TCS Daily

No, Virginia, There Isn't a Santa Claus

By Douglas Kern - December 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Don't misunderstand -- I like Santa Claus. He's a charming myth for small children, a pleasant device for revering a great saint, an amusing source of inspiration for holiday TV specials, and a prod to healthy capitalism. I am not a Clausophobe. I do not mumble about consumerism and holiday greed when I see the jolly old elf staring out at me from a million ornaments and decorations in December. Santa Claus will certainly survive and prosper long after Michael Newdow gets Christmas outlawed. Hurray for Santa! Go Santa!

But I don't believe in him. Never have; never will. And I don't believe in the grown-up Santa Claus myth: that if you just have faith and believe hard enough in crazy, impossible things, all your dreams will come true. Now, it's good to believe. And it's good if your dreams come true. But those who do the former in the hopes of obtaining the latter are grievously mistaken.

My parents drilled me dutifully in the Santa mythos, but I was a wary, insightful child (not like the credulous dolt I am today) and I never bought a word of it. But if the tone of innumerable movies and TV specials is any guide, I may as well have been beaten with wire coat hangers, so greatly was my childhood impoverished.

Case in point: The Polar Express. Our protagonist travels to the North Pole aboard a magical train, enjoys extraordinary and unlikely adventures, and explores Santa's miraculous headquarters at the North Pole. His trip culminates in the arrival of Santa himself -- and yet our protagonist cannot hear Santa's sleigh bells, because his belief in Santa has diminished over the years. Only through an act of pure will does our hero find within himself the resolve to believe in Santa Claus -- at which point the sleigh bells ring out, our hero's sense of wonder and beauty is restored, and the movie exults in its climax. Behold Santa as God: he is, as Paul Tillich might have it, the focus of ultimate kid concern.

Need another example? How about The Santa Clause? A young boy has to hold firm to his conviction that his ostensibly ordinary, upper-middle class father is really Santa Claus -- because he is! And Elf? A child-like elf-by-adoption must teach his crusty businessman father about the joy and wonder of Christmastime. And what about Miracle on 34th Street? A cynical little girl must leave her precocious, worldly ways behind, when a charming department store Santa Claus blah blah blah magic, blah blah blah faith, blah blah blah just believe and you'll find the hidden glories of the world.[1]

What rot. I tire of Santa defined as the embodiment of wide-eyed innocence and naïve wonder. Santa's merits are wasted in his role as spokesman for this particular brand of narcissism and self-indulgence.

Rightly understood, belief is not a decision you make, but a life you live. If you're deciding to have faith, then you've already lost it. So the movies cheat. They give characters all kinds of hints and miracles with which to inspire belief, although such belief is merely a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence of the senses. The Polar Express is the worst offender. Let's see, Protagonist Kid: you've spent the last ninety minutes of the movie on a magical train that defies all known laws of physics; you've communed with a ghostly hobo on the train's roof; you've explored a wonderful workshop located at the North Pole, and all of these marvels synchronize perfectly with the classic Santa story. Yet you're puzzled as to whether this Santa Claus fellow is the real deal? Smart chimpanzees would "believe" in Santa Claus after an adventure like yours. Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet believed.

Moreover, movie-belief in Santa Claus is weirdly mercenary. In Elf, Zooey Deschanel is spreading Christmas cheer not for its own sake, but in order to propel Santa's stalling sleigh away from the NYPD in Central Park. In The Santa Clause 2, Santa buys the faith and goodwill of his girlfriend's workmates with really boffo Christmas gifts. Of what value is purchased belief? I count myself as a believer in many things unseen, but I believe in them not because I expect a handout, but because they're true.  

Hidden in too many of these schmaltzy movies is the notion that we should believe not in order to know spiritual truths, but because it's just better to be a believer. Says the culture: make room in your lives for whimsy and imagination; keep your hearts alert for mad wonderful coincidences; follow your dreams and never give up on the possibilities of unicorns and dragons and wizards, and you shall be free spirits that the world cannot repress. You will dance when nobody is looking; you will commit random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty; you will never sell out and remain young at heart and enjoy hearty campfires with good friends and beer brewed from crystal clear mountain streams. Such claims are rubbish. They reflect a fear of adulthood and its attendant responsibilities. With a Baby Boom generation afraid of dying and a Generation X afraid of children and mortgages and long-term employment, we have two generations eager to cling to whatever talismans might keep the awful specter of adulthood at bay. It's worth noting that, in all the aforementioned movies, the only antagonists are sensible adults acting like, well, sensible adults. Are we so serious and driven as a society that we have to remind ourselves to be as little children every December 25? Or is all this you-gotta-believe drivel merely self-flattering propaganda to justify our preference for immaturity over maturity?

The true Christmas classics don't bludgeon us to believe. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is transformed not because he learns to believe in spirits, but because he learns to accept the truths that they show him. Ditto George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. And no one ever told the Grinch (the original, not Jim Carrey as a transvestite iguana) about the need to believe. Hearts don't grow three sizes out of a mere decision to have faith; they grow from faith itself, which is bigger than choice. But the best example is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Linus' halting declamation of Scripture gives to Charlie Brown the only three things that anyone can expect from genuine belief: understanding, purpose, and a re-affirmation of the good. There's not a speck of magic in A Charlie Brown Christmas, and yet it conveys a sense of awe and mystery all its own.

So no, Virginia, there isn't a Santa Claus; some children believe for a time, but sweet made-up stories must give way to the real mysteries of the world. Childhood is magical because it's childhood, not because of the silly fables we believed as children. The surest way to kill the magic of Santa Claus or anything else is to reach for it too aggressively. You want Christmas magic? Look to Charlie Brown. Remember old words spoken sincerely, and decorate your little trees, that through such small and decent acts you might move your friends to song. And perhaps their hearts will grow three sizes, too! Santa is great fun, but adults have better myths, and even better truths.

The author is a lawyer and frequent TCS contributor.

[1] I'm being unfair here. Miracle on 34th Street is an excellent movie, not least because it demonstrates how capitalism will cheerfully co-opt ersatz spirituality.


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