The Problem of Santodicy

I love Christmas. I love the chance we have to celebrate our relationships and take the time to think of and give to those close to us. I could listen to Christmas music all year.

I freely admit to not liking Santa, however. More precisely, I think the “Santalogical” problems far outweigh the excitement that children have as they wait for reindeer to alight on the roof and a fat mystical man to come through the chimney (or through the heating vents of my childhood, as I concluded he must do when I was in a home without a fireplace). Further, we can enjoy all substantial benefits of the Santa myth while avoiding the problems.

I don’t like how the Santa myth, at least as it is expressed in the US, encourages a binge of consumerism. I like pointing out that “X-Mas” does not remove Christ from Christmas, as Christ starts with an “X” (Chi) in Greek. The only way to remove Christ from Christmas is to write it the way many live it, $-Mas. And that is exactly what $anta Claus does. He is a consumerist replacement for Jesus. One conceptualization of God is that God is watching us all the time, so we need to be good so we will be blessed. Well with $anta, Santa is watching all the time, so we need to be good so we get presents. I am deeply disturbed by how our culture conditions us to thoughtlessly and endlessly consume, and Santa feeds into this.

More seriously, I think the philosophical, theological, or Santalogical problems cause more damage than benefit. I really wish there were some mystical being giving things to all the inhabitants of the earth. Though why not provide clean water, food, and other basic necessities rather than toys? This is the problem of “Santodicy”, why good children get nothing for Christmas. Why don’t all children get Christmas? And even among children who do get Christmas, why is the distribution so unfair, with some very good children getting so little and some spoiled children getting far more than they ever need? And poignantly, why do a family’s financial problems affect the scale of Christmas, if it is ol’ Saint Nick providing the goods?

Finally and perhaps most importantly, I have a serious problem lying to my children, especially about a mythical character that has quasi-divine elements (he is omniscient, operates out of time, etc). One of my wife’s friends, when told by his parents that Santa does not exist, asked the logical question: “Well, then is God real?” Believing in God can be problematic, but I believe that unlike Santa, the benefits of belief in God outweigh the disadvantages and you can make arguments for God’s existence, in addition to personal subjective evidence. Do we really need to compound the problems of faith by teaching our children about two unseen, all-knowing and caring beings, one of which we know to be false?

I think that we can play the Santa game in our families. That is fun. This is what my wife’s family did, even though she asked her father before memory whether Santa was real and he said no. It is fun to put out cookies and watch Santa movies and partake selectively in Santa culture. But children don’t need to believe that Santa is a literal figure to get this benefit. Besides, most children are excited to get presents, and the wonder about Santa is only a small part of that. Yes, I do have positive memories of contemplating the comings of the Jolly Old Man in Red and his levitating team of caribou. But for the reasons I have outlined, I have not approved of passing along this tradition to my children.

Besides, I am with those who think that emphasis on Santa and presents takes away from the most important parts of the Christmas season. With Santa put in his proper place—a combination of respecting the memory of an altruistic Greek and enjoying popular culture—we can focus on Christ and family, the true importance of the Christmas season.

27 Replies to “The Problem of Santodicy”

  1. I agree! How about this take on Santa as the “real” God of the American consumer society? He comes out of the sky (by helicopter) to the local “temple” (otherwise known as the Mall) where he ascends a throne in the middle of the “temple”. Petitioners approach him one by one to ask for favors. (And he knows if you have been naughty or nice.) The blessings (gifts) you receive will be contingent on the sacrifices (money spent) at the various shrines (stores). Then having distributed his largess on the night of the 24th, he disappears into the night sky not to be seen again until he once again comes to his “temple” next year.

  2. Great post. I had plans to just let Santa be something fun to think about and pretend, but other people can’t leave well enough alone and insist on lying to my 5 year old for me. His teachers at school have taught him more about Santa than I ever planned to. Trips to the store are filled with other adults telling him to “Be good because Santa is watching!”
    I know how his mind works and I knew the connection he’d draw and have been trying to pre-empt it by emphasizing that Santa is pretend. It didn’t work because last week, out of the blue he says, “Santa is Magic just like Jesus.” The exact conversation I didn’t want to have.
    Sure, if some kid asks me if Santa is real I’m not gonna lie to them (which apparently makes me Ebenezer Scrooge to some people), but I don’t go around volunteering the information to every five year old in sight. Why do other people think it’s okay to do the opposite? And what do you even say to them when they do?
    Sorry, that was kind of a rant. I’m just really frustrated about it this year.

