Here is my op-ed on the Santa-Claus Lie, as it appeared in the Baltimore Sun on Dec 13th 2009—followed by the replies I have received via email, and my responses.
(I tried to let the tone of each reply dictate the tone of my response. If they were nice, I was nice. If they were hateful and sarcastic, then I was too. I'll let you decide how well I did.)
Editor's note: The following op-ed article is for grown-ups only. Children are warned that if they read it, they will not receive any gifts from Santa Claus this year!
Parents should stop teaching their kids to believe in Santa Claus. Reading stories about Santa is fine, and encouraging generosity and imagination is great. But tricking children into believing that an omniscient fat man, with a red suit and rosy cheeks, will slide down the chimney bestowing presents on Dec. 24 is just flat-out immoral.
First of all, it's lying. It's one thing to lie to save someone's life, but stop kidding yourself. "It's fun to watch the kids get excited" is hardly a noble cause. Nor is it harmless. I've amassed recollections of "finding out the truth about Santa," and many were stories of genuine embarrassment and resentment. The systematic deception makes children feel taken advantage of or like the butt of a joke. Children crave knowledge about the world - they want the truth - and parents are their most trusted source. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that a violation of that trust spawns strong reactions.
Additionally, parental efforts to perpetuate the lie discourage children's efforts to think critically. A parent telling a child to ignore the evidence against Santa's existence encourages the child to think that believing whatever one wants is more important than weighing evidence and believing the truth. Parents who try to explain away the evidence with crackpot excuses skew the child's ability to discern good evidence from bad. And magical explanations? Do you really want your kids to be gullible enough to believe in magic? To perpetuate the lie, the parent has to effectively tell the child to "stop thinking and just believe." That is not what you want to teach your children.
And that is not what society needs you to teach your children. Gallup, Pew, and other polls reveal that a frightening percentage of Americans believe surprisingly ridiculous things - that the sun revolves around the earth, for example (18 percent), or in communication with the dead (21 percent), witches (21 percent), astrology (25 percent), clairvoyance (26 percent), telepathy (31 percent), ghosts (32 percent) and ESP (41 percent). How many Americans still believe that President Barack Obama is Muslim and not a U.S. citizen, that the world will end in 2012, and that Sept. 11 was "an inside job"? Not to mention the fact that "stop thinking and just believe" is the most common impetus for fanatical religious belief. All such beliefs are damaging - and they are also demonstrably false. If only there were some way we could set our children down the path of "knowing better."
Christmas has not been celebrated the same way for 2,000 years. Our holiday celebrations date back at least 4,000 years (Jesus' birth wasn't added to the mix until the Fourth Century), and they have been in a constant state of flux. The idea that you should tell the Santa Claus lie to your children was perpetuated by the New York elite - most notably, Clement Clark Moore, author of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" - in the early 1800s. It was an effort to domesticate Christmas, to change it from a holiday about giving to the poor to a holiday about giving to one's own children. It's time for another change.
"Everyone else does it" is no excuse - not for your children and not for you. And if you are worried about how your kid will interact with children who still believe, how about, "At our house, Santa is just pretend." But don't think that not saying anything gets you off the hook. After all, if someone "just let" their kids believe that "Jack and the Beanstalk" is real, or that Mother Goose literally existed, wouldn't you think that was morally wrong? Why is Santa any different?
So don't deceive your children into believing in Santa Claus. I'm not saying to stop reading Moore's poem or giving children gifts. I'm just saying, for the good of us all, don't deceive your children into believing that Santa really, literally exists. You don't need to browbeat them. If they already believe, simply lead them through the process of discovering the truth for themselves. But if they don't, when they are finally old enough to understand and ask, simply tell them "No Virginia, Santa Claus is just pretend."
David Kyle Johnson is an assistant professor of philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where his courses include one on Christmas' history and philosophical implications. His article, "Against The Santa-Claus-Lie: The Truth We Should Tell Our Children" is forthcoming in "Christmas and Philosophy."
His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
so i am not sorry that i am not comforming to your formula for the way to raise children. i was a santa believer and am now a happy, educated, productive mom raising my children with the same starry eyed innocence that i had. sorry that you must have missed out on these wonderful christmas memories, and i pity the parent who made you feel so fooled by believing in a little christmas magic and is now being held responsible. i do not wish to make my kids bitter cynics at such a young age- let them be children while they are children. there is plenty of time for "real life" soon enough. julie
My argument does not suggest that teaching kids to believe, literally, in Santa necessarily demolishes their critical thinking skills. There are obviously exceptions—people who believed in Santa and turned out just fine. It suggests that it takes children a step in the wrong direction—a direction that could lead to a lack of critical thinking skills. Since a lack of such skills is doing great damage to our society, belief in Santa is not something we should encourage. Parental gratification of seeing “starry eyed” children is simply not worth the risk. Parents who think it is are selfishly putting their own personal gratification ahead of the greater good.
In addition, critical thinking is not “cynicism.” It is the ability to think clearly and effectively about the world. It is the one thing that allows humanity to received the verified truth, and kids are never too young to start learning it. Who knows, perhaps if you had started a little earlier, you would have learned to capitalize first person singular pronouns by now.
What an old curmudgeon you are!
While I believe parents should fess up once a child questions the existence of Santa Claus, I see no harm in encouraging that belief in a very young child.
They will learn soon enough that life is way too difficult to believe in good outcomes to every situation.
Personally, I "believed" in Santa until I was 12, figured I would get more gifts that way. Of course I'll never know if it worked.
The harm is that is risks damaging their critical thinking skills. You seem to think they will learn “soon enough”—but they don’t. They get to my college classroom at age 18 and 19, and still have not shaken the bad critical thinking skills that literal belief in Santa reinforced. Our lack of critical thinking skills is damaging us as a society. Parental gratification of seeing “starry eyed” children is simply not worth the risk. Parents who think it is are selfishly putting their own personal gratification ahead of the greater good.
