Imagine life without cycles or landmarks of any kind—just birth, followed by a long, grey line of 27,941 days, then death.
Okay, it wouldn’t be that bad. But fortunately it’s not an issue: We live in wheels within wheels, cycling through weeks, months, seasons, and years, each of them marked with days and events we declare to be special. Some are fixed by nature, like birthdays, solstices, and equinoxes—which celebrate the return of the planet to a certain precise orbital spot—and seasons, a slower, more majestic ticking that (at my latitude, anyway) gives a person a glimpse at the cosmic wristwatch.
The recognition of life landmarks, such as naming, rites of passage, marriage, anniversaries, and death, evolved under religious auspices—but contributor Jane Wynne Willson shows that there’s no problem finding secular expressions that are every bit as meaningful and satisfying in her essay “Humanist Ceremonies.”
Then there is the wheel of holidays—which, more than anything else, is the one by which kids measure the passing of time. That her birthday is on November 17th means nothing to my 5-year-old, but “just after Halloween” works fine (until every November 1st, when she gets miffed at our lack of precision). Like the celebrations of personal landmarks, most of the holidays (“holy days”) have religious origins—first pagan, then Christian—and most have developed entirely secular expressions. Add to those a few special days with purely secular roots and you have a calendar of secular celebrations introduced in the essay “Losing the ‘Holy’ and Keeping the ‘Day.’”
The rest of the chapter is devoted to a question that’s a constant source of lively debate in the freethought community: Isn’t it better to simply skip holidays with loud religious overtones, like Easter and Christmas? And what exactly is to be done with (*gasp*) The Santa Myth? This latter kerfuffle is the subject of a lighthearted point/counterpoint titled “The Question of the Claus—Should the Santa Story Stay or Go in Secular Families?” Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry, is counsel for the prosecution, and I take the side of truth and justice.
Ex-Mormon and blogger extraordinaire Noell Hyman () sees us out with her own take on the question in “To Easter Bunny or Not to Easter Bunny?”—and be sure to visit the Additional Resources for outstanding books and links for secular family celebrations.
CEREMONIES HAVE ALWAYS existed to mark important events in people’s lives, even in quite primitive societies. Birth, puberty, marriage, and death can all be thought of as times of transition and, as such, have long been celebrated as “rites of passage” within families and communities all over the world.
As one would expect, the form these ceremonies take will naturally reflect the fundamental beliefs of a particular society and culture. In the Western world and beyond, Christianity has played an important role in ceremonial events, and religious procedures have come to dominate rites of passage.
For families who hold no supernatural beliefs, a religious wedding or funeral service is quite inappropriate and can be an uncomfortable and even distressing experience. Those humanists who want to mark an important event with a ceremony, to give the occasion some formality, feel the need for a secular alternative free of religious association. The growth in the popularity of humanist and nonreligious ceremonies in many countries at the present time is proof that there is a deep, though at times latent, need for such provision.
Throughout this chapter I have decided to distinguish between the words ceremony and celebration. I use the term ceremony to describe an occasion when family and friends get together to mark an event of importance, such as a birth, marriage, or death, often called rite of passage.
In the United States in particular, celebration is often used in the same sense, which can be confusing. Celebration originally denoted “observance” or “marking,” as the corresponding verb is used in the sentence, “Do you celebrate Christmas in your family?” But in more general usage a celebration suggests a joyful occasion for congratulation and recognition or for thanks and appreciation. Celebrations are more in the nature of parties involving friends, colleagues, and family. They could include awards for academic, artistic, or sporting achievements or special awards for bravery.
Certainly there is often a celebratory element in the major rites of passage. Parents usually like to celebrate the arrival of a new baby (or sometimes an older child in the case of adoption) and to welcome him or her into the family. They are proud to celebrate the transition of their son or daughter from childhood to adulthood. Couples who have decided to share their lives want to celebrate the event among their family and friends. Even a funeral ceremony is an opportunity to celebrate a life that has ended. But there are exceptions. Couples who are getting divorced sometimes have a ceremony to mark a new stage in their lives as joint parents rather than partners. This is likely to be a dignified and moving statement of commitment and intent rather than a celebration.
In the widest sense of the word, celebrations can contribute to happiness and well-being in family life and in society so they are of particular importance to secular families. One of the basic ideals of Humanism is to make this life as pleasant as possible for everyone alive now and for generations as yet unborn. After all, it is the only life we expect to experience. In 1876, the great U.S. atheist and orator Robert G. Ingersoll wrote that “Happiness is the only good; the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.”
