It’s hard to even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed—until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately, the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.
Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.
Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly temporary myth parallel to its silly permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood.
And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimney along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.
I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in, considering it ever so harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. On the contrary, we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious.
But as our son, Connor, began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa myth as an unmissable opportunity: the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.
He was eight when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How do the reindeer fly? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night—his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!
This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation—or teach the child to fish.
The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice—the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud. I chose Door Number 3.
“Some people say the reindeer eat magic corn,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part—“Does that sound right to you?”—a bit more agnostically.
I avoided both lying outright and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined to let him sort this out himself. And when at last, at age nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bell ringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real, I said, “What do you think?”
I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right. “So how do you feel about that?”
He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world makes sense again.”
I knew just what he meant. His world was full of gravity and momentum and the water cycle and cell division—then there was this magic man at the North Pole with flying reindeer. Now that weird thing had been explained away: It was an attractive myth he had chosen to believe, then chosen to discard.
He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.
And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.
By letting our kids participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how we can all snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough.
Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after leaving a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists—and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
Wing, Natasha. The Night Before Easter; The Night Before Christmas; The Night Before Hanukkah; and so on 1999–2015. Fun, silly, secular introductions to a wide range of holidays for preschoolers.
Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. Oxford, 2004. Whether exploring the connection between ancient solstice celebrations and Fourth of July fireworks, or between the groundhog and the Virgin Mary, this accessible and impeccably researched book shows how humans have organized and celebrated the passage of time for millennia. It turns all of our treasured assumptions on their heads. Perfect for freethought families. Ages fourteen and up.
Willson, Jane Wynne. Funerals Without God: A Practical Guide to Non-Religious Funerals. British Humanist Association, 2014. A concise and practical guide to meaningful recognition of the end of life without religious symbols, rituals, or readings.
Willson, Jane Wynne. Sharing the Future: A Practical Guide to Non-Religious Wedding Ceremonies. British Humanist Association, 1996. Available through Amazon UK (www.amazon.co.uk).
Willson, Jane Wynne. New Arrivals: Guide to Non-Religious Naming Ceremonies. British Humanist Association, 1991. Also at www.amazon.co.uk.
Shragg, Karen. A Solstice Tree for Jenny. Prometheus, 2001. The young daughter of archaeologists wants to know if their secular family believes in the “same good things” as those around them who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and other holidays. Of course, her mother replies, though we don’t believe a god created the world. “We think we can be very good people and know what is right to do” without relying on commandments supposedly handed down from a god, Mom explains. Jenny continues with thoughtful questions, finally deciding she wants a celebration, too. Her family creates their own winter solstice celebration, complete with the ancient solstice tree. Ages four to eight.
Pfeffer, Wendy. The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice. Dutton Juvenile, 2003. One of many science-oriented titles by Wendy Pfeffer, this accessible and poetic book gives the history of the solstice, notes how many winter holidays derived from it, and offers several science activities and ideas for celebrating the solstice at school and at home.
Jackson, Ellen. The Winter Solstice; The Summer Solstice; The Autumn Equinox; The Spring Equinox. Millbrook, 1994–2003.
Conrad, Heather. Lights of Winter: Winter Celebrations Around the World. Lightport Books, 2001.
Haven, Kendell. New Year’s to Kwanzaa: Original Stories of Celebration. Fulcrum, 1999. Thirty brief fictionalized tales of children celebrating everything from the Day of the Dead to April Fool’s to Passover in cultures around the world. Ages four to eight.
Secular Seasons (www.secularseasons.org). The best of the best—a comprehensive, beautiful, and well-designed site with the names and descriptions of secular holidays organized by month, from obscure (Ingersoll Day) to the equinoxes and solstices, the National Day of Reason, April Fool’s, and much more. Includes additional links and activities for each holiday.
Secular Celebrations (www.secular-celebrations.com). A good gateway site for information about secular celebrations, rituals, and holidays.
The Darwin Day Program (www.darwinday.org).
Earth Day Network (www.earthday.org).
Abundant Earth (www.abundantearth.com).
Blue Mountain Arts (www.bluemountain.com).
The Humanist Society (www.humanist-society.org).
The British Humanist Association (www.humanism.org.uk—click on Ceremonies).
N.B. Many humanist celebrants affiliate with local humanist organizations and can be found by searching online for “humanist celebrant” and the name of your city, state, or locality.