Dear Mr. Johnson
Just read your opinion in the Baltimore Sun. You are entitled to your opinion and like all of us, you back up your emotional belief with listed facts and your own insights
I talked to my 11 year old son who does not believe in Santa anymore. You can relax sir - he doesn't resent me, feel embarrassed or is psychologically scarred because I lied to him about Santa. I don't know how many is many to you to support your opinion but I will suggest this idea to you:
Gather these scarred folks, however many they are, and call Oprah or Jerry Springer. I'm sure you'll find audience there for your contentions - lots of people like looking at other scarred people. You just might onto a new TV genre for the viewing audience out there
Thanks for your letter. My belief is not emotional. As a college professor, I see a serious lack of critical thinking skills in our youth and I see literal belief in Santa as a major way such a lack of skills is reinforced. (You’ll notice that is where a bulk of my argument focuses.) You are right that literal belief in Santa does not scar everyone—in fact, it does not even scar a majority. (Although, according to the studies I have seen, a near majority is at least upset.) But it certainly does risk that scaring, and I just don’t think it is worth the risk—especially since the risk is taken mainly for the benefit of the parent who enjoys seeing “starry eyed” children. Although your child was not scarred (and I’m glad about that), I wonder if he would have preferred to know the truth rather than have been the butt of a parental practical joke. (Of all the stories I collected, the kids who never believed always enjoyed being
“in the know.”)
For crying out loud - relax. It's fun.
Look - you're entitled to your opinion. But that's all it is - an opinion. Are you scarred from the Santa story your parents told you ?? I've heard and believe people who are abused grow up to be abusive but I have never heard anyone say - "Man if only my parents wouldn't have given me that bull about Santa.
When I look back, that's what reallly screwed me up "
C'mon - it's Christmas.
Thanks again for your letter.
There are a lot of things that are fun, but then end up harming others. (Drinking too much, drugs, casual sex, etc.)—and we ignore the harm those things do because it is so fun for us. When I see the serious stupidity and idiotic reasoning that goes on in America on a daily basis—reasoning that literally harms people in very real ways—and I look around at Christmas and see parents telling children “don’t think, just believe” “it’s okay to believe what you want, as long as it is fun”…and this is the same kind of reasoning that defends racism, and bigotry, and slander and literally holds back the progress of our nation and human kind….I can’t look at that and just say “oh, what a fun little tradition.”
The fact that it is Christmas doesn’t make it acceptable. Moral obligations are not seasonal. We should be helping others all year round, and we should be teaching our children how to think critically about the world…all year round.
I’m sorry if you see that as “calloused” or “no fun.” I assure you I am a very fun person. But I don’t think it is acceptable to let fun get in the way of doing the right thing.
You equate Santa with alcohol abuse !?!?!?!
Let's agree to disagree and leave it at that
My goodness. It’s like a disease with you Santa people—everyone who talks to me about his can’t help but reason fallaciously. I could put these emails in a book and sell it under the name “how not to make good arguments.” The mistake you have made is called “straw man”—you have restated my argument in an inaccurate way to make it look weak and thus easier to attack (like a weak straw man that is easy to beat up).
Of course believe in Santa is not as bad as alcohol abuse! But I didn’t say that it was. I was using alcohol use as an example. Look, by excusing the Santa-Claus-Lie with “For crying out loud - relax. It's fun.” you are suggesting that the fact that something is fun can excuse its immorality. I am saying that is not the case. For example—drinking alcohol can be fun, but it can also be harmful to others—and when it does harm others, it is immoral regardless of how fun it is. Is belief in Santa as bad as alcohol? No! But if teaching kids to believe in Santa is harming their critical thinking skills, and a lack of critical thinking skills is harming our nation—then teaching kids to believe in Santa is immoral, regardless of how fun it is.
It’s called an analogy.
You can disagree and say it doesn’t harm their critical thinking skills. (Although, given that every person who has responded in defense of Santa to me has committed a major critical thinking error, that is going to be a hard position to maintain.) But don’t put words in my mouth.
Hi. I am a 13 year old girl. I read your article and i think its ridiculous how kids should not believe in Santa. When i found out santa wasn't real i didn't care. My parents liked to make me happy. It is not lying when you say santa isn't real because that is just crushing a kids belief. When kids grow up they start to realize he isn't real and they dont care or just deal with it. Santa is what makes christmas for most kids and i feel that they can find out on their own time that he isn't real there is no need to just crush a kids belief like that. Thats just wrong. Please respond to this.
Thanks for your letter. It can actually help me demonstrate some of my points more clearly.
You seemed to excuse your parents lying to you about Santa because, even though the belief was false, it made you happy. This seems to indicate that you think it is okay to believe something that is false simply because it makes you happy. But this is one of the fundamental critical thinking mistakes that people make. Regardless of how happy a belief makes us, we need to learn that we should form our beliefs based on the evidence that we see—not our feelings.
This is how we best are able to understand the world. If everyone simply believed what they wanted to believe—whatever made them happy or comfortable—we would still believe the world was flat, we wouldn’t know that germs causes disease (and thus wouldn’t be able to cure them), we’d still think that slavery was moral and think that human sacrifice was necessary to ensure the return of spring each year. (People really used to think that!) The quest for truth requires for us to put our own comfort and happiness aside and follow the evidence wherever it may lead—and only by doing so can humanity strive forward into greatness. Belief in Santa, as your own story attests, teaches us that “believing whatever you want because it makes you happy” is okay—and thus it pushes us back into the dark ages of ignorance and stupidity.
When you believe something “simply because it makes you happy,” it can make you blind to the evidence and even make bad arguments in defense of it. For instance, you seem to think that telling kids Santa is real is not lying because telling them the truth would be “just crushing a kids belief.” But do the results of a statement determine whether or not it is a lie? A lie simply a statement that is not true. The fact that belief in Santa makes some people happy doesn’t make that statement true. We all know that Santa doesn’t REALLY exists—so if you say that he does, and you know that he doesn’t, then that is a lie, plain and simple—regardless of what kind of happiness or damage it brings.
Maybe you think that lying about Santa is okay because it makes people happy. But I have already covered that. The amount of happiness a belief brings does not make it okay to believe.
