Can Someone Explain the Santa Fetish to Me?

Ah, it’s that time of year again, when I change one of my car’s radio presets to some random station so as to avoid all the music that’s so nostalgic for many but mostly obnoxious and meaningless to me.

My history with Christmas isn’t a pleasant one, for various reasons. The aspect of it that makes the least sense to me is the obsession with creating and maintaining a belief in Santa Claus in children. As an outsider, it has always and will always strike me as absurd.

In my Muslim family, Christmas was not A Thing. Eid ul-Fitr was our holiday for tasty food, family gatherings, fancy clothes and — most importantly to my child-self — presents. The presents were purchased by my parents during Ramadan, the month that precedes Eid ul-Fitr, and did we kids know it or what? We’d curry favor with our parents and, when they were pleased with us, drop hints about what we wanted that year.

Though children below the age of puberty are not obligated to fast in Ramadan, I took it upon myself to do so, and would get an extra present for fasting. The year my parents started that tradition, they didn’t tell me that they would ahead of time. I wasn’t fasting for an extra gift, but it was nice to know that my efforts were appreciated.

There was no Santa to get in the way of my siblings and me directly kissing the asses of people who’d actually be paying for our presents. I didn’t feel deprived because my parents didn’t deceive me about some imaginary character. In fact, it caused me emotional distress to think that my classmates were walking around in a state of deliberate delusion encouraged and considered “cute” by their parents. It seemed cruel and pointless.

When I was in kindergarten, I was outright scolded by the older sibling of one of my classmates for telling the others that Santa wasn’t real. I had been doing it because I was genuinely upset by the idea of people lying to their children about something they knew to be false. She didn’t see it that way and thought I was being a mean-spirited joy-killer. I wondered why certain kinds of lying was okay but other types were considered dead wrong. Why did all religious, moral, and ethical traditions teach us to tell the truth and to not lie, but Christians (and even some non-Christians taken by the Christmas tradition) considered it not only good to lie to their children, but also considered me bad for calling out their lies?

To this day, I don’t quite get why Santa, of all imaginary things, is the belief that is considered precious and sacred and mandatory to trick your children into having. Why can’t Santa be like any other imaginary creature and enjoyed imaginatively and creatively, rather than the story told by parents as if it were factually and literally true to their trusting children? Stripped of my history with and the cultural fetish around it, I could see enjoying Santa lore in the same way I enjoy, say, the Arthurian mythos.


Can Someone Explain the Santa Fetish to Me?

39 thoughts on “Can Someone Explain the Santa Fetish to Me?

  1. 1

    I have never quite understood it myself. This is the conversation I had with my kid when he was around 6:

    Me: “Why do you think Santa is real? Have you ever met him?”
    Kid: “Yes.”
    Me: “…”
    Me: “We’ll come back to this one later.”

    I have tried to make an effort to help him understand that Christmas gifts don’t necessarily correlate with “good” or “bad”, since that seems to suggest that Santa likes rich kids better.

    1. 3.1

      Eh, I don’t know. The argument that you should lie to your kid so that they will know you’re not infallible is a bit bizarre to me. There are other ways to show your kids that you are fallible and that they should be skeptical. How about saying things like “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or “I’m not always right” when appropriate? How about openly admitting that you’re wrong when you are actually wrong? How about taking them seriously when they ask you why you’re doing what you’re doing?

      An elaborate lie like Santa seems a little much to teach that lesson. I somehow doubt people who are otherwise secular and skeptical would be defending the Santa thing so much if it weren’t part of their personal cultural experience and upbringing. It isn’t for me so yeah, no.

      1. I’m hesitant to defend Rebecca’s approach, not least because it’s hard to tell how serious she was about it.

        That said, our firstborn figured out pretty early on that Santa (and the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, etc.) were just fun stories for kids. We did not try to convince him one way or the other, we told him it’s a puzzle for him to figure out for himself. It was his first exercise in applying skeptical reasoning to a set of ideas that the broader culture encouraged him to believe, and proved useful as such.

  2. 4

    I’ve always thought it was an asshole custom. I remember a specific moment of fuming about exactly what you say – the deliberate lying. I thought it was a very shitty trick to play on children, and me in particular. This is because I had said…”but it’s just a story, right? Isn’t it?” And the adults had gone on swearing up and down, “oh no, it’s true.”

    Yeah. Not cute at all.

    1. 4.1

      Was it Santa that motivated you to mistrust men? Yeah, I felt hurt, lost, and betrayed when I remembered how I was lied to. It took me years to trust men with long white beards, and now that I am an old man with a long white beard it triggers me when I look in the mirror. So I don’t.

  3. Ed

    I also despise the practice of telling children that Santa is real. The Santa story as just a legend is charming. I put up several images of him this afternoon.