Ritual is another term that is sometimes, although by no means always, used in a derogatory way. This describes a set framework and familiar series of actions that many people can find reassuring and helpful at moments of emotion or distress. The repetitive nature of church liturgy may have the same effect for religious people, but certainly not for humanists. The big difference in humanist ceremonies is that by their very nature they are personal and individual. The words are not texts from a religious book but are chosen to suit the personalities and circumstances of the people involved.
For humanists, the decision to hold a ceremony is a very personal one. There is no obligation one way or the other. If parents want to investigate what is involved and to consider whether they would like to arrange one, the best thing to do is to meet up with other families and hear their views and experiences. National humanist, ethical, secular, and atheist organizations will furnish information about their availability in a particular country or state and will explain any legal requirements that may be necessary. If a humanist celebrant is not available locally, a family can usually arrange to organize a ceremony themselves. Alternatively, they can seek the help of a Unitarian or other liberal minister who is willing to conduct a nonreligious ceremony for them.
In a book about secular parenting, the most directly relevant ceremonies are those held to welcome new babies and those that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. However, wedding ceremonies may be of interest, particularly in cases of remarriage, and funeral ceremonies are likely to occur at some time within families. The role children can play in these is important. So I shall write a brief account of all four rites of passage, stressing that this can only give a flavor of the kind of ceremonies that are already being enjoyed by humanists in many parts of the world. The beauty of our situation is that the way is wide open for any parents to create ceremonies that feel right for them and their children together as a family, if that is their wish. Humanists are not governed by convention or by church authorities.
Of the main rites of passage, the naming or welcoming ceremony is usually the least formal. Often these are more in the nature of parties for close family and friends, held perhaps in a grandparent’s garden or living room, or in the parents’ own home. It is a happy occasion that celebrates the baby or young child’s arrival in the family, whether by birth or adoption. At the same time, the parents can express their commitment to the child’s well being and their undertaking to care for him or her through the long years to adulthood, or for as long as is necessary. “Supporting adults,” the equivalent of Christian godparents, are usually there and they can pledge that they will take a special interest in the child, through good times and bad. Sometimes older siblings are included in the ceremony. The giving of a name to the baby is usually part of the proceedings, even if the ceremony is held when the baby is several weeks or even months old and the name has been registered and in use for a while. There is often some symbolic act such as the lighting of a candle or planting of a tree. Music can be played and poems read.
These are essentially ceremonies to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is interesting that in Norway they are by far the most popular ceremonies, whereas in most other countries they do not exist. There was already a well-established religious coming-of-age ceremony for 14-year-old children in Norway, preceded by courses run by the established Lutheran church. The Norwegian Humanist Association campaigned hard for an alternative secular ceremony to be allowed, and this was achieved some years ago. Now, in town halls throughout Norway, many hundreds of humanist “ordinands,” smartly dressed and glowing with pride, take part in a magnificent and popular ceremony each year, having attended a short course in citizenship and ethical matters run by humanist teachers and counselors in the weeks leading up to the occasion.
This solemn but happy ceremony, held at a period in a young person’s life that can often present difficulties, is especially valuable. The ceremony can provide a staging post on the child’s road toward independence. At the same time it can help the parents adjust to their changing role and the prospect of their child’s eventual departure from the family home. There is a clear challenge here for humanists in other countries to follow Norway’s lead. Where one or both humanist parents have been brought up in cultures or religious traditions where ceremonies are held at puberty, this would be a natural progression. An example of such a situation might be for those from a Jewish background who would be familiar with the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. It might be a bit more difficult to introduce a secular coming-of-age ceremony from scratch where there is not already a tradition, but the benefits and beauty of such a rite would make such an effort well worth the undertaking.
In most societies throughout history, weddings have taken place before the arrival of children in a family. At least that has been the theory! Nowadays, in Western societies, it is increasingly the case that children are present at, and even take part in, their parents’ wedding ceremony. It is sometimes the arrival of one or more children that gives parents the idea that it might after all be sensible to establish a more stable family background than can usually be provided by two people living together without the security of marriage or an alternative legal framework. Sometimes the wedding may be the result of pressure from the extended family or friends. More often, it is at the remarriage of one or both parents after bereavement or divorce that children are present and can play an important role. This is particularly the case where stepfamilies are involved and the ceremony itself can go some way toward helping children adapt to new and at times difficult family situations.
