Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Santa Claus Pill

The British newspaper The Guardian features a “personal effects” page where readers can ask other readers for advice about how to deal with a particular problem. Last Saturday (December 14th, 2013) the problem discussed was this: “I’ve helped my four-year-old write his present list for Santa but now I’m apoplectic – my husband has told him there’s no such thing as Father Christmas. What can I do to restore the festive spirit? Is this grounds for divorce!” I was struck first by the absurdity of this last bit. I find it incredible that there might actually be a woman out there who is seriously contemplating divorcing her husband for the sole reason that he has told their son that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. So what she is saying is basically that it would be better for her child to grow up without a father than to grow up without Father Christmas. What a strange idea!

Most readers, however, seemed to share the mother’s outrage. Their advice was to send the man to the North Pole to teach him a lesson, or get three ghosts to haunt him on Christmas Eve, or visit Harrods and make him apologise to Santa in front of their son. And yes, by all means, to divorce this monster of a man. Why? Because “there’s little enough magic in a world full of cynical bastards”, and “there’s enough time for kids to grow up and understand the reality of the world we live in”. So let me get this straight. The consensus seems to be that a world without Santa is (a lot) worse than a world in which Santa exists, and it is worse because “there is no magic in it”. Worlds with magic in it are in some unspecified way better than worlds governed by natural laws. (But are they really? In what way exactly?) That is why we have to protect our little ones as long as possible from the terrible truth that it is their families who buy them presents and not some magical creature that knows everything about them, including if they’ve been bad or good (which is actually a thought that used to terrify me when I was a kid), for not doing everything in our power to conceal the truth from them might actually scar them for life.

If this were true, then we should probably instil as many magical beliefs in our children as possible, and also make them as robust as possible. Make them believe not only in Santa Claus, but also in the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and all sorts of other fairies and magical creatures. The more, the merrier. Why should we be satisfied with a “little magic” if we could have lots of magic? It would of course be so much easier to do that if we could find a way to make them actually see those entities. So if we had a pill that caused children to hallucinate them, they would no longer have to rely on our word that Santa Claus et al. exist, but could let their own senses confirm their existence. This would be so much better because it would be more effective and long-lasting, wouldn’t it? Or perhaps we don’t even need hallucinations. A simple belief-consolidating pill might be sufficient to protect them from nasty truth-telling dads and other hostile forces. (How’s that for human enhancement?) If there were such a pill, would we recommend its use on children (and perhaps dads)? Or is that going a little too far? But how far is too far? If belief in magic is good, then why not make sure that the belief persists?

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that we should all enlighten our children and make them “face the truth” as early as possible. On the contrary, I think we should adopt a relaxed attitude towards the whole business. Children enjoy stories, and more often than not they know, on some level, that it is just a story, which doesn’t prevent them at all from treating the story as real. These days Santa Claus is just another superhero to them, and whether they are “real” or “not real” is not a question that means much to them. In their imagination and in the many ways they enact their imagination, those fantasy creatures are real enough. We do not have to insist that they are not real. But neither do we have to insist that they are. For children, they are both real and not real. Most of them are savvy enough to know that it is their parents who buy them their presents. But if you tell them about Santa Claus they will be only too happy to believe in that too.


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  2. Well, I am not sure whether children can easily practice the ambiguity of "just a story, a belief" and "it is real". They may enjoy the ubiquity of symbols etc. in the Christmas merchandising and they may like Christmas stories, but don't they typically either believe or disbelieve?
    On the other hand, I wonder whether it could be a good thing that every child undergoes a passage "from myth to logos" (like western humanity did, as some scholars say), which necessitates a period of strong belief before an act of enlightenment. This "leaving behind" a myth could be an important experience. It could also make us more critical or sensitive for the hidden myths which widely exist and which dominate many of our perceptions.

  3. I agree, Ralf, that logic seems to dictate that a child either believes Santa Claus is real or that he is made-up (just a character in a story). It seems impossible that someone should both believe and not believe that x. All I can say is that in my own (limited) experience this is not so. I don't know how they do it, but children seem to be able to pull it off. Do they really believe that there might be a monster hiding under the bed? Well, not really, but then again, you never know. The world is large, and they are little. The world is old, but for them everything is new. We are pretty sure what is possible and what is not. They have to learn it, and they do learn it, I think, gradually, not in one decisive step that takes them from mythos to logos.