Friday, December 22, 2006
The Santa Question
Even on a sleepy pre-Christmas Friday afternoon, the Santa question can stir thoughtful responses. Thanks to J. Peter Nixon for forwarding me his own post on the subject from three years ago. Here's an excerpt:
Nor am I convinced that children finding out the “truth” about Santa is a serious threat to their faith. At some point my children are going to learn about the questionable historicity of certain elements of the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew. Will learning that the two accounts disagree about whether the angel appeared to Mary or Joseph shake their faith? Will learning that the scriptures never depict the shepherds and the magi under the same roof shatter them? Should I keep the crèche under wraps next year?
I actually think that believing in Santa is good practice for living a life of faith. One begins with naïve, uncritical belief: Santa is a flesh and blood person who lives at the North Pole and who flies around the world on Christmas Eve giving presents to five billion people. Eventually, though, such a belief becomes untenable. We then face a choice. We can walk away in anger at having been deceived about what “really happens” at Christmas. Or, we can recognize that the Santa myth embodies deeper truths about ourselves, about God, and about the meaning of Christmas that are best expressed through the stories and rituals associated with that myth.
Believing in Santa Claus, like believing in God, is an act of the imagination. It cultivates our faculties of wonder, awe, and trust. Anyone who believes that these faculties are somehow ancillary to the transmission of faith is dangerously naïve. My children believe in any number of things that do not exist--dragons, superheroes, talking animals, invisible friends. Their world is gloriously full of the supernatural, and I relish watching them live in it. For I know from personal experience that the mind that has stretched itself in imagination will never be able to accept that the visible, measurable, quantifiable world is all that “really exists.”
I guess I don't have much of a problem with my kids believing in something and then naturally coming to realize that it's not true. But I start having a problem if I actively promote their misdirected belief. I do not point out the historical inaccuracy of the manger scene depicting the magi with the shepherds, but last week when my daughter asked me when the magi arrived at the manger, I pointed out that they arrived much later. I will provide presents "from Santa" and facilitate the possibility of Santa's reality, but if my daughter asks point blank, "Is Santa real?," I will not say yes. (So far I've gotten away with "what do you think?") My discomfort is not with the belief in make-believe, but with my abuse of their trust that I will not steer them into falsehood once they've grown skeptical.
And Karen Heinig points out that:
[A]n active Christian faith isn't just a whimsical decision to believe, it's experiencing God's love and forgiveness in one's life. Something that can't just be written off as being made up by "some guy". It is this real encounter with God that we ought to model and encourage for our children, not merely apologetics.
Amen. But this might be where my own baggage comes in. I'm a believer who has always been strong on apologetics, but fairly flimsy on experience. Not that I don't experience God, but I don't experience God in the unshakeable, faith-affirming way that some of my friends do. For them, the cognitive dissonance of truth uncovered as falsehood may not be that jolting because the foundation is personal experience. For me, both now and when I was a child, experience did not take me all that far on the path toward belief. My struggle with truth was the core of my faith journey, and that struggle required me to distinguish the Christian story from fairy tales. I appreciate the imagination-bolstering power of myth, but I am reluctant to put my own credibility on the line once the project aims to confuse my children's power of discernment. For the time being, though, Santa is coming, and the magic of belief will hold sway at least for another year.