This is not to say that you lack critical thinking skills—your letter was actually better written that others I have received from adults. I am just pointing out that your letter is actually helping me make my point—belief in Santa seems to be the worst thing for critical thinking.
I wrote this article because of the lack of critical thinking skills that I see in my college students, and I see this lack of skills reinforced by encouraging literal belief in Santa. I encourage you to begin reinforcing your critical thinking skills now. A great book that I use in my classroom is
Schick’s “How To Think About Weird Things.” It’s for college freshmen, but I bet if you give it a try you can get through it, and won’t regret it—and you’ll have a leg up on everyone else when you go to college.
Once again, thanks for your letter.
Hey thanks for answering me. Just a question. Do you believe in God? I do, and I can't base my belief on facts, just faith. Am I not a critical thinker?
I actually talk about that in my article on Santa that will be published in the book "Christmas and Philosophy." The book is not due out until later next year, so I've attached it and you can read it if you like. (The section "Having Faith in Santa" speaks to your question.) In short, although some who are religious lack many critical thinking skills (like those who still believe in creationism despite the overwhelming scientific evidence against it), belief in
God does not mean that you lack critical thinking skills. There is a difference between belief despite evidence to the contrary (like belief in Santa or creationism), and belief without evidence (like belief in God--because you can't prove or disprove God's existence). If that wasn't clear, please see my article for more details on this--I think it will make things pretty clear.
Thanks again for your response. Let me know if you have any more questions.
You poor soul. You must have had a very tragic childhood if you were not able to believe in Santa as a small child until you were old enough to learn that Santa is a spirit of love, not an actual person and can not possibly harm a small child to believe in such a wonderful thing.. Apparently, you are either an aetheist, muslim or some other type of non- christian. I would bet that you also believe the person listed as President of the United States is qualified for his position. I do not even repeat his name. Have you ever seen this person hold his hand over his heart when our National Anthem is being played? Of course not. I am a former Major in the Military and served my country proudly. Bismark was not even a boy scout or didn't they have the boy scouts where he is from? Of course they didn't because it is called the Boy Scouts of America.It sounds as if you and Bismark Barama share the same views, that our country shall be destroyed from within. How does it sound to say the United Socialist States of America? I am amazed that you are employed by a Catholic University with your beliefs. I am a Roman Catholic and will pray for your poor soul. I completely comprehend how your views get printed in the ultra liberal Baltimore Sun but am stunned that the leaders of Kings College permit you to declare your heathenistic views in national print while receiving your pay from a Roman Catholic school. Do you believe in God? I would appreciate a response from you if it wouldn't conflict with whatever your beliefs are. Merry Christmas
Thank you for your service to our country. My grandfather proudly served in WWII, and my father in Vietnam. The military was not my calling, but I respect them highly for their service, and am grateful to all those who have served. I wrote this article because of the lack of critical thinking skills that I see in my college students, and I see this lack of skills reinforced by encouraging literal belief in Santa. Your letter has only made this worry of mine intensify, because you seem to commit many such errors and are completely unaware of them. I counted many…here are a few.
1) I clearly stated that I was criticizing teaching your children to believe that Santa literally existed. I did not criticize, at all, teaching kids to believe in a spirit of love—in fact I encouraged it. My freshmen critical thinking students know this fallacy as “straw man.”
2) You conclude that my thoughts about Santa indicate that I am not a Christian. This is misinformed. Santa is not a Christian symbol. He actually finds his roots in pagan traditions. “But isn’t Santa just Saint Nicholas.” No, he’s not. Read “Santa Claus: Last of the Wild Men” by Siefker. In reality, it is Christians who are the majority in the “anti-Santa” campaign. They think he just steals the thunder from baby Jesus on his birthday and want to do away with him.
3) Here are several pictures of Obama with his hand over his heart during the national anthem. http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/anthem.asp Please research things before you state them. And while we are on that topic—please find in the constitution where military service is required to hold the office of president, and then I will start being worried about the fact that Obama was never in the military.
4) Your assumption that the college at which I am employed should censor my work indicates that you are out of touch with the intellectual roots of your faith. The Catholic Church has a high tradition of intellectual integrity, and knows that allowing freedom of speech and academic freedom are the best ways to arrive at the truth. It was one of my colleagues that suggested I write the op-ed, and—even though they don’t all agree with me—the faculty and staff here are fully aware of my position and encourage me to express and argue for it.
What I find most appalling is that your letter is so hate filled—so hate filled for me, and for our President—and yet you call yourself a Christian and Catholic. Jesus declaration that you should love your enemies as yourself seems to be something that you have completely ignored. In no way could this letter you wrote make anyone want to adopt beliefs you hold. Please reconsider the way you deal with others in the future.
Barama did, in fact, place his hand over his heart after many criticisms for failing to do so in prior public appearances He served less than half a year in the Senate yet the majority of our populous felt he should be their leader and elected him to be so.I feel that he won because the opposition party was so ineptly represented. My heartfelt sympathies go out to the liberals and everyone who voted for him to be Commander in Chief. What a pity. We have him for 3 more years if we survive this period..You, obviously, misread or misinterpreted what I said about Barama being required to serve in the military to be elected President. I never stated that this was a prerequisite to the Presidency. I simply said that he has no knowledge or qualifications for his position and he appears to be surrounding himself with completely unqualified advisors, save the Chicago hoods who are leading him by a ring in his nose. I feel that your grandfather or I would be eminently more qualified to lead our country with all the Muslim based terrorism rampant throughout the world.than this well spoken ( with teleprompters) attractive candidate who won over a very poor opponent. I sincerely thank you for returning my E-Mail and I would be interested in continuing any future dialogue with you. Again, thank you for your response. Perhaps I am changing my opinion about you, professorSincerely,
Dear Mr. Johnson,
Did you have an unhappy childhood? Do you have children? Why are you so against allowing a child to experience some harmless 'make believe'? Are you against all the filth that is on our TV day and night? Maybe you should take up a crusade against the trash on TV instead of being against Santa Claus.
Sincerely, Vera (a 77 year old senior citizen)
I do not think that it is harmless make believe. As a college professor, I see a serious lack of critical thinking skills in our youth and I see literal belief in Santa as a major way such a lack of skills is reinforced.