In secular families, the form a wedding ceremony takes needs to be in keeping with the couple’s deeply held beliefs. In a humanist ceremony, they can express their feelings for each other and their aspirations for their future together in their own words. They can do this in the presence of their families and friends in a place of their own choosing. The ceremony can reflect their serious commitment and their shared responsibility, particularly where children are involved.
In some countries and states, humanist weddings are now officially recognized and include registration; in others, official registration is separately performed and the humanist ceremony that follows still has no legal status. However, for the couple involved, it is the humanist wedding ceremony rather than the formal registration of their marriage that is the meaningful and memorable event, marking the start of their shared life together. This applies whether either or both have been married before and whether they are heterosexual or gay.
Humanist funeral ceremonies provide an opportunity for families and friends to meet together to celebrate the life of someone they have loved, to say their last farewells, and, at the same time, to help each other by remembering and grieving together. This all applies equally to both adults and children.
Children need to be involved when someone close to them dies. The death and the funeral ceremony should be looked on as a family event, like other family events but this time rather a sad one. It is doing them no kindness at all to exclude them from the funeral and the preparations for the ceremony. They need something to occupy themselves during the unreal days leading up to the funeral. Even quite young children can enjoy helping in small practical ways such as making cakes or biscuits for the wake, or party afterwards, or picking and arranging flowers.
If a humanist celebrant is to take the funeral, he or she will visit the house to meet the family, to find out the kind of ceremony they would like and, most importantly, to listen and build up a picture of the deceased. Children can often help to choose an appropriate poem or song, contribute a touching or amusing anecdote, and sometimes they are keen to write something themselves to be read at the ceremony.
Children in secular families are likely to ask a lot of questions. They will need honest answers, particularly if well-intentioned religious friends have told them, for example, that their Grandpa has gone to Heaven and they will see him again one day. They will have to be told that they will be saying goodbye at the ceremony, but they will always be able to go on talking about Grandpa and remembering all the good times they had with him. They will need reassurance and comforting like anyone else.
Ceremonies can be seen as an important and enriching feature of life in many families throughout the world. In religious homes, they obviously follow the various religious traditions, but religions do not hold a monopoly of ceremonial practices that have existed since time immemorial. Once they have been disentangled from their religious packaging, ceremonies are as fitting in secular families as elsewhere. Humanist, ethical, and secular organizations can take pride in having gone some way toward restoring ceremonies and celebrations to their rightful place in society as a natural part of family life.
YEARS, DECADES, EVEN SEASONS are abstractions to most kids. It’s holidays that mark the passing of time in childhood, letting kids know where they are and what’s coming. Fall began sometime in the end of September, I knew, but it wasn’t until I walked into the classroom on the first of October and saw that Mrs. Mawdsley1 had festooned the place with orange and black felt that I felt the rhythm of the year begin. Those pumpkins and bats would be followed like clockwork a month later with turkeys and pilgrims, then (in olden tymes) by the Jolly Old Fat Man Himself. Then came New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day—in addition to the various things they celebrate, the holidays shape the year.
There’s not the slightest reason for secular families to forgo this lovely slow ticking of the calendar. Much to the consternation of a few fundamentalist wagon-circlers, many holidays that once had a religious overlay quickly find a nonreligious form as well, especially the fun and meaningful ones. St. Patrick’s Day is said to have once been associated with a saint—can’t recall which one—instead of just general Irishness. Same with St. Valentine’s Day. And Easter, before it developed the admittedly weird tradition of colorful chicken eggs hidden by a rabbit, supposedly had some religious tie-in as well.
Christmas, though—I’m pretty sure that one’s always been ours.
Now now, uncircle those wagons, believers. It’s good that you’ve found a way to use old pagan rituals to articulate your worldview. It’s what we all do, and should do: borrow and redefine the inheritances of the past to suit our changing human needs. It’s beautiful. It’s fun. I wouldn’t want to take away your right to do that for anything—just as I’m sure you support my right to do it my way. So we’re cool, right?
Okay then. Happy holidays.
There have been many attempts to forge new holidays free of religious overtones, with mixed results. The most effective and meaningful attempts seem to be those connected to the past in some way. Something that redefines instead of creating from scratch always seems somehow more authentically grounded. On the other hand, new perspectives, especially the wonder of the universe illuminated by science, can offer new things to celebrate and contemplate, and new ways to do so.
