Snopes, Saints, and Santa

Recently I received a phone call from Sam’s Club in which I was informed that through a store promotional I had won six months worth of free gas for my car.  I was thrilled at the news and listened eagerly as the representative explained the details of my winnings.  Ten minutes into the call, as part of the information needed to complete the transaction, I was asked for my credit card number. “Dang!” I exclaimed.  “And I TOTALLY thought you were for real! How disappointing.”  Laughing, the man hung up.

A skeptical generation, we have been taught to disbelieve.  There are signals that we are being lied to, or being taken advantage of — and being asked for personal financial or identification information is one of the big indicators.  No longer do we believe every piece of information that passes through our email, and there are places to go to check out stories that seem a little fishy.  Snopes is a popular website used to confirm or disprove rumors, stories or urban legends which circulate in American popular culture, and there is a Mormon version of the site as well.  No longer must we fall prey to the false belief that John Taylor was saved by his pocket watch, or that a missionary Zone Conference was planned at the World Trade Center on September 11. is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” we are taught in Hebrews.  And the Book of Mormon clarifies that “if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

Yet despite the modern emphasis on evidence and truth, Mormons have a great desire to believe.  Perhaps because our foundational story, the First Vision, is impossible to prove, we hold a place in our hearts for the magical world view.  It is a place where seagulls save the day, where oxen are cured by the touch of a faithful woman’s hands, where faces are transfigured into the image of a dead prophet.  Tell me, if you will, if these apocryphal stories are an aid or a detriment to a Latter-day Saint’s faith.  Will the discovery that they are historically questionable bring down the rest of one’s belief like a house of cards?  How should the teacher or parent approach these Mormon legends?

I am of the opinion that just because these great Mormon stories have been debunked does not mean that they hold no value.  They are the great myths and touchstones of our unique heritage.  I think they should be taught as such.  Let us simply preface the retelling with the words, “the story is told that…” and end it by explaining the symbolism, the meaning it holds for faithful Latter-day Saints.  I believe, for example, that early Saints told the story of Brigham’s transfiguration to reinforce the idea that the Lord had approved President Young as the next prophetic leader and that the mantle of Joseph’s calling had fallen upon his successor.   It holds the powerful symbolic meaning that the people had a spiritual manifestation of Brigham’s call.  Our children may not recognize the distinction when they are young, but as they mature there is no need to obscure the fact that in this case there are no contemporary eyewitness accounts and that some of the later accounts come from people who were not even present at the event.  We need not manufacture evidence to support a literal interpretation of this story.  Faith can be kindled whether or not this story is presented as strictly true.  Lavina Fielding Anderson does this spectacularly in her Dialogue article “Mary Fielding Smith: Her Ox Goes Marching On.”

I think this gives us an option for dealing with the Santa question.  I see no harm in the story being told.  I do prefer, however, that it is presented as a myth, a legend, a fun tradition.  At first, small children will not distinguish the subtleties, but as they grow, I disagree with those who would lie, plant “evidence” of Santa, or perpetuate the mistaken impression that there exists an actual and tangible fat man in a red suit who comes down the chimney to deposit candy in stockings.  As many have pointed out, there is magic in the spirit of love and giving. Santa can be used to teach the deeper wonder of symbolism and myth.

16 Replies to “Snopes, Saints, and Santa”

  1. Can you clarify the John Taylor pocket watch myth? That they were unable to replicate it in our generation using a similar musket, does not mean it did not happen as he said it did.

    Where they using the same powder in their test? (Nope, best they could hope for is similar, but who knows what impurities were in that particular load of powder)
    Where they using the same ball? (nope, again see above, could have been ball that separated after exciting the barrel)
    What volume of powder was being used? Could it have been less?

    To say this story has been answered as a myth just by the modern test alone is having a bit too much fun playing “Mythbusters”. Is there another source for debunking other than this test? If there is, I’m certainly open to change. I don’t cling to this as any form of faith. But I think it’s foolhardy to reject it on this test alone.

    I have enough experiencing in all kinds of ballistics to recognize that odd things happen with an amazing frequency.

  2. Foolhardy is one of my favorite words. It just makes my giggle.

    I think that value of myth is that we can get meaning out of them, but we are not required to believe them as fact. But the reality of the myth is not the powerful aspect, it is the way that they can create aspirational bonds. I think some of us want to love certain things…as myths…without being viewed as a heretic.

    BiV: Thanks, you are the best.

  3. stp, well said. There are way too many variables in a hand loaded musket to reliably reproduce such an event. (The quality and condition of the weapon is also a factor.)

    But regarding the larger point, I don’t think we should ever tell an apocryphal story as “sort of” true or symbolically true unless we explicitly state it’s apocryphal status. Either the event happened or it did not. If irrefutable evidence comes forth that a story isn’t true, we should dump it. Now I realize that any time a story is filtered through one’s perspective, language, and culture, that it will become somewhat distorted, and that people can have very different takes on the same event, but that is different than a faith promoting myth. For example, if the evidence is overwhelming that Job was not a real person, then, to my mind, the Book of Job is of little more valuable than a Shakespeare play–full of whit and wisdom to be sure, but not the same as the miracles in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon–belief in which is an absolute requisite of our religion and its commitment to a magical worldview.