I also don’t think that parents should let their kids wash trash that it is on television. But there are plenty of people who have already said that. There needs to be more people who are standing up and pointing out the damage that literal belief in Santa is doing to our children.
Thanks for your letter.
My names Paige and im 16. I read your article in the news paper and i highly disagree with your statements. You telling parents that its wrong to let their children discover imagination is just rediculous. Its basically like telling kids to not imagine anything and grow up real fast and not be creative. What you described when you said when parents tell their children santa isnt real they get really mad and dont believe their parents anymore is most defenatly false. I believed in santa up to the age of 12 then my parents told me santa isnt real. I wasnt mad at them i actually thanked them alot because i actually enjoyed my christmas's believing in santa because it was something to look forward to every year and it was so much more fun. For parents who teach their kids that Santa isnt real well i feel sorry for the kids because they are missing out on the enjoyment of Christmas. Their is nothing better then going to bed trying to go to sleep but you cant because you know santa will be starting his flight at 12 to give you gifts and waking teir parents up in the morning seeing that santa was their to give you all the wonderful things you wanted and him leaving a nice christmas note and eating the cookies you left for him. St. Nick was real at one time in Germany, read on it its true. If parents were to listen to your article then their making the biggest mistake of their life because their not gonna experience the happiness in the kids as they would believing in santa. As for them who dont listen will continue enjoying the sight of their kids faces when they see the gifts santa left them. Parents who tell their kids sana isnt real just want to take the credit for all the gifts on Christmas. I will teach my children to believe in santa and they will teach theirs and so on. Its a magical thing that all kids should experience threw out their childhood life. Im sorry for your poor thoughts i hope you get better real soon you must be really sick to tell parents to tell their kids not to believe in creativity.
Thanks for your letter. I wrote this letter because, as a college professor, I see a serious lack of critical thinking skills in our youth and I see literal belief in Santa as a major way such a lack of skills is reinforced. You are right that literal believe is Santa is fun for children and adults alike, but it is simply not worth the risk. A lack of critical thinking skills, literally, holds back the progress of all human kind. “Fun at Christmas time” is not something it is worth sacrificing that progress for.
Let me give you an example. You seemed to excuse your parents lying to you about Santa because, even though the belief was false, it made you happy. This seems to indicate that you think it is okay to believe something that is false simply because it makes you happy. But this is one of the fundamental critical thinking mistakes that people make. Regardless of how happy a belief makes us, we need to learn that we should form our beliefs based on the evidence that we see—not our feelings. This is how we best are able to understand the world. If everyone simply believed what they wanted to believe—whatever made them happy or comfortable—we would still believe the world was flat, we wouldn’t know that germs causes disease (and thus wouldn’t be able to cure them), we’d still think that slavery was moral and think that human sacrifice was necessary to ensure the return of spring each year. (People really used to think that!) The quest for truth requires for us to put our own comfort and happiness aside and follow the evidence wherever it may lead—and only by doing so can humanity strive forward into greatness. Belief in Santa, as your own story attests, teaches us that “believing whatever you want because it makes you happy” is okay—and thus it pushes us back into the dark ages of ignorance and stupidity.
You have even committed some critical thinking errors yourself in your letter to me. You say “You telling parents that its wrong to let their children discover imagination is just rediculous.” In logic, we call this the “straw man” fallacy—you have put words in my mouth, trying to make my argument look weaker than it is (like a man made out of straw). I never said to not let children discover imagination. Children were discovering imagination long before belief Santa was around, and they will be doing it long after. There are many other ways to encourage imagination, and of all the people I have known that never believed in Santa, not one of them lacks imagination. In fact, one of them is the most imaginative person I know. So I encourage teaching children about imagination—just do it without teaching them to believe Santa literally exists.
In addition, your information about the historical St. Nicholas (and his connection to Santa) is not accurate. (I have looked it up—I teach a class on this stuff.) If St. Nicholas did exist, he was the from the port town of Myra (about 300 C.E.), which is in present day Turkey, not Germany. In addition, despite the fact that he shares his name, almost nothing about our modern version of Santa is based on “St. Nicholas.” Santa actually shares more in common with old Norse gods like “Odin” (who had a great white beard and rode a flying eight legged horse) and “Thor” (who was pulled in a flying chariot by two flying goats, Nasher (thunder/Donder) and Cracker (lightening/Blitzen)) and offshoots of a pagan god called “The Wild Man” (who have bottomless sacks, dress in fur, and bound a hardy “ho ho ho”) than he does with St. Nicholas. Sometimes in Europe, St. Nicholas has these things—but it is because he was associated with these pagan gods.
I understand your concern, and you love for how much fun Santa was. But I have concluded that there are more important things—encouraging critical thinking in our children for the good of us all—than belief in Santa.
Your letter was better written that most I have received from adults—so don’t lose heart! You are a bright girl! I encourage you to begin reinforcing your critical thinking skills now. A great book that I use in my classroom is Schick’s “How To Think About Weird Things.” It’s for college freshmen, but I bet if you give it a try you can get through it, and won’t regret it—and you’ll have a leg up on everyone else when you go to college.
Once again, thanks for your letter.
I'm quite sure your email inbox has been flooded with mail this morning, but I just couldn't let this fly by without letting you know you are NOT ALONE! The
Santa lie is bizarre, sick, disgraceful, and sad, sad, sad!
Just the other day, I saw someone threatening their youngster that "Santa's not going to give you anything, if you keep it up!", and I felt so sorry for that poor child, who could have received a simple, "I don't like how you are acting!" It gives me pause.. What happens when that child, discovers the inevitable? Are there still consequences in life? Mommy lied about the existence of one thing; might she be lying about another? Is smoking truly bad for me? Does candy rot my teeth? Their lives are altered by this moment, in a very real way.
