Better Not Pout

Let’s not myth out on Santa Claus

Little Jimmy Earl eyeballs the Big Guy. Photo courtesy of the Earl Family Archives.
Little Jimmy Earl eyeballs the Big Guy. Photo courtesy of the Earl Family Archives.

We live in a state of near-total confusion. So few of us know what we really believe.

Those words came to me one morning recently as I was walking my dog Hamlet along 18th Avenue. He was relieving himself in the bushes when a man pulled up to the “payday loan” office on the corner and found the door locked. The man lit a cigarette and paced nervously. I knew he had nearly an hour to wait. Hamlet and I headed up the alley, he sniffing out messages from his doggie friends, I thinking back on those few times in my life when I too felt pressed, anxious, confused and desperate, like the man on the corner.

The payday loan office is especially busy in December as Christmas approaches. Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Potter are still in business, and interest rates are higher than ever. Usury is legal now. Watching the poor and the desperate trooping in and out brings out my most confused feelings about the season.

Forty years of reading literature, history, religion and philosophy have taught me that the oldest and most durable wisdom in nearly every culture in every age has been that happiness and the meaning of life are not found in money or material possessions. The wisdom traditions are clear on this, that money is a source of unhappiness and wickedness, and material possessions don’t raise us up; they drag us down. Obviously we aren’t very wise. I found myself reciting a favorite couplet from Wordsworth as we walked up the alley:

The world is too much with us, Hamlet, my boy; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

Nonetheless, my idealism is at its most intense at Christmastime, and here I intend to give it full rein. I’d like to argue, in the spirit of Clement Moore (who in 1823 wrote “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) and also in the spirit of Frances Church (who in 1897 wrote the editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”) and very much in the spirit of the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street that there really is a Santa Claus; that I, at least, still believe in him. The trick of the argument — for there has to be a trick to such an argument — is that it all depends on what you mean by the words “believe in.” Few words are so easy to use but so hard to define.

I approach belief in Santa Claus in the spirit of the anthropologist who approaches, say, a tribe whose members believe that leopards fast on Fridays and that men should put butter on their heads and walk clockwise around the marketplace. People believe the strangest things. I’m not an anthropologist. I’m closer to what the anthropologist calls the “informant,” the native who answers the anthropologist’s questions by reporting his experience of his own culture. I am my own informant. I’ve done no research on Santa Claus. The closest I’ve come to research for this essay is having a group of freshmen over to my house every year as the holidays approach, where I take the opportunity to ask them about their experiences of Santa.

The problem of belief comes up when I teach ancient literature. Students ask, Did the Greeks actually “believe in” their myths? Did they really believe the sun was a chariot, that winter was caused by Persephone’s descent into the underworld, that earthquakes were caused by Poseidon and lightning by Zeus? Medieval literature delivers the same problem: Did medieval people actually “believe in” miracles? Did they believe that saints could walk on water, raise the dead with the touch of a relic, visit heaven and hell in their sleep or make a cow fill a lake with milk? Beliefs like these, ancient or medieval, seem so childish. But all the evidence indicates that in times gone by, grown-ups — and the most intelligent among them, too — did indeed “believe in” myths and miracles, whatever that means. It’s something to think about.

Perhaps ancient and medieval people were childlike. My students like this theory. Perhaps civilization, like a giant person, has been growing from childhood to adulthood over the millennia. The Age of Myth was its childhood; the modern period, the Age of Science, is more adult. Humanity has grown up, so we no longer believe in such nonsense — except, of course, when we’re children, when we relive the childhood of the species in our own personal version of the ancient world. Santa Claus comes to mind as the perfect example of a modern myth, a throwback to ancient forms of belief. But then we grow out of it, just as humanity did.

