With the holiday season upon us, I want to discuss Jesus and Santa Claus. And The Great Pumpkin. Jesus is much more like The Great Pumpkin than he is like Santa Claus. The reason is that Santa Claus delivers.
Each Christmas, there is physical evidence of Santa Claus. The cookies and milk disappear. The man shows up in shopping centers—with elves and sometimes reindeer. And most of all: presents arrive in the black of night. But don’t get me wrong: children are skeptical. I remember a couple of things that bugged me. First there was the fact that the whole enterprise seemed too large to get done in one night. And then the presents that Santa’s elves built where often in the same packages they were in at the stores. And we did not have a fireplace. But my mother was an excellent Santa Claus apologist, so it was all good.
Compare this to The Great Pumpkin. Linus waits in that stupid pumpkin patch every year and nothing ever happens. But does this cause Linus to renounce His Pumpkinness for the sham he is? No! Instead he blames himself. There was something wrong with his pumpkin patch or he said the wrong thing that offended The Great Pumpkin. It just couldn’t be that The Great Pumpkin doesn’t exist!
One of the biggest religious developments over the past few millennium is the move from magic to gods, or more to the point: spells to prayer. The reason for this is that magic can be disproved. If you cast a spell meant to ensure a good harvest and the harvest is bad: the spell didn’t work. On the other hand, if you pray to a god for a good harvest and the harvest is bad: it’s not the god’s fault; it clearly didn’t find your request deserving. You will continue to pray hoping to get it right. But that holy man who keeps promising food? You can tell he cares: he’s casting the spell. The problem is that he just isn’t any good. (I will allow that from the spell caster’s perspective, it is exactly the same as the prayer: he’s just not saying the right words or some such.)
And that brings us to Jesus. People pray to him all the time for this or that. They even pray for a good harvest! When there is a good harvest it is clear that prayer works! When there is a bad harvest it is clear that prayer works but also that God works in mysterious ways. This works out really well for Jesus & Co. They get all the credit for good things, none of the blame for bad things, and either way the followers are more convinced than ever in the power of their belief.
Atheists often claim that believing in Jesus is very much like believing in Santa Claus. I think this is a great insult to children who believe in gold ol’ St. Nick. If the cookies started collecting ants and the presents didn’t arrive, how long would 5-year-olds continue to believe in him? In fact, most kids do finally figure out that Santa is just a game. There is too much dissonance in the story—too much that just doesn’t add up.
Surprisingly few theists do the same.
The same goes for the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. These are myths who produce the goods! By the way, I think the Tooth Fairy rocks. I mean, a real tooth miner would come in at night and yank the teeth right out of your mouth. But the Tooth Fairy is like a recycler. Very cool!
Also: I found this Christian apologia for why believing in Jesus makes sense when belief in Santa does not, Why do you believe in Jesus but not Santa Claus? In a word, it is pathetic. Most of the arguments aren’t even true in the narrowest of terms. The author states, “The writings concerning Jesus exhibit a historical, cultural, religious, and political context…” This is also true of Santa Claus. Has the man never watched Santa Claus is Coming to Town? But what is most pathetic about the article is that its main argument is, “But Jesus is real and Santa Claus is not!” And that is an argument any 5-year-old could make the other way around. Just because you just know something is true is not evidence for its existence.
When I was a child and realized that Santa Claus isn’t real I felt betrayed and deceived. I was angry with my parents for perpetrating such a hoax to goad me into behaving in certain ways. In retrospect, however, I’m glad that I went through it because it served as my initiation in critical thinking and skepticism.
I had been lied to by the people I trusted the most, and I wondered what else I had been lied to about. I wondered what [i]they[/i] had been lied to about. I had discovered false beliefs.
I still remember my "investigations" into the existence of Santa Claus. I compared handwriting on my presents to that of my parents, and I grilled my mom and dad about inconsistencies with the whole Santa Claus story.
One thing my parents used to do was put cookies out, and on Christmas morning the plate would be covered with crumbs, almost as if someone took one of the cookies and crumbled it on the plate. I’m sure they were trying to make it look as if the cookies had been eaten by Santa, but it really just made me question it further.
Realizing Santa’s nonexistence was a gradual process for me. I didn’t come to a sudden realization one day. One of the things that kept me questioning my skepticism was my mother’s adamant refusal to admit Santa did not exist (oddly, she never did), but I couldn’t get past, as you pointed out, the enormity of the whole enterprise.
Having been primed for skepticism, when my parents started to drag us to church when I was around eight or nine it wasn’t long before I recognized the ridiculousness of Christian mythology. It was actually a much easier and quicker progression towards realizing that Christianity is nothing more than myth than it was recognizing that Santa doesn’t exist.
