The Unknown Christmas

Presented at the The North Texas Church of Freethought service of December 5th, 1999

My remarks in the past at this time of year have concerned why Christmas is a holiday that belongs to everyone, including atheists. I've also defended the involvement of children in the Santa Claus myth. Today I want to elaborate a bit on these two themes: the universality and the secular history of the Christmas tradition and the role of Santa Claus.

As we know, Christmas is a very old holiday, going back, some say, to prehistoric times. It wasn't celebrated as the birth of Jesus Christ until Pope Julius I proclaimed it in 354 CE. Even then, this was only because of the pre-existing Roman festival of Saturn and December 25thbeing the birthday of the competing Mithra and other savior god-men, not to mention the solemn occasion of the rebirth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. Still, the Eastern Church preferred January 6th, from where we get the "twelve days of Christmas." Meanwhile, the Christians of Jerusalem didn't observe the holiday until the 7th Century CE.

Of course, we also know that Christmas trees, lights, mistletoe and holly, feasting, presents, and all the other trappings of this time of year come to us from non-Christian religious traditions. They, far more than the Jews and early Christians, took an intense interest in and celebrated the natural cycle of the seasons. Even the word "yule" shares the same Teutonic roots as the word "wheel."

Knowledgeable Christians have known these things for a long time. Even before the Pope adopted the holiday, the dancing, feasting, drinking and revelry of the winter holidays were condemned by the devout. The Reformation rekindled and gave new force to these objections. In fact, it was said that Christmas was just one more proof of the Roman church's apostasy. The Pilgrims, for example, who are pointed to each year at Thanksgiving as "proof" of America's being a "Christian Nation," banned the celebration of Christmas. Other Protestants of the time, too, assailed it as corrupt and immoral "Popery." There are Christian churches today, as well as the Jehovah's Witnesses, that still say this.

Some Christmas traditions, though of ancient origin, are in some respects new. In the English-speaking world, for example, Christmas trees were not popular until after Queen Victoria introduced them into Britain in 1840. Three years later, Henry Cole published the first Christmas cards. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was published that same year, on December 19th of 1843. These practices soon spread to the United States, where the cartoonist Thomas Nast essentially created the Santa Claus we know from a mythical Dutch Christmas character, Sinter Klass, who, by the way, was accompanied by another fellow called "Black Peter" who carried a switch that he used on naughty children. But Sinter Klass was, in turn, loosely based on Saint Nicholas, a Turkish bishop of the 3rd Century who knew nothing of Christmas. The elves, the North Pole toy workshop, reindeer, Rudolph, and Mrs. Claus all came along in due time. Christmas wasn't even declared a federal holiday until June 26th of 1870. None of these things, without which Christmas would simply not be Christmas, have anything to do with a particular theology. Rather, they represent a curious combination of human cultural heritage that connects us to our earliest ancestors and of modern innovations made possible by the Industrial Age.

To take just one more example, there is the practice of exchanging presents at Christmas. There is an entire psychology attached to gifts that goes far back in time. This is because few gifts are ever given entirely out of generosity. Something is expected in return, even if it is merely good will or an unspoken understanding of nonbelligerence. It is no coincidence that these themes are featured at Christmas. Such arrangements were even more important in the past when law enforcement was limited or nonexistent. But the simple maintenance of social and family ties remain very important today.

These motivations can become distorted, too. Gifts can be a kind of bribe. There is no other reason that politicians and business clients are showered with presents and favors, especially at Christmas when it can appear that they are given entirely out of generosity born of the Christmas spirit.

The other side of it is that gift-giving can be a social obligation. Not giving a gift can be even more damaging than giving a gift can be rewarding. Giving the wrong gift can be even worse. Getting a pink slip at Christmas is the ultimate outrage.

Presents often reflect social and power relationships too. It's OK for people to give their grandchildren money, for example. It's not OK for people to give their parents or grandparents money. Those who can afford it may give expensive or numerous gifts. Others of us pay with our time and trouble in hunting for just the right special gift for a friend or relative.

Suffering through the Christmas shopping crunch, of which everyone complains, is, at least in part, a way to demonstrate how devoted we are to those for whom we are buying presents. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to the trendy "toy of the year" for which parents will go to any lengths to get for their children. Why is this? Why do we do it? To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we all participate not because it's easy, but because it's hard, because it serves to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because the challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one at which we intend to succeed. In short, everyone decries the commercialism of the season, but Santa lives in the department stores, not at the North Pole. It's all part of the package.

Packaging, by the way, is how we exorcise the commercial taint of gifts that we purchase. When we wrap a present and put ribbons and bows on it, we personalize it, even if what's inside is something that's been mass-produced in a factory. It's how we attach our own values to commodities.