    But to teach it as truth is one of the best examples of a lie needing an infinite number of other lies to prop it up. Elves and flying reindeer must also be defended. The fact that the Arctic regions have been thoroughly explored without finding Santa’s kingdom has to be rationalized. Then, how does he get all over the world in a few hours? How does he get into people’s houses?

    Why doesn’t he hang out with Krampus anymore (if you aren’t familiar, look it up!); did they have some kind of falling out? What is the relationship between Santa and all the white bearded guys in stores claiming to be him? Are they clones of him? Avatars? My favorite stupid explanation is that he hires a bunch of guys who look a lot like him to stand in for him at public events! Like Saddam Hussein! LOL

    My parents never had me believe in Santa, so the whole thing was weird to me, how so many kids my age insisted that this oddly dressed fellow silently broke into their house every year and somehow this wasn’t terrifying.

    I was also told not to tell other kids that he wasn’t real, so I guess it was practice for closeted atheism.
    I think those of us who didn’t believe in Santa should have had some kind of organization to belong to.
    Asantaists? 🙂 Advocates of the controversial Parental Gift Origin Theory?

  4. 6

    Three-ish things happened around Christmas time when I was four (going on five):

    I told my Grandfather, when prompted, that yes, the nativity painted on his office window was very nice, but we* didn’t believe in Jesus, at which point I was sternly rebuked by my mother and made to apologize
    I realized that Santa and Grandma had the same handwriting, consequently
    I realized that Santa wasn’t real

    It’s funny to me, because all three events are so closely related, and I wonder how it was that my folks could go along with my realization regarding Santa but be so aghast at me connecting those very same dots regarding the myth of the baby Jesus when, at the time, neither of them was church going nor otherwise demonstrably religious.

    Anyway. Don’t have much of a point. Just thinking out loud, here.

    *Apparently “we” did, much to my surprise, despite the fact that the Great Fanatical Conversion Period was still a couple years off. Who knew?

  5. 10

    My kid likes doing the Santa (little Jesus here) thing, even though she knows it’s not true and has for years – its just this pretend thing that people do for fun. Anyone taking it seriously is the person with the problem I’d say. Interesting that my RCC parents never did Santa, because Xmas was about the birth of Jesus who they considered real so presents were given by people…

  6. 11

    I realized that Santa wasn’t real at about the age of 6 when he came into my bedroom with a sack of prezzies and a cloud of exhaled brandy. Proceeded to trip over my bed , said “shit!” in my mothers voice and then crawl out of the room giggling to himself.

    cant remember being particularly traumatized by the revelation.

  7. 12

    I never got it either. The way that you can get children to genuinely believe in absurdly false nonsense doesn’t seem cute to me, it seems scary.

    With the idea that it can ‘teach them to be skeptical’ I still think it seems to be a manipulative way to do that. Part of the reason is that this is something being told to really young kids before they’re really got a grasp on facts or the possibility of being deceived. “Teach your kid to be skeptical” but in an age appropriate fashion. I also don’t think deliberate deception is ever cute and funny. It’s snotty and obnoxious. As an adult, would I ever think ‘this kid believes in something false and it’s because I told them’ isn’t cute, and this isn’t an exercise in critical thinking, it’s me being obnoxious.

    Another thing is the kid who still believes in Santa after other kids quit is being set up for some major ridicule and embarrassment.

  8. AMM

    When I was growing up, my parents would speak of “Santa”, who supposedly filled our stockings and occasionally supplied an extra present or two, but if they ever tried to insist that “Santa” really existed, it was with a tongue-in-cheek smile. I quickly got the idea that “Santa” was basically a charming conceit, a “let’s pretend” sort of thing. When I was about in Jr. High, I used to sneak down on Xmas Eve after everyone was in bed and put out a few just-for-fun presents “from Santa.”
    I tried to do that with my kids, but they would simply tell me that they knew that I was Santa. They’re perfectly happy to spend hours in the fantasy worlds conjured up by D&D or computer games, but they weren’t into making even a pretense of LARPing the Santa myth. Killjoys!

  9. 14

    I always find your perspective on such things very interesting and informative. Thanks for writing.

    Many years ago when I was a daily newspaper journalist, I interviewed a clinical psychologist about whether parents should lie to this kids about Santa. The psychologist said it did no harm to the child. I don’t remember the base reasoning behind it — either that children were too young to hold such lying against the parents later in life, or something having to do with cultural memes.

    That article was picked up by more newspapers than any other I ever wrote. Virtually every daily in the US had some form of it. So, whether the psychologist was speaking from research, experience, or just forming an opinion, he certainly gave a lot of parents “cover” to continue with the Santa myth that season.

    Although I have to say that when I discerned that Santa wasn’t real, I eventually made a leap of logic with regard to other invisible creatures who watched our every move. That was my first step along the path to atheism. The flash of insight wasn’t then — but the seed was certainly sown.