Below is a list of eleven holidays that lend themselves to secular celebration. If you do it right, your family can experience all the wonder, spirit, fun, and goodwill that religious holidays provide, with a little something extra thrown in.
1. DARWIN DAY (February 12)
Charles Darwin was born on the same afternoon as another worldshaking freethinker, Abraham Lincoln—February 12, 1809. The celebration of Darwin Day has been picking up steam as we approach 2009, the bicentennial of his birth and sesquicentennial (150th) of the publication of the book that changed the world, the Origin. Darwin Day events celebrate the wonder of science and the glory of human achievement. Some outstanding Darwin Day websites are listed at the end of the chapter, with games, activities, and readings for kids of all ages. Not to demean any particular other February holidays, but a little celebration of science beats the heck out of cherry trees and log cabins.
2. VERNAL EQUINOX (March 20-21, Northern Hemisphere) and EASTER (first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, I kid you not. Pagan enough for ya?)
Easter lends itself perfectly well to the aforementioned unholy marriage of rabbit and hen—but there’s another option, and quite an intriguing one. The vernal equinox is a bona fide celestial event. Because our planet spins like a tipping top as it orbits the sun, the days grow longer and the nights shorter for half of the year, then reverse for the other half. On just two days a year, in the middle of those two cycles, day and night are balanced at twelve hours each—the equinoxes of spring and fall. The mid-March moment of equipoise, when the North Pole begins tipping back toward the sun, has been observed for thousands of years with rites of spring rejoicing in the resurrection of the natural world. The outstanding website Secular Seasons2 notes that “many [Mediterranean] religions had stories of a man-god, born of a virgin, who was killed and reborn at this time each year, and this day was often connected to the worship of many fertility goddesses with names like Eostre, Ishtar, and Ostra (hence “Easter”). All the same incentives for celebration are present for secular families, as well as an additional opportunity to grasp the poetry of the top-like whirling of our planetary path through the solar system. See Secular Seasons for great family activities.3
3. APRIL FOOL’S DAY (June 3)
Who says holidays can only be built around gratitude, introspection, and group hugs? Fine, no one says that. But if we’re going to celebrate what it means to be human, why not celebrate foolishness? We are a silly species, after all, every one of us prone to self-deception, gullibility, and boneheadedness. Every one of us. If you exclude yourself from that fine company, all I can say is, “Oh, look—there’s something on your shirt.” I know ultra-rationalists who follow a skeptical tirade with the news that their moon is ascending through Virgo. I believed for years that M&Ms wouldn’t melt in my hands, despite daily evidence to the contrary. We are all fools. Accepting the fact that witlessness is our unanimous birthright is a fine reason to celebrate April Fool’s Day in a big way. Fall for the traps your kids set for you and set a few for them as well. Just be sure to laugh at yourself twice as much as you laugh at anyone else.
4. EARTH DAY (date in committee)
Poor Earth Day. Organizers can’t even agree on an official date and have now hunkered into the Always April 22nd camp and the Vernal Equinoxers, with a third contingent lobbying for a move to the summer solstice. (See? Silly species.) Doesn’t matter—choose your favorite date and recognize the fragility and beauty of our planet as a family by planting trees, cleaning up a park, rafting a river, climbing a tree, hiking a trail, writing an indignant letter to a newspaper editor or politician, working in the garden, visiting a farm or zoo or aquarium … the possibilities are endless.
5. SUMMER SOLSTICE (around June 21 in the Northern Hemisphere)
Also known as Midsummer, this is the day with the longest period of daylight. For thousands of years it has been a celebration of happiness, contentment, and security. The crops are in the ground, the snow is long gone, hunting’s good, and the baseball season’s in full swing. Weddings and (other) fertility rituals have traditionally been associated with Midsummer Day, which is why June is still the biggest month for tying the knot. Call your local Humanist celebrant for a secular wedding—or just have a family picnic and keep living in sin!