My parents did not even tell us about Santa Claus when we were little, and when I heard other kids talking about "him", I asked and was told the truth: some families like to tell their children that story to get them excited about Christmas. I thought it was so strange and didn't get it then and STILL DON'T. My children know that other kids are told that story, and they know that the story does have a grain of truth in it. They, also, know that Soltice is really the holiday and exactly why there is a murdered tree in most homes. I digress. Some person told me it was disgraceful that we hadn't taught our children about SC, and my reply was that I would rather see their eyes shining with the excitement over the truth than shiny with unshed tears over a senseless and blatant lie told them by their own mother.
Thank you, for your article and insight~ Lisa.
Thanks you so much for your letter! I’ve been fielding letters all day (I should be grading). Yours gave rise to first of sigh of relief and then a shout of joy—it was the first positive response. I, of course, couldn’t agree more and am so glad that there are parents out there who know better than to tell the Santa-Claus-Lie!
In case you are interested, attached is my chapter on the topic for the “Christmas and Philosophy” book due out next year (published by Wiley, edited by Scott Lowe). It might give you even more answers to give to those parents who object to your “truth telling.” (I’d love to hear your feed back as well—but I’ll leave that, and actually reading it, up to you. ) I also have a brief 12 page history of Santa that I wrote for use by my students in my “Christmas History” class. (Santa’s real history is nothing like you would expect.) Just let me know if you are interested and I’ll be glad to send it your way.
Baa Hum Bug to you. Your reasoning sounds like a bunch of crap to me. To balance your assertion of "stories of genuine embarrassment and resentment", I'd like to see some research about the many happy stories of Santa Claus.
What about children playing and using their imagination creating their own little world of make believe for a short time. When my daughter was little (now 46), she had an imaginary friend (goo-goo) that she used to talk to, etc. Should I have stopped her and told her it was nonsense.
The world can be cruel at times; let their children have their fantasy world while they're little.
Thanks for your letter.
I recall my childhood imaginary friend; but I also recall that I didn’t REALLY believe that friend existed. I knew it wasn’t real, and I knew my parents knew it wasn’t real, but it was still fun to play. That is what I suggest you do with Santa. Be honest about the reality of it—he doesn’t really exist. You can tell your children this but it can still be a fun game that you play at Christmas.
Think of it this way. Although you shouldn’t have stopped your children from “playing” with her imaginary friend, you certainly should not have encouraged her to believe that friend really, literally, existed. (I think you knew that she knew it wasn’t real. And if you really thought she thought it was literally real--like if she started blaming her for things--I'm pretty sure you would have corrected her.) People who really believe such things get committed to the mental ward. “Playing Santa” can be fun, but you should not lead your children to believe that he literally exists. There are much better, less damaging ways, to promote imagination in kids. (Kids’ imagination were just fine before it became popular in the 1830’s, and will do just fine without it once we rid ourselves of it.)
I don’t deny that Santa makes some kids happy. But I wrote this article because, as a college teacher, I am appalled at the lack of critical thinking skills our youth display—and I see literal belief in Santa as something that reinforces the fact that they lack these skills. So my argument simply suggests that literal belief in Santa takes children a step in the wrong direction—a direction that could lead to a lack of critical thinking skills. Since a lack of such skills is doing great damage to our society, belief in Santa is not something we should encourage. Parental gratification of seeing “starry eyed” children is simply not worth the risk. Neither is “making kids happy.” (In fact, the assumption that it is okay to believe something false simply because it makes you happy—that is one of those basic critical thinking errors that I have to weed out of kids every semester. If we just believed whatever made us happy, we would have never made it out of the dark ages. Heck, we would have never even made it to the dark ages—we’d still be hunter/gathers. The pursuit of truth, regardless of whether the truth is uncomfortable, is what allows human kind to advance.) Parents who think "starry eyed" children are worth the risk are selfishly putting their own personal gratification ahead of the greater good.
Thanks again for the letter.
I read your article in the Sun, and must say you are way off base. I am 70+ years old. I have two grown sons, 4 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. At NO time were we sat down and given a lesson about Santa. However, we believed, but also knew the real meaning of Christmas. When we stopped believing it was not a traumatic experience, nor did we feel like we were lied to. It seems like it just another joy you think should be taken away when there is so much bad things going on in this world. As far as you mentioning people believe Obama is not Muslim, have you seen his birth certificate, no one else has. As for giving to the needy, this is something we do year round, not just at Christmas. Last but not least I only pray that you do not have children. I had a brother, who was down syndrome He lived to be in his 60's, and believed in Santa till the day he died. It brought so much joy to him, but accoridn to you we should have deprived him of this joy. Shame on you.
Thanks for the letter.
I wrote this article because of the lack of critical thinking skills that I see in my college students, and I see this lack of skills reinforced by encouraging literal belief in Santa. Your letter just makes my worries worse, and helps me make my point—because I see multiple critical thinking errors in your letter.
You mention your families positive experience with Santa, thinking it is a counterexample to something that I said. But I did not claim that everyone has a traumatic experience with Santa, so it is of no surprise to me that you have had no such experiences in your family and those experiences contradict what I say not at all. To suggest that I did claim this is to make my argument weaker than it actually is—a logical argumentation fallacy my freshmen college students know as “the straw man” fallacy. You have re-cast my argument in a weak way—making it look like a straw man--to make it easy to attack.
The same is true of what you say about your brother with down syndrome. I am worried about children who can eventually learn to think critically, and think you shouldn’t teach them to believe, literally, in Santa. Your brother, since he had down syndrome, would never be able to learn to think critically—so teaching him to believe in Santa cannot harm his “yet to develop” critical thinking skills. So I do not object to you teaching him to believe in Santa. If he is going to live his life in basically what is a delusional state, you might as well make the delusion a good one. I had a cousin with down syndrome that we treated essentially the same way. So again, you are making my argument out to be something that it is not.
But teaching children to literally believe in Santa can hinder their critical thinking skills. And in a world where a lack of critical thinking skills is holding back the progress of human kind, and actually killing people—I just don’t see it as worth the risk. Sure, belief in Santa can be fun for kids, and “starry eyed” children are adorable—but parents who put that ahead of the greater good of society—greater good of teaching their children how to think—are selfish and self-centered. Encouraging your children to be stupid, and hindering the progress of humankind for your own enjoyment? It is you who should be ashamed of yourself!
