Every Christmas season, at least one movie will come out where the main thrust of the story is an argument demonstrating the virtue, in fact, the absolute necessity of all children everywhere believing in the literal existence of Santa Claus.
Yet every adult connected with this venture knows that Santa Claus does not, in fact, exist.
What’s up with that?
Belief is a funny word. We use it casually to mean both what we believe in — gods, philosophies — and also what we believe is factually true. Does this indicate that, on some level, our brains see both types of belief as the same thing?
What does it mean when we say we believe in Santa?
Belief in belief
This essay, on belief in belief had a lot of resonance for me and my religious experiences. Essentially, it’s addressing the mental gymnastics that we go through when we believe (that word again) that a certain belief is virtuous, that is, something we ought to believe.
The true belief is in the virtuous nature of the belief, not in the text of the belief.
Observe the people in the right wing trying to insert the ten commandments everywhere. It’s not because they believe in the text of the ten commandments. They are usually evangelical types who flagrantly violate at least one of them (remember the sabbath and keep it holy) every single week. Their belief is in the virtuous nature of the commandments, in the things that are implied by the commandments. It has nothing to do with what the commandments actually say.
Clearly adults think it is virtuous for children to believe in Santa, even if adults don’t.
Humans have a strong cognitive bias toward narrative. We make sense of the world by applying narrative to it: cause, effect, motivation, payoff, justice, dramatic irony, heroism, villainy.
The human narrative sense operates all the time, even in sleep. That’s probably where dreams come from. We make stories out of nothing, out of the random firing of our neurons.
We have a hard time dealing with a narrative vacuum. A bunch of things happen, what do they mean? What’s the story? What’s going on here? A narrative void causes us anxiety. So we often embrace the first plausible-seeming narrative that we encounter.
I don’t remember ever believing that the Santa story was plausible, but I suppose a young enough child might not have reason to believe otherwise. They know nothing about the world. An immortal being who can slip through chimneys smaller than he is and visit every house on earth in a single night, why not?
Limitations of the narrative sense
Our narrative sense is a beautiful and magical thing, and pretty useful in normal everyday situations. But it has limitations. It’s easy to fool. It’s not very good at math or other analytical abstractions. It’s subjective and biased as all get-out. It’s prone to logical fallacies, especially of the false positive variety.
And it’s sticky. We don’t like the narrative void, so we embrace a narrative that seems to explain things as we understand them. But once we have embraced a narrative, we tend to stick with it, even in the face of new evidence.
There seems to be a cognitive burden associated with changing a narrative that makes us reluctant to do it.
That might explain why children continue believing in Santa long after they’re old enough to realize how unlikely he is. Also, they get presents.
When two narratives rub up against each other, or when a narrative rubs up against empirical reality, this creates a kind of mental friction that we call cognitive dissonance. When the cognitive dissonance builds up high enough, it might cause us to look closely at the parts of the narrative that are causing the dissonance and make adjustments accordingly. The discomfort of cognitive dissonance eventually overwhelms the discomfort of changing a narrative.
For example, if you believe that you have a good luck charm that will help you win the lottery, and you keep not winning the lottery, you can revise your narrative in a number of ways. Perhaps you will conclude that there is no such thing as a good luck charm. Or you continue to believe that there is such a thing, but you decide this isn’t one of them. Or you hold that it is in fact a good luck charm, but it still didn’t help you win the lottery. Or you might continue to believe that it will help you win the lottery at some point in the future. Or you might decide that of course it is a good luck charm, and of course it will help you win the lottery, and really the only problem is that you aren’t using it properly, and perhaps it requires a blood sacrifice of some sort?
Another option is to seek to avoid cognitive dissonance at the very first sign of it. This usually involves avoiding new narratives or facts that might cause friction with the existing narrative. In extreme cases it involves avoiding contact with reality itself.
As children age out of Santa belief, there’s often a time when they kinda-sorta know he’s not real, but they don’t want to know, so they pretend not to know.
The fanatic chooses an interesting way to avoid cognitive dissonance: he attempts to change reality to fit his narratives. This is never ultimately successful — reality, being reality, wins out in the long run — but fanatics can certainly do a lot of damage in the meantime.
But Santa doesn’t work like that. If you want Santa to be real, you put on a red suit and give toys to children. That’s not fanaticism. Is it worship?
There is a popular t-shirt that says, more or less “Science: it works”
And it does.
It works, in part, by excluding all narratives that don’t work. It’s a coherent system for excluding narratives that don’t work.
Hypothesis — maybe things work this way? Testing — let’s try to find out if they work this way. Analysis — well, did they in fact work that way?
Science has no patience for your tender cognitively dissonant feelings. All scientific narratives are assumed to able to be modified at any time in response to new empirical data.
The modern scientific method follows on the disciplines of logic and mathematics as a system for providing a check on the inherent flaws of our narrative sense.