  10. 15

    I also have to say that some of my fondest and strongest memories of childhood were of waking up Christmas morning and finding that “Santa” had placed a small present under my pillow, as well as my two brothers.


    That Santa sure knew how to keep the boys occupied for another 30 minutes or so in order that the parents could sleep in.

    I have no bad memories of Santa, nor of the process of discerning he was a fiction. I don’t know if that’s normal or not. All I can say is that it did me no harm that I’m aware of.

  11. 16

    It’s that point where you (the parent) go from letting the kids believe in a thinly veiled fantasy to going full-bore insisting that the story is true, really, and if you stop believing, you won’t get presents any more, that I believe it goes from benign to potentially problematic.

  12. 17

    A friend of mine got so angry at a classmate of his saying that Santa didn’t exist, that they got into a fight. His explanation to the principal later “but he was lying about Santa, saying he isn’t real! Lies are wrong” etc. did not get him out of trouble, and required a very awkward talking to by his parents.

    Meanwhile, I’m happy to say I was never convinced. “But reindeer don’t fly” etc. etc.

  13. 18

    Our family always treated the Santa thing as a fun fantasy to play around christmas, just like the the easter bunny at easter and representative democracy at election times. I was an adult before I discovered that there were kids who were actually told it was real.

    FWIW, I, my parents, both sets of grandparents, and one set of great-grandparents are/were atheist.

  14. 22

    Trying to convince a little one Santa is fake can be difficult too. Eventually I gave up arguing about it and figured they will figure it out soon enough. I do ask a lot of questions, though, like ” so how exactly does Santa do X”? I’m hoping it will encourage critical thinking.

  15. 23

    “I wondered why certain kinds of lying was okay but other types were considered dead wrong. Why did all religious, moral, and ethical traditions teach us to tell the truth and to not lie, but Christians (and even some non-Christians taken by the Christmas tradition) considered it not only good to lie to their children, but also considered me bad for calling out their lies?”

    Lying isn’t always morally wrong, or always morally right. Immanuel Kant took the view that one should never lie, and was ridiculed by moral philosophers for it. He was asked, what if an axe murderer came to your door asking where your kids were? (He basically ended up taking the position that you should tell the axe murderer where your kids are). The allies lied during WWII by making Hitler think the D-day landings would be at Calais instead of Normandy.

      1. No. I don’t think I’d tell my kids, if I had any, that Santa were real. Just that drawing distinctions between good and bad lies is something which is done, and hardly inexplicable, and not all religious and ethical traditions say lying is always wrong. Doesn’t Islam allow lying about being a Muslim?

        1. Islam, as was taught to me, allows for Muslims to lie in only a directly and immediately life-threatening situation. Not being honest is generally considered bad in most traditions, Islam and Christianity alike; the Santa myth, while perpetuated mostly by Christians, isn’t exactly Christian theology. So yes, as a child, it confused me that people I thought belonged to a religion and overall society that allegedly valued honesty would essentially play an elaborate hoax on their children and expect me to lie to their kids about it.

  16. 24

    That makes sense. Adults are always saying to never lie, yet not only promote what they know is a lie (at least with regards to teaching religion, they genuinely believe it to be true), but even go so far as to chastise others who don’t go along with the lie.

    I imagine it’s like how children are often lied to about sexuality etc.

  17. 25

    It’s similar to religions (and other secular commentators) saying killing is wrong, usually as an emphatic, blanket statement with no nuances, but then praising killing (like with religious books full of killing).

  18. 26

    It’s weird to me that kids literally believe in the literal existence of Santa Claus. This is probably in part because I was raised Jewish (a few years ago I was talking about this with my sister at Thanksgiving, my girlfriend is from a Christian background and my sister asked my if my stepdaughter still believed in Santa — I think it was right before the last or penultimate Christmas when she did — and we agreed that’s fucking weird.

    My Atheist Realization Moment™ is not dissimilar, incidentally; I was in synagogue and it struck me that there were people there who literally believed the Tanakh was literally true, and that was fucking weird. I still hedge on that, I tell myself no one believed all of it, maybe some people thought the “na” part was true to the best of the compilers’ abilities, but not the Torah.

    1. 26.1

      I’ve never understood it either. And (as I wander haphazardly towards adulthood) I feel like I come across a lot of decidedly weird opinions about children, one of which is the idea that belief in Santa is somehow good for children’s imaginations. I think there was a Slate article to this effect a year or two ago. I never really understood what benefit teaching it to kids as fact was supposed to have, as opposed to treating it as a fairy tale like any other.