By this line of thinking, the child’s belief in Santa Claus is a little like Homer’s belief in Zeus and Poseidon. The problem is that when you read Homer, you realize he’s anything but childlike. So I began answering my students’ question by turning it around: Could Homer have believed in Zeus and Poseidon in the same way we believe in Santa Claus? If we take Santa Claus seriously as a myth, what would that tell us about myth, and what would it tell us about Santa? When I pose the problem this way, the students tend to back off. When push comes to shove, they’d rather believe that Santa isn’t like the Greek gods, because a) we don’t believe in Santa, only children do; and b) Santa, like Christmas itself, has been drained of his original religious meaning; now he’s just a secular symbol for an annual orgy of consumerism.

So much for idealizing the modern age as adult and superior. Most 18-year-olds, if you haven’t noticed, are pretty cynical. They’re so disillusioned. Many of them seem not to have gotten over the shock of learning that there’s no Santa Claus. College students may be idealistic in many ways, but on this issue they’re merciless. Santa isn’t a myth; he’s a lie — one of many lies the adult world tells the young to cover up an ugly truth. The ugly truth that the lie of Santa is covering up is how commercial Christmas has become.

A few years ago in a French bookstore I ran into a book called Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? by Paul Veyne, an anthropologist. At the top of the first page I read, “How is it possible to half-believe, or believe in contradictory things? Children believe that Santa Claus comes down the chimney, bringing them toys, and at the same time believe that these toys are put there by their parents. Do they then really believe in Santa Claus? Yes they do.” Veyne is French; I’m not sure American children believe that the toys are from Santa and “at the same time” from their parents. In my house you believed one or the other. But I’m glad someone else thinks about Greek myth in relation to Santa, even if Veyne only gives two sentences to Santa.

What would an anthropologist say about the myth of Santa?  First he would ask his informant (that’s me) about it. I don’t have to get historical or scholarly; what’s important is what I already know just by living in our society: Santa’s a jolly fat man with a white beard and red suit who lives at the North Pole, where he makes toys; he delivers them to children once a year, from a sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer. You know the rest. Most of the details come from Clement Moore’s poem, though new motifs keep getting added. Just before I was born, some 60 years ago, a ninth reindeer was added. Later, Santa’s wife appeared, though she never got a name except Mrs. Claus. These days his elf-workers are getting more play. The myth keeps growing and changing, and nobody seems to mind. Given the craziness of the premise, you certainly don’t have to worry about consistency.

The ancient myths had this same sort of fluidity. If you hunt around in the ancient texts, you find a dozen versions of every story. Every city had its own god, its own hero, its own stories. Poets and dramatists felt free to change them or add to them to suit their purposes. Myth by its nature is always in flux. The ancients made up new stories about the gods and the heroes all the time. What an odd kind of belief.

Anthropologists have a theory that myths are always attached to rituals or some form of social behavior. If you want to understand the myth, this theory goes, you have to know what rituals it’s attached to. A myth isn’t just a story; it’s a story that explains why people act the way they do or that makes people act in a certain way. As times change and practices change, the stories that explain the practices change along with them. So we should ask what social rituals the Santa story explains or encourages. As an anthropologist might put it, what “cultural work” is the story performing?

The month of December in America is as rich a gold mine of social rituals as any tribal marketplace or ancient Greek festival. An anthropologist from Mars studying our mythology would note that Santa is everywhere in December: in our stories, movies, TV and songs, in lawn displays and marketplaces, advertisements and Christmas cards, not to mention collecting money in front of the Safeway and listening to children in long lines at the mall. Meanwhile at home we put up trees, hang stockings and put out milk and cookies. I’m not sure what a future anthropologist would make of our protest that we don’t really “believe in” this guy, when there’s so much behavioral evidence to the contrary. That’s the plot-trick in Miracle on 34th Street: If the government delivers mail to him, he has to exist.

“But” — here comes objection a) — “only children believe in Santa Claus!” To which I reply, “What do you mean, ‘only’?” Everyone but everyone passes through childhood, so a ritual aimed at children is aimed at everyone. We all have to grow up, and we all carry our experience of childhood along with us.