You make my point for me when you reveal that you are a “birther.” You may not like Obama—I don’t even like him all the time—but the notion that Obama is not a citizen is ridiculous (as ridiculous as the same rumors about John McCain). I use it as an example of “non-critical thinking” in my classes, along with UFO’s, creationism, and JFK conspiracy theories. It took me 2 seconds in a Google search to find his birth certificate.
So, contrary to your question and claim—“have you seen his birth certificate, no one else has”— I have seen it, and so has nearly everyone else on the planet. The only reason you have not is because you are simply too lazy to bother to look it up—and you are that lazy because you don’t want to know the truth. You would just rather believe whatever you want to believe because you want to believe it (you want to believe that he is not a legit president)—just like you taught your children to do with Santa. That is yet another lesson in critical thinking that you should learn—wanting to believe something is not a good reason to believe it. Has rational humans, we are obligated to seek out the truth and find it, and embrace it once we have found it even if it is not what we want to believe. And we certainly shouldn’t go around telling others what we believe, when we have not verified whether or not it is true.
“But that birth certificate is fake” I’m sure you are thinking. It only took a few seconds longer to verify that it was not a fake.
I find it not surprising at all that I see such a lack of critical thinking skills attached to someone who defends teaching their children to believe in Santa. I didn’t even need to write the op-ed. You make my point for me.
It’s not too late to turn yourself around. You can think clearly and logically—and if you use such skills regularly, it could even help fight of Altimeters! I suggest the book we read in my freshman critical thinking class. “How to think about weird things” by Schick. It’s very readable.
I believe you missed understood my point. I don't think anyone TEACHES THEIR CHILDREN there is a Santa. I'm quite capable of using my critical skills, and if I agreed with you, there aren't many people that are capable of using critical skills, as they grew up believing. Thank you for your replay.
Your statement about Obama’s birth certificate clearly indicates that, if you do have them, you are not using your critical thinking skills as you should. And of course parents teach their children to believe in Santa. It doesn’t “just happen.” Children would not believe in Santa without parental reinforcement. If parents didn’t tell the stories, give presents with Santa’s name, and eat the cookies the kids wouldn’t even believe in the first place. And the story is so ludicrous, if parents weren’t there to make up excuses and faux explanation for how Santa pulls it off, kids would figure it out by the time they were about 3.
That there aren’t many people who are capable of using critical thinking skills is exactly my point. I mentioned, in my op-ed, all the ridiculous things Americans believe in bulk. And they believe these things, and don’t bother to find out the truth about them (like you did with Obama’s birth certificate) because they think it is okay to just “believe what they want because they want to.” My claim is that the American ideal of teaching kids to literally believe in Santa—and that it is okay because “believing what you want because you want to” is acceptable—is contributing to this problem.
Mr. Johnson. You certainly have a gift with words. You know you are right, and I know you are wrong. You make your point that Santa is a lie and there is no room for magic, Magical moments can bring joy, laughter, perhaps fluff to stress and struggle. I wonder who you might be, and I see no joy, a severe expression, only facts and figures to plough through the day. It makes me smile to see children immersed in their images bringing dolls to life and trucks roaring along. It is not all bad being a mystic. There are millions upon millions of Santa believers full of hope, anticipation, dreams...wonderful dreams, sugar plums (whatever they are). How smug you must feel attempting to end those dreams. I know your answer, but spare me. And why are you so fascinated with Christmas history? Are you out to destroy it as it seems so many others are, or are you searching for the gift of love, that special love which comes from above? Do you consider that kind of love a lie, too? Please do not answer that to me, just yourself. Merry Christmas to you, and I mean that. Richard
Thanks for the letter.
I wrote this article because of the lack of critical thinking skills that I see in my college students. I do not deny that belief in Santa can bring some happiness to some. But teaching children to literally believe in Santa can hinder their critical thinking skills. And in a world where a lack of critical thinking skills is holding back the progress of human kind, and actually killing people—I just don’t see it as worth the risk. Sure, belief in Santa can be fun for kids, and “starry eyed” children are adorable—but parents who put that ahead of the greater good of society—greater good of teaching their children how to think—are selfish and self-centered. Encouraging your children to be stupid, and hindering the progress of humankind for your own enjoyment is deplorable.
I am fascinated with Christmas History because I crave the truth, is all its forms. It is that craving that pushed human kind forward in its progress, and I am proud to be a part of it. It is “mystical magical” thinking that threatens to push us back to the dark ages, and I am proud to stand up against it.
Thinking it is okay to believe what you want, because you want to, is one of the fundamental critical thinking errors. If humans had never grown beyond that, we’d still be hunter/gathers worshiping the sun. It find it not surprising at all to find this kind of thinking in someone who wants to protect belief in Santa.
I know plenty of people who don’t teach their kids to believe in Santa—they and their kids are perfectly happy, and get along very well without literally believing this the bizarre fairy tale. So don’t think you can make your point by making my life out to be miserable. I used to not be a critical thinker, and when I look back at those times in my life I pity myself. A real understanding of the world and truth brings far much more joy that any fairytale could. You would do yourself a favor if you improved your own critical thinking skills. I recommend “How To Think About Weird Things” by Schick. It’s what my freshman read, and it very readable and enjoyable.
Merry Christmas to you too.
Dear Prof. Johnson,
FINALLY someone who had the guts to tell the truth!
I applaud you!
I was eight years old when I found out there was no Santa, and at that ripe old age I vowed NEVER to tell my children about Santa (no, we are not Jewish)
I've endured ridicule for not telling our children about Santa.
When our children were in their teens, they shared w/their friends how we celebrated the Holidays, and several of their friends said that they had wished their parents had told them the truth!
One other note of interest that you may find fascinating, the Mormons, (which are VERY big on family values and "truth") have Santa in the Holiday celebrations. Go figure?
I want you to know that I genuinely LOVE YOU! What a blessing you are!
Thank you so much for your letter. You are only the second positive letter I have received. It’s so good to know that I am not alone.