  3. It’s high time that someone started a religion wherein Santa is the savior of mankind using all the jargon and holidays currently associated with Jesus. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would be special a witness for Santa.

  4. Do we really need to compound the problems of faith by teaching our children about two unseen, all-knowing and caring beings, one of which we know to be false?

    Well, Santa does deliver — literal, tangible blessings, on a reliable schedule too. God might not stand up to that kind of competition.

  5. The way I look at it is that Bill O’Reilly is full of crap. The war on Christmas was fought a long time ago and the merchants won. You’re absolutely right about the materialism. Some of the best Christmases I ever had were in the missionfield with humble people who got one present — and they were thrilled.

  6. I am glad I took the time to write up this post; it has been fun.

    @Marjorie… I have long thought of the malls as the temples of consumerism, and yes, Santa is a fitting deity, though the advertisers are priests who make the products themselves idols. 😉

    @Starfoxy, that is really frustrating! I was very pleased when my 11 year old read this post. I asked her what she thought and she said, “You are right!” Of course, in years past she was disappointed I would not hear the “Polar Express” bell….

    @Santa, props on making a profile just to comment. I pre-ordered Dragon Age II for myself, so your threats cannot touch me.

    @DKL, perhaps that would be fun post on its own; I liked your comment on Chris H’s post. Would need to tread the line carefully between satire and blasphemy… on the other hand, Santa worship is perhaps blasphemy of its own… I don’t think we would need to use exclusively LDS ideas to do this however (bringing apostles into it).

    @Mark D. I didn’t get the term “Santodicy” from anywhere else; same with “Santology” and “Santalogical.” Glad you enjoyed the neologism.

    @Aaron. Yes… decreasing the consumerism focus with kids is a constant battle.

  7. The temple of consumerism is the Apple Store. The mall is the whore of all consumerism. DKL blasphemes against most beliefs. I doubt he will be satisfied until there is a religion about him.

    You concerns about Santa do resonate with me. I guess I am more worried about the damage that will be caused by seminary.

    I am not sure if a five year old makes the same type of distiinctions that we do. It is gradual. Wait until they realize the we, as their parents, are full of shit. Compared to that, Santa will do little damage.

  8. There are two Santas.

    One is the Evil Santa of Consumerism. You know him.

    The other is the Good Santa.


    “And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.” Matthew 10:42

  9. I would welcome comments on the benefits of *literal* belief in Santa. I am down with “Spirit of Santa”, playing Santa, etc. My key issue is that we can have all those benefits without the problematic literal belief. And if there are not benefits, why by Santa’s belly do so many perpetuate it?

  10. I also love Christmas for the reasons you mention, among others. However, unlike you, I like Santa; in fact, I like him very much. And I believe in him very literally. To me, “he” represents all that’s possible through the imagination of the young and old. And imagination is something very real. You have invented “Santalogical” and “Santodicy” in your posting. There are other evidences of creativity in your entry. Excitement from imagining reindeer alighting on the rooftop. Santa coming up through heating vents. Even the unattributed artwork in your posting. Such creativity is the essence of the notion of Santa — what he represents — for me.

    What you put at Santa’s feet, consumerism, is not his. In fact, it flies in the face of what he represents. It seems such attribution characterizes an immature development of the character of what the old man represents: compassion and caring wrapped in creativity. In fact, you suggest that you have ceded your imagination to those who have exploited the character of Santa.

    While it’s true many children in the world don’t receive material gifts at Christmas time due to do their extreme poverty or plight, almost all of them are in some degree or another amenable to the flight of imagination the old man may represent. It is you that has made “getting” at Christmas time material. That’s not what it’s about.

    Lying? When you read your children a fictional story, are you lying to them? Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has no value even though it isn’t real? It causes confusion? I submit you are not. I submit that you are giving them a blessing. What I am suggesting requires some nuance. May I suggest you try and find some gradation in your analysis and see if it doesn’t work to your and your family’s benefit?

  11. Wreddy, thank you for the well thought-out counter argument. I agree with you that the consumerist Santa goes against the “true spirit” of Santa, and Nicholaos certainly would not approve. But I still hold the elements I describe are not only present, but predominant in our popular culture.

    I have already acknowledged that I very much appreciate the “spirit of Santa”, celebrating a chance to give to others, spend time with family, remember relationships and perhaps also those in need. I approve of all these elements of Christmas. I think you and I agree that we should focus on these aspects of the spirit of the season.

    We lie only when we pretend fiction is reality, and that is the problem I have with presenting Santa as a literal figure. When I read my children stories, they know they are made up. By the way, I absolutely love fiction, fantasy, and imagination. I like aspects of the myth of Santa. My post discusses specifically the problems of presenting Santa as a tangible individual.

