Christmas is a supremely eclectic holiday. Its traditions are a mishmash of appropriations and one-offs gathered from a wide array of sources. The Christian story of the birth of Jesus is mixed in with various local traditions and synthetic lore. Even the date of Christmas being December 25 is an after-the-fact addition, probably borrowed from a pagan sun festival.
While this amalgamation of different traditions makes for a fun holiday, it couldn't hurt to examine the presence and history of Christmas's various constituent ingredients from time to time. One that sticks out in particular, if you really think about it, is the figure of Santa Claus. It really is a weird idea — an immortal man living in a mysterious, foreign wilderness employs a force of magical creatures to make things that he gives to people as a reward upon determining, through constant surveillance, that they are "nice."
In my estimation, Santa Claus as a tradition is not so nice at all. If I had a magic wand, I would remove Santa from the rest of Christmas.
I can already hear the outcry, the incredulous indignation. "No more Santa Claus? There might as well be no more Christmas!" Especially with holiday celebrations, we have a strong bias toward the status quo. It just makes sense to us that things should be like they are because that's how they have been. But that is not always our course of action, even with Christmas figures. Take the case of Krampus. In Teutonic countries, Krampus is Santa's rather evil counterpart. Taking the form of an anthropomorphic, demonic goat, Krampus roams around in early December. Whereas Santa seeks out those children who behave well, Krampus finds those who misbehave. The moderate offenders get whipped by Krampus with his bundle of birch branches. Krampus kidnaps the children who seriously misbehave, taking them to his secret cave, killing them, and eating them for dinner.
Terrifying, right? Needless to say, including Krampus as a part of children's Christmas celebrations has fallen out of favor in modern times. Krampus shows that some holiday traditions deserve a second look. It also shows that we are fully able to pick and choose which traditions to follow without compromising the holiday itself. And while the Santa story is not as obviously horrible as Krampus, it does have some troubling qualities that deserve examination.
First of all, Santa removes the basis of moral decisions from its rightful source and assign it to an external enforcer. As a child-rearing tool, Santa ostensibly serves to ensure that children are good by providing consequences for good and bad action. Absent from this equation is the development in the child of understanding why good things should actually be done and bad things should not. The child is left with no personal preference towards doing good. Good actions shouldn't be done because you want to do them, but because Santa wants you to do them. With the truly preposterous amount of effort we spend educating children on the life and ways of Santa Claus — ubiquitous songs, myriad annual movies, bedtime stories, forged notes, etc. — society could easily instill in children some sense of why they should be "good for goodness sake."
But children will eventually figure out that Santa is not real. Surely they can just transfer the source of their morals then, right? Well, perhaps not. In psychology, there is a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect. It describes the relationship between extrinsic motivations (e.g. Santa) and intrinsic motivations (a personal understanding of morality) for actions. Research has found that when an action is motivated externally, and that external motivation is lost, one cannot fully replace it with internal motivation. In this case, relying too heavily on the external motivator of Santa, especially in the crucial developmental period of early childhood, may psychologically reduce children's abilities to actually care about morality for its own sake.
Next, Santa supplants an opportunity parents have to build bonds between children and their families. Exchanging gifts is used in cultures around the world to build interpersonal goodwill. And the reasoning is very simple: people like to get gifts, and they appreciate the gift givers for it. But for some inexplicable reason, parents who use Santa choose to forego this appreciation during the most prominent gift-giving event of their culture, and instead pass it along to somebody who doesn't deserve it. Children love Santa Claus because he gives them stuff. All that goodwill that children accumulate for someone who has never actually done a thing for them could easily be directed where it belongs if only parents let their kids know where the gifts actually come from. Now, of course parents can give children gifts credited to themselves as well as those credited to Santa, but it seems wrong to me that they are socially pressured to set aside some of that credit when it could be used to build goodwill within the family.
Finally, and most importantly, the Santa story encourage bad habits of thinking. Specifically, it conditions children to ignore their own reasoned judgement about factual claims and instead focus on what they want to be true. For every child, it is only a matter of time before they learn enough to realize that the Santa story is probably false. At this point, they are faced with a choice: they can either follow the conclusion that actually makes sense, or they can push reason aside because believing in Santa feels better.
Admittedly, this choice arises whenever an important belief is challenged. However, the Santa story is unique because adult society vociferously encourages children to choose feelings over reason. This dilemma is a popular trope in Christmas movies: Santa-skeptic children are portrayed as nasty and unspirited, while the protagonists inevitably overcome their logical doubts and save Christmas. These media messages are surely compounded in the minds of children by the thought that acknowledging that Santa is not real may risk losing out on Christmas presents. In that instance, adults materially reward children for subverting their mental faculties. And even when directly asked by children whether Santa is real, many adults will simply lie and continue the charade.
Take the famous "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" column. Not only does the columnist decide to engage a little girl asking about Santa instead of leaving that for her family, but he further conditioned her to prefer emotions over reason when evaluating facts. He insists that denying Santa Claus is tantamount to denying love, generosity, poetry, and romance. He goes so far as to state that existence in the world would be "intolerable" if Santa were not real. For adults reading this column, maybe there is some poetic appreciation of what they see as benign falsehoods. But the audience of the Santa story is not adults who recognize nuance like that. It's children, for whom the factual question of Santa's existence is a real quandary. By media messaging, material compensation, and outright lies, adults condition children away from healthy skepticism.
Some behavioral economists have termed this phenomenon — knowing that a claim is unlikely to be true but believing it because it feels good — "rational irrationality." It represents a fundamental challenge to adult life because it removes the only reliable avenue there is for evaluating factual claims: logical reasoning. This has major ramifications to larger society, especially in politics, where it seems the shared base of facts between ideological opponents is ever shrinking.
Now, I will be the first to recognize that the Santa Claus story is not the only factor impacting how children relate to their families, view morality, and think about facts. But that does not mean that these concerns should be dismissed out of hand. I will stress again that Santa Claus is present in children's thinking during the most critical stage of their mental development. If ever a single habit matters, it's then. And while there has not been any empirical psychological research into the effects of the Santa Claus story in particular, there is some research that is applicable here. A 2014 study from researchers at UC San Diego found that children who are lied to by authority figures are then more likely to lie and cheat themselves. And a 2016 article in Lancet Psychology warns parents that prolonged lies to children, even "white lies" that don't deal with very consequential topics, may irrevocably harm the relationship between parent and child.
Without proper research, it is hard for us to determine the scope of the impact Santa Claus has on child development. But one thing is clear to me: for all of this baggage, the Santa story provides no unique benefits to anyone. Children can still get gifts and celebrate Christmas without this very involved lie. Parents have a number of other ways to enforce behavior standards. And there is plenty of other fodder for Christmas media. I think it's time to stop lying. And if he were real, I think that's what Santa would prefer too.
Photo credit Douglas Rahden