If you are interested, I’d be glad to email you my chapter that will appear in the forthcoming “Christmas and Philosophy” book on this topic. (It may help ward off criticism you receive.) I’d also love to know how you and yours celebrate Christmas without Santa.
Only the second email, that's truly sad. Says much about the sad state of the minds of many!
I would love to read your chapter on Christmas and Philosophy.
We do have an artificial tree that we put up in November and take down the last weekend of January. When it's time to get up, we have a large breakfast first and sit and talk about being thankful for the many blessings we have. Since we adopt a family at Christmas, we take time to hope they are well and blessed as we are. We do give our children gifts, but they are not necessarily new. I've been recycling for decades, long before it was "fashionable".
-------------------------------------------------------- (I don't know what letter this goes on.)
I wrote this article because of the lack of critical thinking skills that I see in my college students and the fact that teaching children to literally believe in Santa can hinder their critical thinking skills. (It even teaches them that it is okay to believe something because “you want to” or “it’s fun.”
That this is false is the basic rule of critical thinking.) Since you have committed roughly three critical thinking errors in response to my letter—Ad hominem, staw man, and name calling—my position that belief in Santa is linked with a lack of critical thinking skills is even better supported.
In a world where a lack of critical thinking skills is holding back the progress of human kind, and actually killing people—I just don’t see that “teaching kids to believe in Santa” is worth the risk. Sure, belief in Santa can be fun for kids, and “starry eyed” children are adorable—but parents who put that ahead of the greater good of society—greater good of teaching their children how to think—are selfish and self-centered. Encouraging your children to be stupid, and hindering the progress of humankind for your own enjoyment is deplorable.
With respect, get a life. If you can’t do better than your strange “get Santa out of Christmas” crusade then you’re providing ammunition to those who think academics are mostly full of shit.
Thanks for your letter.
For some strange reason, you seem to think that my writing one 750 word op-ed on Santa justifies the conclusion that this is all I do (that I should get a life), and that it is a "crusade." I do many other things, and I hardly concentrate on this issue all year around--or even at Christmas. (I teach a whole class on Christmas, and we spend only one day talking about this issue.)
You make an interesting point that those who disagree with me may commit the fallacy of "hasty generalization" and think that, since they think that I am full of shit, all academics must be full of shit (not to mention the fallacy involved in concluding that if you disagree with someone, they must be full of shit.) But I can't let a lack of critical thinking skills in others stop me from promoting critical thinking skills (which is my main goal in fighting the Santa-Claus-Lie).
In addition, you may be surprised to know that opposition to the Santa Claus lie is not unique to me. I have received numerous comments from parents that have praised me for finally standing up for the truth and calling out this ridiculous lie that people justify in the name of "fun."
Please understand, I don't hate Santa or think that we should do away with the myth. I say this in the article. The story is great, and has great lessons. But so do movies--but I don't encourage my children to believe that "Finding Nemo" really literally happened. We can partake in the story, without the lie and the excuses and the "it's okay to believe what you want when it's fun." It's damaging our children, but we are blinded to its effect by their "starry eyes." I am trying to look through the starry eyes and see the truth.
Thanks again for your letter.
David the other night I saw on TV a show called, "The Mystery of the Three Kings". Actually, it was on about 3 years ago, and I remembered how fascinated I was. It is the result of extensive study and research of those times, pointing out that Jesus might have been 2 years old at the time of the visit, and that Jesus was born on April 17, the same date as my granddaughter's birthday. To receive a copy of that DVD, if you wish, call 1-800-633 5633. Including postage, it is $22.?? If you are not aware of this film, I hope you might enjoy it. NOW, the first letters to the editor of the Sun are appearing, and they are not very complimentary of you article, and they are far better expressed than my email to you. David, you must relax. I felt a frenzie and anger in your response (thank you for taking the time to respond). David..just looked at my watch and must .go. I was hoping to give you my thoughts on truth, and to tell you a story that happened years ago one Easter weekend' where there was a drowning and each persons's recollection of what happened. Anyway, Again, relax and enjoy this blue sky day . Dick
Thanks for your letter.
The frenzied tone of the op-ed is for the op-ed. They have a better chance of getting picked up when they are a bit more “direct.” I assure, I don’t get as worked up when talking about this stuff elsewhere—although, I believe in it just as much. I teach a class on the history of Christmas and I have found that videos on the topic are usually wanting in historical detail and accuracy. For example, the biography channel’s biography on Santa Claus is very inaccurate. It gets a few things flat out wrong, expressions debated opinions as facts, and leaves some stuff completely out. (For example, it leaves out all of Santa’s Pagan origins.) It sounds as if the video to which you refer has similar failings. Extensive study of history will not tell you when the wise men showed up—they are only mentioned one place: The Gospel attributed to Matthew. (Old Testament passages are not really about them at all. That was early Christian “wishful thinking.”) What the NT says entails that the Wisemen showed up no earlier than two years after the birth (because of the age of the babies that Herod had killed). Thus the modern day nativity scene, that has the wisemen present at the manger, is not even biblically accurate much less historically accurate. But even the nativity stories of the Bible cannot be historically accurate—they agree on almost no detail, and even contradict each other. Matthew has the holy family originally living in Bethlehem (no need for a room at the inn), fleeing to Egypt and then going round about to Nazareth to avoid Herod’s son’s rule.
Luke has them originally living in Nazareth (not Bethlehem like Matt), visiting Bethlehem for a census (no such census was ever taken), and then returning straight to Nazareth (no flight to Egypt). (None of this is disputed. Read the stories for yourself.) They don’t even agree on when this took place—the different rulers that Luke and Matthew place the events under (Herod and Quirinius) were not contemporaries—they ruled at least 10 years apart. Since both stories can’t be historically accurate, we have no reason to think that either one is—they both seem to only be stories told to convey theological messages, like the ‘creation story’ in Genesis. So we don’t even have historical reasons for thinking that there even were wisemen—much less historical reasons for figuring out when they showed up. The same is true for the “real” birth date of Jesus. There is nothing but lore and legond about his birth—there is no way to know when he was really born. If the nativity stories were history, we could at least know that he was not born on Dec 25th—beucase shepherds don’t watch their flocks by night in December. But since even they can’t be trusted as history, the truth is we just have no clue. Dec 25th and April 17th are just as likely his birthday as any other day. I don’t know how much of this you already know. (At least you know that Dec 25th isn’t “really” Jesus birthday, and that the wisemen weren’t “at the manger.” Most people want to throw me out of the church for heresy when I point out such things.) So I am sorry if I burst any bubbles—but, as adults, it’s important to seek out the truth and embrace it, even when it is uncomfortable. It’s even important to do this as children.
