Sorry, Virginia ...

December 13, 2009|By David Kyle Johnson

Editor's note: The following op-ed article is for grown-ups only. Children are warned that if they read it, they will not receive any gifts from Santa Claus this year!

Parents should stop teaching their kids to believe in Santa Claus. Reading stories about Santa is fine, and encouraging generosity and imagination is great. But tricking children into believing that an omniscient fat man, with a red suit and rosy cheeks, will slide down the chimney bestowing presents on Dec. 24 is just flat-out immoral.

First of all, it's lying. It's one thing to lie to save someone's life, but stop kidding yourself. "It's fun to watch the kids get excited" is hardly a noble cause. Nor is it harmless. I've amassed recollections of "finding out the truth about Santa," and many were stories of genuine embarrassment and resentment. The systematic deception makes children feel taken advantage of or like the butt of a joke.

Children crave knowledge about the world - they want the truth - and parents are their most trusted source. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that a violation of that trust spawns strong reactions.

Additionally, parental efforts to perpetuate the lie discourage children's efforts to think critically. A parent telling a child to ignore the evidence against Santa's existence encourages the child to think that believing whatever one wants is more important than weighing evidence and believing the truth. Parents who try to explain away the evidence with crackpot excuses skew the child's ability to discern good evidence from bad. And magical explanations? Do you really want your kids to be gullible enough to believe in magic? To perpetuate the lie, the parent has to effectively tell the child to "stop thinking and just believe." That is not what you want to teach your children.

And that is not what society needs you to teach your children. Gallup, Pew, and other polls reveal that a frightening percentage of Americans believe surprisingly ridiculous things - that the sun revolves around the earth, for example (18 percent), or in communication with the dead (21 percent), witches (21 percent), astrology (25 percent), clairvoyance (26 percent), telepathy (31 percent), ghosts (32 percent) and ESP (41 percent). How many Americans still believe that President Barack Obama is Muslim and not a U.S. citizen, that the world will end in 2012, and that Sept. 11 was "an inside job"? Not to mention the fact that "stop thinking and just believe" is the most common impetus for fanatical religious belief. All such beliefs are damaging - and they are also demonstrably false. If only there were some way we could set our children down the path of "knowing better."

Christmas has not been celebrated the same way for 2,000 years. Our holiday celebrations date back at least 4,000 years (Jesus' birth wasn't added to the mix until the Fourth Century), and they have been in a constant state of flux. The idea that you should tell the Santa Claus lie to your children was perpetuated by the New York elite - most notably, Clement Clark Moore, author of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" - in the early 1800s. It was an effort to domesticate Christmas, to change it from a holiday about giving to the poor to a holiday about giving to one's own children. It's time for another change.

"Everyone else does it" is no excuse - not for your children and not for you. And if you are worried about how your kid will interact with children who still believe, how about, "At our house, Santa is just pretend." But don't think that not saying anything gets you off the hook. After all, if someone "just let" their kids believe that "Jack and the Beanstalk" is real, or that Mother Goose literally existed, wouldn't you think that was morally wrong? Why is Santa any different?

So don't deceive your children into believing in Santa Claus. I'm not saying to stop reading Moore's poem or giving children gifts. I'm just saying, for the good of us all, don't deceive your children into believing that Santa really, literally exists. You don't need to browbeat them. If they already believe, simply lead them through the process of discovering the truth for themselves. But if they don't, when they are finally old enough to understand and ask, simply tell them "No Virginia, Santa Claus is just pretend."

David Kyle Johnson is an assistant professor of philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where his courses include one on Christmas' history and philosophical implications. His article, "Against The Santa-Claus-Lie: The Truth We Should Tell Our Children" is forthcoming in "Christmas and Philosophy." His e-mail is davidjohnson@kings.edu.

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