Logic and math are useful tools, but they are abstract and can be bent to the will of the fanatic, a garbage in/garbage out type of scenario. But science has an additional component — the fact that reality itself has to match up with the narrative.
Science and fanaticism are natural enemies. But what about science and worship?
I don’t think religion is about gods, really. What makes something a religion is that it’s a certain type of story. Religion answers questions that can’t be answered by any other means, questions about the ultimate why and how and what for. Existential questions.
A story about gods is recognized as religion, because it’s clearly not anything else. But any kind of story can become a religion when it becomes the story that gives meaning to your life and structure to your sense of the universe.
Christians often try to pretend that Christmas is about Christ (just look at the name!) and not Santa, but they’re wrong. Jesus is a part of Christmas, sure, but at that point of the story he’s just a baby. Christmas — Yuletide — belongs to Santa.
The human brain makes use of metaphor so instinctively that we may not always know we’re doing it. Look at idiom in language, for example. A metaphor isn’t a lie, exactly. But it’s not the plain objective factual truth, either.
Santa is BS
Santa Claus is, for many of us, our first encounter with pure unadulterated BS. (By which I mean, the people telling us the story don’t believe it either.) That’s why the story is important. It’s like getting your childhood shots. Santa Claus is our exposure to BS, and if all goes well we develop BS antibodies which will serve us well through the rest of life.
I don’t remember ever having a literal believe in Santa Claus. I might have — I’m not trying to make out like I was the most skeptical kid in the universe or anything. I just don’t remember it. The earliest thought I can remember having about Santa Claus is that he was a pretend game that adults played with children, and I was big into pretend games, so I liked Santa just fine.
This means that, even though I didn’t have a literal Santa belief, I didn’t go around spoiling it for other kids — because that is not how pretend games are played. It’s bad form. The delight of a pretend game is that everyone plays along.
The nature of the game tends to obscure who has a literal Santa belief, and who does not. Sincere, deep-down belief is not the point. Playing the game is the point.
I don’t really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus
That’s a quote from “Gutless” on Live Through This, the brilliant Hole album that came out right after Kurt Cobain died. It’s not literally true for me — I don’t miss God, because I’m still a deist, and I never believed in a literal Santa. But I’ve always loved that line. It resonates. I relate to the emotion, even if not to the specifics.
What are the differences between Santa Claus and God as normally understood in our society? They’re both seen as bearded father figures who give you good stuff if you’ve been good, and bad stuff if you’ve been bad. But the darker aspects of the roots of Santa Claus — concepts like The Krampus — have been severely blunted.
If you’re bad, Santa doesn’t bring you presents — that’s it. That’s as bad as it gets. Santa doesn’t punish you. And “Santa bad” is mostly stuff kids can understand — things like eating cookies when you’re not supposed to or punching your little brother in the arm or refusing to put your toys away. “God bad” is weirder and scarier — it includes things you can’t do anything about, like original sin, and conveys the idea that badness is inherent, that you can be bad while you’re just sitting there.
Also, Santa rewards you in the here and now. And you can sit on his lap.
Santa on Bourbon Street
A few years ago, during the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, our friend John Aho dressed up as Santa Claus to walk down Bourbon Street. This was the first weekend of May, and he wasn’t even wearing a fake beard, but nobody cared about that. They cried out, “Santa!” and rushed to sit in his lap and toss him beads. Beautiful women had their friends take pictures of them posing with Santa.
It was glorious. In that context, I realized things about Santa Claus that I had never noticed before. I realized that he is kind of a Bacchus figure for children, and New Orleans is sacred to Bacchus. I thought of him as being like a Loa — a spirit of the ether between the human and the divine, who exists everywhere he is called, everywhere he is given a home and a horse to ride.
Everyone who impersonates Santa, and holds Santa in his heart, becomes Santa in all the ways that matter.
Santa Claus is real
As a child, raised in evangelical culture, I thought that spiritual things had to be literally true, or they weren’t true at all. That was why I couldn’t believe in Santa, because it seemed obvious that there was no possible way he could literally exist.
But I see things differently now. I know that Santa can be real without being a literal fact. He’s real because we make him real. He is a spirit of kindness, plenty, generosity. He is a spirit of innocence, who protects innocence. He’s a childhood friend. You can sit on his lap and confess something other than your sins: your desires.
Santa Claus is not white, of course. He’s whatever you are, when you become him. A Santa Claus who was only one thing, who was IN FACT one particular genotype, wouldn’t be real at all.
I just wanted to thank you for your post about the essentialism of American conservatism. I had wanted to put this into words for a long time, how conservatives don’t care what you do, only what you are. You can shoot somebody for no reason, but if you’re a “good person”… Well, no harm, right? Anyway, you put into words what I had been trying to say, so thank you.
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