Christmas is jam-packed with fascinating connections to the human condition. In many ways, and like other enduring elements of culture, it is a window into our souls. This is also why Christmas presents some serious difficulties when it comes to Santa Claus, especially for many unbelievers. An entire book, The Trouble With Santa, was written by an atheist associated with the Council for Secular Humanism. Among the numerous concerns raised by those who object to Santa Claus, it is said that:

I don't think there are any definitive answers to these criticisms. But parents don't have to lie, at least not directly. It seems doubtful that it's even possible to rely on a promise of Christmas presents in exchange for good behavior. As for children, I think they should learn to be a little suspicious and distrustful, especially of their own opinions and beliefs. They should also — again in my opinion — form reasonable attitudes about material possessions. Finally, the fact that life is essentially unfair cannot be kept even from children. But anything, including Santa Claus, can be misused and abused.

The interesting thing to me is that the cognitive abilities of children are initially almost completely undeveloped. As the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget showed in the early part of this century, very small children are unable to understand even such simple concepts as the persistence of objects that are no longer in view. If you put a toy where they can't see it, as far they are concerned it is gone. More complicated concepts, such as that of cause and effect, take many years to grasp, and even longer to become second-nature. As a result, children do not make the same distinctions that we do between fact and fantasy. To them, kings and queens, princes and princesses, dragons and dwarves, as well as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, are as real as anyone — or anything — else. If you tell them a story of some kind — and they do so love stories, as we all do, I suppose — they will believe it. And if you caution them that it's "only pretend," they won't quite understand what you mean.

Almost everything a child learns is technically a lie anyway. Only later will they learn that what they thought they knew is only the broad outline of all that there is to know, and that even much of that is incomplete and tentative. This is why I have argued that the Santa myth is harmless or even useful. I don't think it's right or fair to lie to children and tell them in no uncertain terms that Santa is a real person just like anyone else. But unless and until a child becomes unsatisfied with being told such things is that, "They say Santa lives at the North Pole," and, "He's supposed to have flying reindeer," and asks explicitly, "Is Santa a real person or not?" there is no need to lie.

This was my own experience. Figuring out the truth was the first rite of passage I remember, and more important to me than any of my diplomas. For this was when I first became aware of the nature of the distinction between fact and fiction, between reality and fantasy, and between reason and wishful or sloppy thinking. I've been rediscovering it ever since.

But let's come back to facts and reason now. Does the Santa Claus myth harm children and families? Surprisingly, there is very little in the scientific literature about this question. I found some reports of studies of children's drawings of Santa Claus. For example, there is no trend in the size of Santa figures as Christmas grows closer. Black children tend to color in Santa with earth tones and white children tend to use whites and reds.

In 1951 a psychiatrist argued that Santa Claus is "a harrowing experience" for children. But a 1994 survey from the University of Texas at Austin found that more children had more positive feelings on learning the truth than negative feelings. It was their parents who had more negative feelings! These investigators also found that the negative feelings reported by the children were mild and short-lived.

Other researchers, also at the University of Texas at Austin, were able to show in 1978 and 1979 that children's belief in Santa declined with age and appeared to be related to the level of causal reasoning. On the other hand, there was no greater tendency for fantasy-prone children to believe in Santa. The average age at which children relinquished their belief in Santa was seven, the same result found in a survey taken in 1896.

So the evidence doesn't justify the idea that the Santa Claus myth is harmful to children. On the contrary, it can be interpreted as supporting the notion that children's belief in such mythical figures is normal and related to the natural maturation of their cognitive skills. I hesitate to say that the evidence bolsters my own view that Santa Claus can be a useful tool for parents and a positive experience for children.

But here is the interesting thing. In the UT study published in 1994, it was found that many children, before giving up their belief in Santa Claus, had "transitional" belief. In this stage, children often discounted some portions of the Santa Claus myth but not others. Those whose parents more strongly reinforced the belief were more apt to remain believers longer. Some children also indicated that they were apprehensive that if they voiced their doubts that they would get no Christmas presents. In addition, although children reported that discovering the truth about Santa Claus was not very distressing for them, they, like their parents, thought that other children would be very upset by it.

There are fascinating parallels here to belief in religious superstition and the process by which many people become unbelievers. It's truly a shame that so little information exists about how children mature out of the belief in Santa Claus. But I think what evidence there is suggests that the Santa Claus myth can be used by Freethinkers to help their children learn the difference between thought and belief, to make distinctions between fact and fiction, and to give appropriate consideration to the influence of incentives and disincentives for believing in things that they've been told, or for believing in things just because they want to.

I'd like to conclude by echoing the thought that Christmas is for everyone, young and old, and even — perhaps especially — for Freethinkers. Here is how Robert Ingersoll put it:

"I believe in Christmas and in every day that has been set apart for joy. ... I am in favor of all the good free days — the more the better. Christmas is a good day to forgive and forget — a good day to throw away prejudices and hatreds — a good day to fill your heart and your house, and the hearts and houses of others, with sunshine."

- Robert G. Ingersoll, "A Christmas Sermon," The Evening Telegram, December 19, 1891

Thank you and Good Morning.

© 1999 by Dr. Tim Gorski