    By the way, I really like your approach to Santa. No need to lecture 3-5 year olds that Santa isn’t real, but once children are old enough to ask questions and start weighing evidence, encouraging belief is simply lying.

  4. Our children may not recognize the distinction when they are young, but as they mature there is no need to obscure the fact that in this case there are no contemporary eyewitness accounts and that some of the later accounts come from people who were not even present at the event.

    BiV, as to the Brigham Young episode, my wife’s ggg grandfather swore an affidavit in a court of law that he was present and saw it.

    I believe there are dozens of others as well who were eyewitnesses to it.

  5. Great post, BiV. I like your idea of always presenting Santa as a myth while allowing a child’s development to understand exactly what that entails over time.

  6. PS- I can’t recall where I read it, but someone ha argued that the watch was not struck by bullet but that it was cracked against the windowsill corner, or something along those lines. I’d like to think a bullet struck the watch but am not married to it.

  7. Too many entirely different concepts are being jumbled together here and treated as if they can all be addressed adequately by the same means. This is false and irritating and leading to confused and confusing discussion.

    Metaphysical events are by definition outside of the normal realm of time and space and cannot be proven or disproven by the same methods used by history or science.

    “Magical world view” and “magical thinking” are terms of art and do not mean simply a desire to believe the unprovable.

    An event may be adequately documented as historical (“proven”) without the proof of the event having any bearing on the moral or religious or personal meaning imposed on that event.

    Some details in the popular understanding of an historical event may be shown to be false without the core event being proven non-historical.

    An historical event may in reality have happened, and popular understanding of it may be more or less correct, without there being adequate evidence to document the event according to professional standards.

    Joining in a benevolent conspiracy to uphold a cultural tradition (whether that’s Santa Claus, or wearing green on March 17th, or asking whether the groundhog saw his shadow on February 2nd, or pretending that everyone is patriotic on July 4th) is not the same as lying.

    HolyFetch is hardly the Mormon equivalent of Snopes, conducting no investigations of its own, perpetuating myths as well as “busting” actual events, and it’s a disservice to promote it as reliable.

  8. Joining in a benevolent conspiracy to uphold a cultural tradition (whether that’s Santa Claus, or wearing green on March 17th, or asking whether the groundhog saw his shadow on February 2nd, or pretending that everyone is patriotic on July 4th) is not the same as lying.

    I agree that we ought to distinguish Santa Claus “lying” from things like lying about whether you’re having an affair, etc. Also, I regret any indication that people who do the Santa thing are somehow immoral because of it.

    (As for holyfetch, I can’t speak for it, haven’t spent but 15 seconds there. Can I get an example of cruddiness? Not that I don’t believe the site has any problems, but that I am too lazy to search there and you might have a ready reference!)

  9. An example I’ve used before, BH (I may do a full site report sometime) is the claim that the British newspaper miraculously delivered to Henry Ballard is on file in the church archives (it can’t be found today, if it ever was there). HolyFetch didn’t check that claim out, or really look closely at any other detail of the story — they simply looked up one published version of the legend and reported that it was true because they had a published source to document it. That’s typical of the kind of circular “research” they do to verify or debunk a legend.

  10. After decades of dangerous experimentation, I have developed a few research methods, BH, that can be attempted by daring historians after much deliberation and suitable training. One of them — sit down for this — is picking up the telephone and calling a librarian! Can you believe I have divulged this great secret in so public a way?

  11. BiV: I like your comparison of the Santa myth to LDS religious myths, but I think the problem is that Santa is “game” parents play—a myth about something that isn’t meant to be taken as real or even meant to be acted upon—whereas the Mormon legends are told as faith-promoting. In the Santa game parents say he only gives presents to good kids, but no one really expects kids to base their decisions on how it will affect one’s standings on Santa’s naughty/nice list.

    So I’m more comfortable with the Santa myth than I am with faith-promoting myths.

    And as a side note, my wife and I chose not to do the Santa myth at all. Mostly because we think he’s a bit of a jerk. Besides, if we give our kids a nice gift then we want the credit! 🙂

  12. Where faith promoting stories are dangerous is when they are demonstrably false.

    When I was growing up, I remember listening to Paul H. Dunn tell his stories about playing professional ball and fighting in WWII. My parents bought his books for the kids. I attended one regional fireside where he spoke.

    I — and I think many others — were devastated to learn that the stories were fabricated.

    The church has gotten better at avoiding this kind of stuff.. But, similar material pops up in LDS culture all the time .. the 14 elements of the true church (also fabricated) is the one that comes to mind.

    The reality is that we need to get much better at stamping this stuff out.

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