    If you know the attribution to that picture I would be glad to add it.

  12. Where there is no vision, the people perish.

    What is “literal” in the sense you mean it and use it?

    “Truth is a matter of the imagination,” is a line attributable to a fictional character, Genly Ai, a creation of Ursula Le Guin. Yet in a very real sense, Ai’s notion is based on what truely happens to us in mind and body. Our sensory abilities can only go so far. Even what we call “literal” is imagined.

    Not only when you read stories to your children are they made up, but when you live stories, they are, too. Plus, I think you go too far in saying when you read stories to your children, they know they are made up. Fiction is reality, too. The Night Before Christmas is real; it might be intangible, ethereal; but that doesn’t make it unreal.

    I don’t lie when I say there is a Santa Claus. There is.

  13. Again, very thoughtful comments, which I do appreciate.

    Defining terms is good. By “literal”, I mean the way that many parents portray Santa… that he is an actual tangible person who actually comes to houses with flying reindeer that you could see and pet if you had the opportunity, really lives on the North Pole, etc. A person as real as their parents.

    My hope is that with your teaching that Santa is literally real, you bequeath to your children the philosophical sophistication you exhibit in this comment, so they understand what you mean.

  14. I cannot thank you enough for your post. You and I have discussed this topic more than once, but I had no idea where you truly sat in regards to “The Santa Fence”. I truly appreciate your insight, you are an amazing guide through the mental jungle that is life.

  15. Meh. When I learned that Santa was not real, I was disappointed — just like when (at that age) I learned exactly what the birds and the bees entailed.

    But I got over it. I suspect that the Christmas or two I spent moping because Santa wasn’t real were probably Christmases I would have been moping anyway because I was a snot-nosed, voice-cracking pre-teen. In the end, the pondering I spent on the unreality vs. reality of Santa actually taught me many things. It gave me an opportunity to compare God to Santa in way frocked with tension and uncertainty, in which process I learned a lot about God and a lot about myself. I began to discover the rhetorical value of myth-crafting and appreciated its cultural function. In fact, Santa’s unreality* is his greatest strength, because it means not having to succumb to the ethos, however predominant, of the consumerist version — make Santa into whoever the heck you want!

    So I guess i don’t know how my childhood Christmases would have been different if Santa Claus had not been a part of Christmas. But in my limited perspective, I am grateful my parents “lied” to me. They provided me with some fond wonder in my early years because they loved me. Even if asked during one of those first two mopey Christmases of late childhood if I would have preferred never to have been introduced to Santa, my answer would have been, “Not for the world!” Therefore, while I wouldn’t fight against muting the Santa myth if my wife and I so decide, I generally trust children in general to be sufficiently intellectually and spiritually sturdy to withstand a minor disappointment (at worst) about Santa Claus. The benefits outweigh the costs.

  16. Furthermore, after learning the truth about Santa, an indescribably huge wave of gratitude swept over me for the thoughtfulness of my parents in their constant supply of my greedy little heart’s desires every year despite not once having the satisfaction of being thanked directly.

    Well, all except the one year when Santa didn’t give me anything because I had been that naughty. That’s right, my hard core parents didn’t mess around!

  17. ChrisKay and I plan on telling our children as early as possible that Santa isn’t real, but that it’s REALLY FUN to pretend.

    In addition to the reasons that you mentioned, I think that having such a situation would provide a great opportunity for teaching my children about respecting the beliefs of others. I plan on telling them that, while we don’t believe in Santa, there are many children who do, and that belief makes them happy and hurts no one. Therefore, we should just allow them to go on believing. It’s not nice to try to challenge them on this or tell them they’re stupid for believing. I’m hoping that such a lesson will carry over to more weighty issues when they get older.

  18. Love your posts Enoch!
    I have always turned the “is Santa real?” questions back to my kids. I ask “what do you think?” “Doesn’t he leave presents under the tree?” “Isn’t that real enough for you?”

    We also tell our kids “Santa only brings presents to those who believe in him” — which I realize might REALLY rub some people the wrong way — but to me it makes perfect sense. It’s all in the perception.

    I think my oldest has caught on, but he still professes a belief … like I do, I still believe in Santa! I believe in the spirit of Santa, I believe Santa’s objectives are accomplished in large part. I believe Santa has many helpers, of which I try to be among. Yes, I am a firm believer in Santa. He is real, even if he is not a solitary jolly body in an immaculate red suit.

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