safety and our place in the universe on supernatural beings. There is plenty here in the real world to make every day, not just Christmas morning, full of joy and wonder.

Footnote 1: There is a widely recounted cross-cultural story of Santa/God confusion, although it has begun to take on the status of an urban myth (www.snopes.com; see also The Economist, 1993 and Hartford Courant, 1997). According to this tale, in the years immediately following World War II, at least one Japanese merchant, in a newfound attempt to embrace Western culture, decorated its store window on the Ginza with a model of Santa Claus mounted on a crucifix.

Footnote 2: Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show "Letting Go Of God" details the painful and costly process of moving beyond theism.

References

Blackmore, S. (1999). The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. NY: Basic Books.

The Economist. “Santa Christ.” 25 December, 1993, p. 77.

The Hartford Courant. “Santa On A Cross.” 23 December, 1997, p. F2.

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