6. AUTUMNAL EQUINOX (around September 23 in the Northern Hemisphere)
The first day of spring is a time of rebirth, so it’s natural to look at first day of autumn as a time of slowing down, of reflection on the preciousness of life as the natural world moves into dormancy. Like the Vernal Equinox, the Autumnal is a moment when daylight and dark are balanced at twelve hours each—but this time the North Pole is beginning its tip away from the sun. Temperatures start their descent and daylight begins its retreat. This, not Thanksgiving (when the harvest is generally two months past and snow is often flying) is the sensible time for a dinner to celebrate the harvest and to recognize the changes associated with autumn: the first changing leaves, that first chilly wind in the evening, squirrels turning from tree-trunk tag to serious nut-gathering, geese consulting their Lonely Planet Guide to the Southern States. By Thanksgiving, after all, these things are done deals.
It’s a natural (and beautiful) time to visit a cemetery to remember those who are no longer with us or to take a nature walk to appreciate the changing leaves. Hold a fresh-food harvest potluck in your neighborhood. Find a bridge or high building and (after taking all necessary precautions, people) do a pumpkin drop. Line up an online penpal in the Southern Hemisphere to exchange greetings and observations as he or she celebrates the coming of spring.
7. THANKSGIVING (fourth Thursday in November)
There should be no difficulty in secularly observing a holiday dedicated to gratitude. We can express to each other our thankfulness for each other, for our good fortune, and for life itself. No eavesdropping deity required. There is an additional opportunity to note that the Puritan pilgrims were pursuing the kind of freedom of religious observance to which secularists should be devoted—fleeing harassment and religious persecution in England and heading to the New World where they were free at last to burn witches. Okay, leave that part out.
8. WINTER SOLSTICE (December 21–22 in the Northern Hemisphere)
I wouldn’t be completely surprised if Jamaicans were still flat-earthers. You could conceivably disbelieve the spherical earth in the low latitudes. But up where I sit in the northern plains, it’s a whirling ball we’re on for sure, and in late December it gets to feeling like the atmosphere itself has been pared away, leaving nothing at all between our chapped, upturned faces and the brilliant stars. Awesome, that. Downright humbling. Many traditions recognized the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year—as a time for celebration and anticipation. It was at this point each year that the sun would end its long retreat and begin moving toward us again. This “return” of the sun was good reason for celebration, for it meant that spring, though a long way off, was inevitable.
Freethought communities in recent years have begun to adopt the winter solstice celebration as a favorite, probably to have a Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Ramadanesque alternative to the Christmas juggernaut. Whatever the reason, it makes a great excuse for a midwinter bash. Most of the accoutrements of secular Christmas celebrations transfer over just fine—gifts, cards, goodwill, peace on Earth, family, even a solstice tree. Online resources and books are growing.
9. FESTIVUS (December 23 … or whenever)
The most promising new holiday in centuries, Festivus was invented (despite the stern denial of “Festivus historians”) for a 1997 Christmas episode of Seinfeld as “a Festivus for the rest of us!”—an alternative to the commercialism and other agonies of the Christmas season. Though there is no central Festivian doctrine, typical elements include gathering around the aluminum Festivus Pole with those you really want to be with (as opposed to many other holiday gatherings) for such heartwarming traditions as the Airing of Grievances and the Feats of Strength.
The idea of a completely satirical holiday has taken off like a shot, with books, websites, and celebrations around the world—and around the calendar. Some celebrate Festivus on the summer solstice, the vernal equinox, or a randomly selected Thursday in July—or as many as six times a year. Why not? Unorthodoxy is the only dogma, so have a ball.
Yikes! A flaming arrow just went by my ear—and I don’t even know from which side. But it’s true. Christmas has an entirely secular persona parallel to the sacred one. No, not the excesses of buying and greed—I’m talking about the joyful humanistic spirit that sets in that time of year. It’s surely no coincidence that holy days emphasizing family and charity and peace and goodwill are sprinkled through the shortest and latest and coldest days of the year, when we have to rely on each other to make it through. Despite the shopping and insanity, if only for a few moments, just about everyone succumbs gladly to the best of human impulses at this time of year. The thin veneer of religion is easily stripped away to reveal natural, honest, human virtues of which religion is just one articulation. That’s why the “holy days” have so naturally and easily secularized to “holidays,” these celebrations of human hope and goodness in the midst of sometimes painful realities. So have yourself a merry little Christmas, without getting too hung up on whether this or that symbol or ritual has religious roots.
