“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” is a remarkable piece of journalism, written in 1897 by Francis Church in answer to a young girl’s letter about whether Santa Claus really exists. According to Wikipedia, Virginia O’Hanlon’s question gave Francis Church “an opportunity to rise above the simple question and address the philosophical issues behind it.” More than a hundred years later, the Ottawa Citizen asks its religious experts a similar question: “Should parents allow children to believe in Santa Claus?”
While the religious experts are not as eloquent as Francis Church, they do try to answers the question in ways that do not attack a young child’s imagination. The answers make it seem that Christmas is the season to be kind and charitable.
Ray Parchelo, a novice Tendai priest, thinks the Citizen question “is more of a parenting question than a faith question,” and he is correct. Parchelo goes on to say
It’s also important not to de-culture Santa Claus. As I understand, there is a valid and deep tradition in some European countries relating Christmas with certain Christian saints and their benevolence. It would be insensitive to ignore those traditions, which try to preserve some legitimate connection between saints and what we call “the reason for the season.”
However, his knowledge of Christmas history and tradition is not as evident when he says,
It’s a problem for our time that our joyful celebration of the Christian Nativity, a tale about a jolly old man and the most worrisome orgy of crass commercialized greed all overlap. It is probably not the worst thing about Christmas to make it colourful with the Santa story.
Crass greed has been around for a long time, long before Jesus was a baby.
The only Christian to reply to today’s question is Kevin Flynn, an Anglican priest. Flynn’s answer is ambiguous and open to interpretation:
As a child, I believed in Santa Claus for a few years. . . . I doubt that believing in Santa did me any lasting harm, unless you think that believing in one non-existent person leads to belief in other non-existent persons or deities. As I’m not an atheist, I don’t make any such equivalence.
Thank you Kevin Flynn, you have partially made my point for me. However, your as you are “not an atheist,” your answer does not go far enough. You do not address the question of why, when children stop believing in Santa Claus, do they not stop believing in the Christian Nativity myth and “other non-existent persons or deities.”
The other Kevin on the panel, Kevin Smith, who is the on the board of directors for the Centre for Inquiry, Canada’s premier venue for humanists, skeptics and freethinkers, shares my incredulity. As a child, Smith was
a believer! I remember singing the praises of the man with the long white beard. He’d protect me, even while I was sleeping. He encouraged me to be nice — never naughty. And his only son was born in a manger.
As Smith grew up, he stopped conflating God, Jesus and Santa Claus. He realized
The gift of Santa comes with a due-date. It promotes a critical assessment of the world; teaching us to seek evidence rather than accepting something on faith.
Smith is correct; the transition from belief in Santa Claus to the realization that he doesn’t exist should extend to other myths, including the Christian myths.
Kevin Smith echoes other skeptics and freethinkers when he says,
Why this doesn’t extend to other supernatural super-heroes is beyond my belief.
The answer, of course, is indoctrination: unrelenting religious indoctrination.