“But, but” — here comes objection b) — “whatever religious meaning he once had as Saint Nicholas, or as a stand-in for the kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus, now he’s just an engine for the economy!” To which I reply, “What do you mean, ‘just’?” Being an engine for this economy makes you as real as the Grand Coolie Dam or low interest rates. Christmas, we’re told daily, accounts for a huge percentage of retail sales every year. The economy depends on all of us giving each other lots of gifts on a designated day every year. It’s no small accomplishment keeping a ritual like that, on such a scale, alive year after year, through good years and bad, fat years and lean. Economics doesn’t make Santa less real, but more.

Perhaps you think I’m just being clever. Of course there’s a difference between the way children believe in Santa and the way adults believe — although it isn’t really a difference between childhood and adulthood, but between one phase of childhood and another. The crisis of belief comes somewhere around age 7 or 8. Until then children seem to accept all the bizarre inconsistencies of the Santa story, even if they do spend a lot of time puzzling over them. How does he get to every house in one night? How can one sleigh hold enough toys for all the children of the world? How can a fat man fit down a chimney? In an apartment building, does he come in through the window or the door?

We love children for being able to believe in these things. We don’t think of their wide-eyed credulity as stupid but as innocent. We adore it, as if it were the purest form of faith, the kind of faith that we’re no longer capable of as adults. It’s as if we actually make this story as crazy as possible, just to take pleasure in our children’s willingness to believe anything we tell them.

But sooner or later the time must come. Now the cruel rite of passage. They must be told, told that it’s not true. None of it. It was all pretend. Everyone was — let’s not disguise it — lying to you all along — your parents, your teachers, everyone; all those people dressed up like Santa, even your older brother and sister.

We underestimate the importance of this ritual of disillusionment in our culture, perhaps because unlike most rites of passage it’s carried out in private, but also because it’s so cruel that we should feel guilty about it. We purposefully feed our children these fantastic illusions, only to burst their innocence at a still tender age. The approved method of excusing this lie to our children is to co-opt them into the adult world of liars. “Keep the secret from the young ones who still believe. Now you’re one of us.” The compensation we offer our 8-year-olds is yet another lie, that now they’re part of the adult world.

I learn from my students that there are many surprising variations on this experience, but the most surprising, I think, is my own daughter’s. When we finally told her there was no Santa Claus, she was relieved. She’d been hiding her disappointment for years that we never gave her any presents at Christmas! Now that she realized we’d given her all of them, she was delighted. I, on the other hand, was mortified that the sweet mythology of Santa Claus had backfired for years without our realizing it.

By and large, my students remember taking the news well, so perhaps it’s not as cruel as I’ve made it out to be. Almost all of them remember clearly the moment they learned the truth. Most said it was a milestone in their lives. A social ritual on this scale wouldn’t evolve in a culture if it were just a form of abuse. It has to work — we just have to figure out what work it’s doing. Like all myths, this one is overdetermined, meaning that it does lots of different jobs simultaneously. It’s running the economy at the same time as it gratifies our parental authority; it’s leading children from one kind of belief to another, teaching them to cope with the inevitable disillusionments of growing up; it’s giving them a first peek into adult society and probably lots of other things too.

Once you’ve learned the truth about Santa, you’re by no means done with the myth. Though they don’t realize it, most of the young people I talk to are headed for a second rite of passage that the Santa Claus myth governs. Their teen cynicism will be modified considerably once they become parents and enter into the myth from the other side. Once they’re parents, they’ll discover other jobs the myth does.

Every December they’ll buy their children lots of stuff and wrap it and give it to them with little tags saying it’s from someone else. And on Christmas morning when their kids open the packages, they’ll get a little thrill of virtue for having given a gift that asks nothing in return, not even thanks. (Remember, though, give a few with tags that say “from Mom and Dad”!) Anthropologists tell us that in every culture gifts are actually reciprocal: when you give someone a gift, you expect something in return, even if it’s just gratitude or respect. You’ve put that person in your debt. There’s an economy of gift-giving.