Also, if I were to ever have kids I don’t think that I would lie to them about this myth, or any other. What about you? Would you involve your children in the Santa Claus tradition?
@Mack – That’s a great story! What a wonderful addition to my own memories. I remember my mother telling me Santa came in through the window. That never sat well with me. First, it was [i]totally[/i] outside the myth. Second, it gave me something else to worry about: what if she forgot to unlock the window?!
If I ever have kids (which looks unlikely), I would share the stories the same way I share folklore: with a nod and a wink, unless the audience is really thick in which case I’ll generally lay it on the line. I love the holiday myths. In other words, I would not pretend that Santa exists, but I would require that we watch all the Christmas shows each year.
I’m not necessarily so innocuous though. My sister will tell that I’m much like Calvin’s dad when it comes to kids. This is very much like me:
Although, I [i]do[/i] know the real answer! It usually takes children 10-20 years to start to get my sense of humor. But it amuses the hell out of me. (Maybe it’s a good thing I never had kids.)
That linked SC/JC article was truly ridiculous. Good God, people — stop using the Bible as "proof" of anything. You wouldn’t allow me to claim Israelites moved to America because the BOM says so, or that monkey gods exist because the Hindu texts say so. Either the teachings you ascribe to Jesus have some worth on their own merits (I think some do) or not.
As to historical reality, no writer of the era mentioned the man. Doesn’t mean he didn’t exist — no writers of the era mentioned my great-grandparents, and I’m fairly sure they were real — but there is no more or less "proof" of Jesus’s existence than there is that an angel gave dictation to Mohammed. (Whom writers of the era DID mention.)
I wish we could treat all this stuff the way we treat Greek myths; useful, not doctrine. Icarus’s wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. There’s a very valuable lesson there, a simple story kids can understand and a metaphor adults can apply to their own lives. We don’t need to wear little necklaces with wing icons on them to get it, or fight wars to prove it was "real." Same thing goes for Aesop’s fables.
I only started checking out this blog a week or so ago, and I have it bookmarked, now. Impressive (Vader hiss) — most impressive.
@JMF – I’ve read a lot of Robert Price’s work. Even though I think he is pretty much a Jesus mythicist, I’m very taken by his article "Jesus at the Vanishing Point." It is kind of interesting to imagine that Jesus is a complete myth, but the important thing is that if there ever was a real man, he has been erased by all the folklore piled on top of him. For example, I like the idea of Jesus as an itinerant teacher, but it is unlikely that if there was a real man that this was him.
The Bible does have wonderful stories and is cool as ancient literature. But I can see why that is not enough for most people. Most people don’t like ancient literature. And I have to admit, if I had to choose between Homer and the Bible, I’d choose Homer without a thought.
@JMF: Nice comment, very well said.
@Frank: Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
It’s funny that your mom told you that Santa comes through the window. In the house I grew up in we had fireplace, but it wasn’t functional and had been sealed up long before my parents bought the house. I always wondered how Santa got in through the chimney, or how he landed on our roof, which was very steep. I always used to think, "Why not just park in the street and come in through the door?" My mom used to tell my sister and I that Santa was magic. That was always her answer when I brought up an inconsistency with the story: magic.
As for my own children, if I ever have any, I would approach it pretty much the same way as you. I’d introduce Santa as a myth and a holiday tradition. Despite not being Christian, I’d still have a tree and celebrate Christmas in pretty much the usual fashion, minus all the "Christian" parts of the holiday. It’s not very much a Christian holiday anymore anyway. These days it should be called Consumeristmas.
But Christmas was always really fun for me as a child. I loved putting up the decorations and adorning the tree. Unwrapping loads of presents was always fun, too! I wouldn’t want my kids to miss out on all that. I don’t have to lie to them about Santa Claus for them to have a great time and a fun holiday tradition. And you can bet that they’ll be watching all the Christmas shows, too!
I was really lucky to have great Christmas celebrations every year (I still do). I’ve always been really appreciative of that because there are so many people that don’t have a very good Christmas. There are the kids from low-income families that don’t get to enjoy much of a celebration, if any at all, and there are the people with little to no family to speak of.
And speaking of Christmas, it’s coming up fast. It’s only 35 days away. I’m anxious for winter, too. As a lover of cold weather, I don’t think I could live where you do. It would be strange not to sit by the fireplace with snow falling outside on Christmas. I look forward to winter each year like most people do summer.
What are your plans for the holidays? Your family close by?
Simple concept; Tell a lie often enough and some Republicans will believe it’s fact