11. HOLIDAYS FROM OTHER TRADITIONS AND CULTURES
Why not celebrate a holiday from somewhere else? It’s a great way to knock down walls of culture and nationality and especially valuable for removing our home-grown Isms and Anities from the center of the universe. Have a Chinese New Year party. Celebrate Boxing Day, whatever that is (the British don’t even seem to know for sure). Halloween not creepy enough? Try Mexico’s Day of the Dead (November 1–2). Observe X-Day on July 5, the day the world did not end in 1998, despite satirical predictions that it would, or toast Queen Elizabeth on her birthday (April 21—makes a nice merge with Earth Day), or Buddha on his (celebrated on the full moon of the month Baisakh—sometime in April or May). For a nice exercise in comparative religion, consider joining Cubans on December 17 as they somehow celebrate both the Catholic Saint Lazarus and the African god Babalú Ayé.
There’s a reason this kind of cultural stewpotting drives the religious right insane. By recognizing the validity of the many, you make the one less and less sacred—the very sort of thing that could end us up with a more reasonable world.
Some of these holidays may seem artificial and forced at first. I’m sure the bunny-and-egg thing crossed a few eyes at the start, too, not to mention a virgin giving birth. If you want to stick with the traditional holidays, no sweat. If you want to give something else a try, as well or instead, knock yourself out. Find the right fit for your family and friends. If you find a new holiday that feels satisfying and enjoyable, do it again the next year. And there’s the key to turning a new holiday into a beloved family tradition: Make it fun, make it meaningful, and do it twice. Keep it up, and who knows—twenty years from now we might all be singing Festivus carols on the White House lawn around the National Pole.
The Question of the Claus—Should the Santa Story Stay
or Go in Secular Families?
Point: Put the Claus Away
Eighty-five percent of U.S. 4-year-olds believe in Santa Claus. But does the myth hurt or help in raising independent thinkers? Amazingly, science offers little guidance. Although it has become a nearly universal rite of passage for U.S. preadolescents to discover that the most cherished belief of their childhoods was an elaborate parental lie, few researchers have studied the phenomenon—or, perhaps more precisely, have opted to publish what they have found.
Hard data are so sparse that Santa’s defenders still trot out a famous child psychologist’s 1971 pronouncement that “the small child should be able to believe in Santa … to hate reality is a likely consequence of being forced to give up fantasies too early.” This appeared not in a scientific publication, but in the mainstream women’s magazine Ladies’ Home Journal; the famous psychologist in question was Bruno Bettelheim, who would later be discredited for concocting psychiatric principles and diagnoses out of whole cloth, allegedly causing some of his young patients enduring harm. Anyway, if you like unsubstantiated assertions, I’ll go with one by Canada’s George Brock Chisholm (1896–1971), first director of the World Health Organization, who warned that believing in the Santa myth with its many physical impossibilities could “seriously damage” a child’s “whole relationship with reality and whole ability to think clearly in terms of cause and effect.”
Still, when the moral arguments are weighed in light of the meager available research, the best course seems clear: “Just say no” to “ho, ho, ho.” Here’s why:
1. To perpetuate the Santa myth, parents must lie to their kids. We know there’s no old man at the North Pole who visits all the world’s households in a single night, but that’s not what we tell our kids. Yes, Virginia, that’s lying. Some parents rationalize it as an innocent sharing of fantasy, but a 1978 study suggested otherwise: It found that children relate to Santa as real, quite differently than they relate to, say, storybook or movie characters. Children relate to Santa as a mundane reality as prosaic—and undeniable—as “a wheelbarrow in the back yard.” Clearly, for parents to pass on the Santa myth isn’t like passing on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. It’s lying, plain and simple. So don’t be surprised if the child who caught you lying about Santa tunes out your other guidance on other issues as adolescence blooms.
There is no excuse for deceiving children. And when, as must happen in conventional families, they find that their parents have lied, they lose confidence in them and feel justified in lying to them.
2. To buoy belief, adults often stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child’s developing intellect. Questioning Santa is the first attempt at critical thinking many children make. Yet parents often smokescreen curious children for asking why there are so many Santas at the mall, or wondering why Santa and Aunt Nell use the same wrapping paper. Frequently, parents punish youngsters for sharing their suspicions injudiciously with schoolmates or siblings. Ambitious parents may go to enormous lengths to bamboozle an inquisitive child into believing for another few months. Whatever else we might say about such parenting strategies, clearly they represent no way to teach critical thinking!