But when you give a child a gift and sign it “from Santa,” that economy is interrupted. It’s a blind gift, a pure gift. You get no credit for buying it or for staying up till 2 am assembling and wrapping it. What an interesting ritual. Why do we do it? I think the Santa myth gives parents practice at good parenting, because parenting itself is by its nature thankless. We don’t love our children with the idea of getting something back from them — even gratitude or respect. It’s nice when it happens, when they finally realize they owe you everything, but parenting isn’t really an economy; you have to love them even when you get nothing in return. We do it for them, not for ourselves. Giving gifts from Santa is our annual training in thanklessness.

Not everyone goes through this second rite of passage. Not everyone chooses to re-enter the Santa Claus myth as an adult. Plenty of people, once they’ve learned there’s no Santa Claus, take that disillusionment, that brutal fact of life, to heart. They become “realistic.” Life, such people tell us — and we know lots of these people — is hard: there’s no Prince Charming, no Fairy Godmother, no Santa. We all know people who’ve told us this in so many words: “I won’t lie to my children. They don’t need this Santa stuff. This is the modern world. They ought to know the truth.”

But every year the Santa myth reaches out to these people too, with Miracle on 34th Street. Maureen O’Hara is a wonderful mom, but she’s definitely a modern mom — a single mom (a war widow?), an ambitious working mom. She’s strong and smart, and she’s making it in a man’s world. The school of hard knocks has taught her to have no illusions, just reason and common sense, and she’s raising her little girl to see the world without illusions, fantasies, fiction or make-believe. She has no doubts that this is what modern enlightened parenthood is about. No Santa Claus for Susie, not in 1947! Susie’s an 8-year-old adult. (Cringe.)

Our warm-hearted male lead is a sensitive guy who loves this thoroughly modern mom but sees her realism for what it really is, the symptom of a damaged heart, and comes to the rescue. I won’t rehash the plot. If you don’t know it, let me recommend it. It won two Oscars. It’s a classic.

This movie is about the second rite of passage. By the age of 8 we all know that Santa doesn’t exist — well, he doesn’t exist literally. At that age, a story’s either true or false. That’s when kids start asking. “Did this really happen, or is it just a story?” At that age, either you believe it or not. The movie is about returning to the question of belief as an adult, and learning that it’s not quite that simple. There are different modes of belief, because there are different kinds of truth. This is what Veyne says about Greek myths too.

We mustn’t be so literal-minded that we reject all those truths that can only be expressed in symbols because when fact becomes our bottom line, what happens to our ideals — imagination, art, tolerance, tenderness, love, mercy, justice, peace? This movie, like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, poses the question, What would society look like if it were realistic instead of idealistic? It would be the society of Ebenezer Scrooge and Mister Potter, a society of rampant cynicism, selfishness, greed, materialism and political corruption. It would be a society with a payday loan office on the corner.

The social rituals attached to the myth of Santa Claus make us reconsider what belief itself is, and what it’s for. They keep us from becoming too realistic. It’s funny: When we’re kids, belief in Santa takes the form of a desire for all the material things he’ll bring us — gross, infantile, material wish-fulfillment. But when we’re grown up, belief in Santa takes the form of loving generosity. That is, when the myth is working, it guides us from infantile narcissism to adult wisdom, which all ancient wisdom traditions agree consists in selflessness.

In the end, Santa’s a myth about the dynamics of belief itself: You believe in it, then you don’t believe in it, then you believe in it again in a different way, on a higher level. Our December rituals help regulate the transition from childhood to adulthood, from one kind of belief to another. Like other myths, this one serves many purposes — it’s even an engine for the economy — but perhaps the most important purpose of all is that it keeps the problem of belief itself before our eyes.

James Earl lives in Eugene and is a professor of English at UO. Previous essays by him can be found by searching for his name in the archives at