      Something I connect this with conceptually (though maybe not for any good reason) is a comment made by an acquaintance of mine a couple of years ago. A classmate of ours told us a story about her son (who was 4 or 5 at the time): at lunchtime, she asked him if his toy elephant was hungry too (or something like that). His response was something along the lines of “no, he’s just a stuffed animal”. Mutual Acquaintance exclaimed that there must be something wrong with the kid’s imagination; that when she was a kid, she treated her stuffed animals like real people; etc. This kind of shocked me (that an inability to distinguish fact from fiction would be praised as a good thing, to the extent that there must be something *wrong* with a kid who grows out of it “too early”, or whatever).

      The main reason I have a linkage between these things in my cognitive map is the fact that the commentator is a serious Christian (in fact, she is the most serious Christian of any fellow grad student in my field that I’ve ever met). But then again, it might just be a coincidence that I’m reading too much into, because of my own personal biases.

      And speaking of my own biases: I know false memories are a thing, and our experiences retroactively color our memories of childhood, but I really don’t remember a time (even when I was really little) that I thought of my stuffed animal/doll activities as more than just a game.

  19. 27

    I’m quite late to this conversation, but I’ll chip in anyway. My parents never told us Santa Claus was real. (I was born in 1960, if that’s pertinent to the conversation.) When my wife and I had our first, I wasn’t sure how to handle this. When he was 2 we were talking about Santa as if he were real, but then the thought of a stranger coming into the house via the chimney scared him so I told him it was all pretend.

    He was happy with that until he reached kindergarten and all of the other little kids believed. He came home and asked us again, and I looked at my wife, and she looked at me, and then she turned to him and asked if he thought Santa was real. He said “yes.” I hated it, but we let him believe it. I suppose we should have said that, no, it was just pretend, but that he shouldn’t really tell the other kids. Or maybe not… maybe we should have let him expose the hoax.

    Anyway, a couple of years later when he figured out it really wasn’t true, he was really angry. Can’t say that I blame him. We really blew it on that one.

  20. 28

    I agree with you about Santa Claus and lying, and I was one of those kids that got in trouble for speaking tor truth every December. I remember friends in 4th grade still believing in Santa and being appalled I was suggesting their parents were liars.

    I personally believe Santa is just another representation of god, but one children can understand better because the rewards come fast, unlike Heaven. He is always watching you, and judging you and will reward you for being nice. Sounds like god, right? I’m surprised more children don’t make the connection and reject the god idea when they learn Santa is false.

    I always felt Santa was creepy. He is a stranger that wants you to sit on his lap and sneaks into your house at night to give you presents. Reminds me of the stranger danger PSAs of my childhood, when they said not to take gifts from strangers or let them go near your “no no zone.” I never trusted the guy and his motives and couldn’t understand why my mom wanted me to sit on his “no no zone.” I felt like something was wrong and just wished people would be honest with me about what was really going on. I learned the truth from my older brother around 4-5 years old. I was relieved but never trusted my mom again and thought less of my friend’s parents as well. I also was shocked that reasoning with friends made no difference, and their only argument was that their parents told them and their parents don’t lie. Well they do… and I know I wouldn’t lie to my kid.

  21. 30

    In 1980s Hungary, the “official” Christmas theme was pretty secular (“the festival of love” and all about family/close friends), and with the Jewish and Catholic backgrounds of the people around me, there were at least three standard magical present-bringing entities: Father Christmas, Baby Jesus, and “the Angel”. It was pretty clear from the start that with all this variety of who ends up putting those presents under the tree, it’s all just a big game of make-believe. (Comparing notes in kindergarten, these entities also did get caught in the act frequently and looked suspiciously like each respective kid’s parents — including “our” Angel, who was the spitting image of my mum.) So I always took people’s insistence that “it’s real” as just another of those fun pranks when you try to make someone believe something totally absurd, and people just go along with it.
    Same thing with St Nick, whose day is the 6th of December and who allegedly puts sweets in good kids’ shoes, whereas bad kids get put into Krampus’s sack. I did fall once for that ruse when St Nick came to my kindergarten and was very shy, which very embarrassing because it was actually my dad with a cotton-wool beard… my then 2yo sister recognised him and told me afterwards. :-/ Looking at those photos is still a major cringe moment.
    It never occurred to me that anyone could take this seriously I found out about the US Santa tradition as an adult.

    What I find even more disturbing than the standard Santa thing is that new Elf on a Shelf thing — so now Santa has actual spies who report on you? WTF?

  22. 31

    So there was an NPR story about a family whose parents were so invested in maintaining the Santa Claus myth that they would arrange for uncles and friends of the family to play the role of various manifestations as the family took walks through the woods by their house. The kids were convinced that there was a whole corps of Santas out there, working together on Xmas to get things done. The myth-making was so complete that one of the kids actually was getting into fights with his classmates in middle school (fifth and sixth grade!) because he continued to insist on the authenticity of St. Nick. Poor guy has trust issues to this day because of it.

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