3. The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear. Hectoring kids to be good because Santa will detect any transgression that parents may miss is equivalent to warning children to behave because God is watching. The establishment of such parental “coalitions with God” defines a parenting technique that research correlates with negative child development outcomes. Meanwhile a child who’s “been bad” (itself a questionable concept) may dread Christmas Eve, expecting a telltale lump of coal to alert parents to some hitherto-overlooked misconduct. (A grade school classmate of mine dreaded the holiday because he expected to be exposed in a misbehavior he had up until then “gotten away with.” When Santa failed to “blow him in” with a stocking full of coal, that imposed further corrosive pressure on his naïve view of the world.) Some parents who recognize the danger in leaning too hard on “You better watch out, you better not cry” may strive to engender belief in Santa while avoiding the myth’s “Big Brother” aspects. To those parents I can say only “good luck”; a single hearing of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on the minivan radio en route to the mall can instantly undo all that careful work.
4. The myth makes kids more acquisitive, not less so. Proponents argue that belief in Santa teaches children the “spirit of giving,” whatever that is. But a 1982 study, one of few to address this issue, showed conclusively that the myth actually encourages selfishness. In that study, children who in other contexts requested unselfish benefits such as health or long life for family members invariably demanded material things when writing to Santa.
5. The Santa myth appears to exploit age-appropriate cognitive patterns that religious children use in forming their ideas of God. Santa—a magical being who sees all and whose judgment can be swayed by shows of good behavior—uncomfortably resembles the way theistic children understand God at the same ages. The secular parent should worry that Santa belief in early childhood might bias youngsters toward later uncritical faith. Some parents say the opposite, arguing that unmasking Santa actually inoculates kids against supernatural beliefs. Again, the available research offers inconclusive guidance. But I can’t help noticing that the relationship I suspect between belief in Santa and later religious faith—namely, that belief in the first makes belief in the second more likely—is direct and straightforward. In contrast, the proposed relationship between belief in Santa and later religious disbelief seems contrary, even tortuous. Lacking solid evidence that holding an unsupported belief now makes a child less likely to hold another unsupported belief later, why take the risk? Secular parents have a choice … and a chance. Research shows that dissuasion works. Children whose parents explicitly, consistently discourage belief in Santa are unlikely to form the belief. So do your kids a favor. Make a conscious decision not to support irresponsible beliefs, and brick up that chimney!
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 continued 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 and temporary myth parallel to its silly and 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 chimbly 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 (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To 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. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.
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 paradigm as an unmissable opportunity—the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.
My boy was 8 years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? 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 her 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.
“Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”
I for one chose door number three.
“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” 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. “Some people say it isn’t a literal single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. 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 and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of 9, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real—I demurred, just a bit, one last time.
“What do you think?” I said.
“Well … I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”
I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I answered his question.
“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”
He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know … makes sense again.”
That’s my boy. 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 by fiat. 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 allowing our children to 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 completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting 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.
THE LAST THING I EXPECTED when I got married was to face the possibility of giving up Santa and the Easter Bunny. Deny my future children the magic of believing in those imaginary characters, of staying up late into the night, hoping to catch a glimpse of what no child has seen before? Of knowing that the most popular person in the world thinks of you every year? The truth is, I knew they weren’t real for one or two years before I finally admitted it to myself. I made the joy last as long as I could.
My husband’s siblings, though, did not grow up “being lied to,” as they put it. My mother-in-law insists that learning about Santa devastated her as a child. She felt her mother betrayed her trust and lied to her. While some of the family members are still staunch against the tradition, a few of the others agreed to go along with their spouses, including my own husband. One question that enters the minds of some young atheist and agnostic parents is whether to have Santa and the Easter Bunny, if you decide to celebrate those holidays at all. How do we justify giving our children the fantasy of an Easter Bunny while denying them the security of a Jesus?
First appeared on the weblog, April 19, 2006. Used with permission.
I love Santa and the Easter Bunny. I cannot imagine my childhood without those wonderful nights of exhilarating anticipation. They brought a joy that could match. Discovering they were not real did no damage to my psyche. It was more like discovering the secret to a great magic trick.
Having considered my mother-in-law’s experience, I set up a number of guidelines regarding the fantasy characters that grace our holidays. Hopefully, the use of these guidelines will not only prevent the rare devastation that a handful of children feel, they will also demonstrate the difference between imagination and reality; between our perceptions and the facts, between the stories humans tell and the actual truths they represent.
First, parents need to take into consideration the child’s character. For example, my mother-in-law has an inner drive to get her facts accurate. In her mind, you don’t move forward on something without first verifying each detail. Most children are not this way, which is why most children walk away from their Santa beliefs with a smile and a tradition to pass on to their children. If you, yourself, are more like my mother-in-law, then you can guess that some of your children are likely to be the same way, as well. If this is the case with you, then you may consider banning Santa and the Easter Bunny altogether. But I think revealing the truth at a younger-than-average-age is also an option.
Age, in general, is another factor to consider. For most children, somewhere between 6 and 8 is a good time. Part of the devastation, if it happens, is because the child has been defending Santa’s existence to friends. It is socially humiliating for an older child to learn he or she has been asserting something that everyone else knew was wrong. A good way to know it is time to reveal the secret is when the child asks you directly, “Is Santa real?”
So how do we make the Santa/Bunny scenario work to our advantage as atheists and agnostics? I figured it out as I was trying to avoid my mother-in-law’s mishap of my children’s perceiving us as lying. I made a decision at the beginning that I would not tell elaborate stories of how Santa gets his belly down the chimney or how the bunny gets those baskets into the house.
When my oldest son, Blake, starting asking these questions, I replied with my most common of all replies: “What do you think?” I encouraged Blake to think the problems through. The Santa/Bunny scenario provides an opportunity for both critical thinking and imaginary play. At the younger ages, imagination really goes to work. As children get older, they adopt critical thinking. As skepticism creeps into the questions, you know revelation time is near.
I prefer to wait until the child asks straight out, “Is Santa really real?” With many children, like myself and my first child, the desire to believe hangs on longer than the actual belief. We should allow them to believe for as long as they want. But when they want the truth, parents must give it.
And how do we handle the truth? We could say, “No, Santa and the Easter Bunny aren’t real.” But I don’t think that answer demonstrates the reality, nor the reason for the stories. As Joseph Campbell taught, humans have always couched real principles into stories we tell over and over and pass on through generations. Santa and the Easter Bunny are stories of life, love, and the joy of giving. Parents are Santa to kids in ways they won’t understand until they become parents themselves. Like the Easter Bunny, parents bring life and hope to their children.
So when it comes time to answer the golden question, a more meaningful reply is, “Do you know who Santa is? Mom and Dad are Santa and the Easter Bunny.”
Parents can use this revealing of truth to explain how humans are a storytelling people. We have always told stories to express ideas. Some stories generate more belief and conviction than others. The Bible is a compilation of stories that many people have come to believe as literally true. Santa is a good analogy of how people want to believe in the stories of gods. Most stories have an amount of truth within them, as well as an amount of embellishment.
I finally told my oldest child the truth before Christmas last year as he was turning 8 years old. When the day ended, I asked Blake if Christmas felt different now that he knows Mom and Dad are Santa. He told me that maybe it did a little. But that somehow, seeing the unwrapped Santa gifts, and going along with the game for the younger siblings, the magic still felt real.
1. I am currently accepting nominations in the unlikely event anyone has ever had a more perfectly named schoolmarm than my Mrs. Mawdsley.
2. See link at end of chapter.
• Willson, Jane Wynne. Funerals Without God: A Practical Guide to Non-Religious Funerals. British Humanist Association, 1990. 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 ().
• Willson, Jane Wynne. New Arrivals: Guide to Non-Religious Naming Ceremonies. British Humanist Association, 1991. Also at.
• 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,” Mom explains, without relying on commandments supposedly handed down from a god. 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 4–8.
• 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. Other outstanding solstice and equinox titles for kids—all for elementary ages:
• 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 4–8.
• Secular Seasons (). 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 ().
• The Darwin Day Program ().
• Earth Day Network ().
• National Geographic Xpeditions (). Includes activities related to seasons that can be used in conjunction with solstice celebrations.
• Freedom From Religion Foundation (). The Foundation offers several CDs of music for the winter solstice and other secular holidays.
• Family Education’s “Build Your Own Stonehenge” (). A fun and educational way to understand planetary astronomy and the procession of seasons. Build a simple viewing circle on the solstice, then add markers once per week for a year—and you’ll have a tourist destination for the ages! Bonus: No fifty-ton slabs of granite or ritual sacrifice required. Ages 8 and up.
• Festivus: The Website for the Rest of Us (). Website for the book of almost the same name, with links, activities, and a faux history of the holiday.
• Council For Secular Humanism ().
• Abundant Earth ().
• Blue Mountain Arts ().
• The Humanist Society ().
• The British Humanist Association (—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.]