As for the responses to my article—I wasn’t expecting them to be glowing. I was expecting much hatemail. I’m surprised I haven’t got a death threat yet. Santa really is a sacred cow. But also notice that one mother wrote a letter agreeing with me—pointing out that it is quite odd that we teach our children not to lie, and that the truth is important…and then we systemically lie to them and excuse it in the name of fun? What an inconsistent message! I wholeheartedly agree.
Thanks again for the letter.
Dear Mr. Johnson,
Your article on Santa Claus tells it like it is. I was in the third grade before i learned the truth. I felt betrayed by the people I had trusted the most. At that time, I said to my mother, "So you mean that there's no god either?"
He knows if you've been sleeping/He knows if you're awake/He knows if you've been bad or good/So be good for goodness sake. I couldn't see any difference then, and i can't see any difference now.
Thanks you for the article. I hope that it gets through to parents.
Thanks for your letter. You are not alone, and your conclusions are not unique. At least one personal story I’ve collected went from debunking Santa to debunking God.
If you are interested, I do have a full article on this topic. Just let me know if you’d like a copy.
I'm like Oliver Twist -- I want more. I learned alot about the origins of Santa. You've supplied every possible reason not to perpetuate this stuff.
Reading it over brought back old memories, the "faked evidence," for example. I'd find half-eaten cookies and an empty glass of milk in the morning. My great grandmother absolutely insisted that my brother and I believe in Santa, long after we had learned the truth. If she were alive, she'd probably still be insisting.
Much as I admire Richard Dawkins (and I've read him, Harris, Dennet, and Hitchens), I do think he's wrong about fairy tales. Maybe some children once believed they were true and were scared half to death as a consequence. I understood they were "just" stories from the first, but I loved them then, and I love them now. I think Bettelheim had it right.
Oh, and I agree with you about all the excitement -- it's the presents.
If you'd send more, I would appreciate it.
Attached is my history of Santa. It is not published anywhere, so it may be a bit rough—but it works for class.
Books I recommend on Christmas (I’ll post the Amazon links, its easier.)
A great book on Santa:
The first 4 chapters, and chapter 8 is what we read for Class. Good stuff.
I disagree with Dawkins too—I love Lord of the Rings. It’s just literal belief I have a problem with.
Thanks so much for your interest.
I imagine you're getting a lot of hate mail for "hatin" on Santa, so here's one of thanks. I haven't even finished it myself yet, but I already wish Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World was required reading in every middle school. Have a lovely holiday season, whatever—if anything—you may celebrate.
Thanks so much for the letter! I’ve got a lot of hate mail, but a few good ones. Thanks for being one of the good ones!
I wish Schick’s “How To Think About Weird Things” was required reading in high school. Wouldn’t solve all our problems, but sure would make us better off.
I celebrate Christmas—it is mainly a pagan holiday anyway—a pagan holiday that Christianity has been trying to highjack since the 300’s. I even like Santa and his story—I just don’t think literal belief in him is a good thing. (Most people can’t make the distinction.)
Readers Respond Responses:
No Santa? Bah Humbug just finished reading David Kyle Johnson's self-absorbed op-ed piece in the December 13 Sun preaching that parents should not allow their children to believe in Santa Claus ("Sorry, Virginia").
Sure, Christmas offers academics everywhere a golden opportunity to get some easy ink and to show off with pedantic, I'm-smarter-then-most pieces on the holiday's history.This particular article's judgmental 700 words of self-righteous sermonizing to parents everywhere on how to protect their children from Santa Claus boils down to a simple two-word message from the writer: "Bah, humbug."We get your point, Mr. Johnson. Scrooge is alive and well in Wilkes-Barre. No doubt a lump of coal is headed your way from the North Pole.
Gene Bracken, Woodstock
In Defense of Santa
I don't normally respond to opinions, because everyone is entitled to one, however, I think David Kyle Johnson is way off base with "Sorry, Virginia" (Dec. 13).I think the idea of Santa is fun for children and in the long run teaches them how it feels to receive gifts. This in turn helps them to better understand the reason we give to those less fortunate.I let my kids believe in Santa as long as I could. As long as the innocence was there, it was fun for them and other family members. We still focused on the more important religious message of the Christmas holiday, but it added an aspect of fun and wonder. When they did find out the truth, I explained to them that Santa is really about the spirit of Christmas. It is about spreading joy and happiness to everyone, not just those who can afford it. I would take them to purchase gifts for disadvantaged children and pick out something they would enjoy. By experiencing the part of the receiver, they are more apt to want to spread this feeling to others. Christmas is about the spirit of love, giving and celebrating our Lord's birth.
Maybe Mr. Johnson doesn't have children. Maybe he never experienced the feellings we are trying to create. Children grow up much to quickly for us to destroy this long-standing tradition. As long as the true religious meaning of Christmas is not overshadowed and we don't go to extremes buying into the commercialism, I see no wrong in this practice. I have many found "Santa" memories from my childhood. Let's concentrate on real problems and not compare this to serious life issues. Merry Christmas to all.
Joan Caskey, Baltimore
Mom: We Tell Our Kids the Truth About Santa
In her response to the editorial "Sorry, Virginia" (Dec.13) Joan Caskey suggests that the author might not have children and so he just doesn't understand why preserving the Santa myth is so important. My husband and I have two small children, and we tell them the truth about Santa Claus.We see no reason to deliberately lie to them year after year. We spend all of our time trying to teach our children the importance of telling the truth and then somehow think that it's OK to lie to them about Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy because it's "fun"? What a mixed message to give to a child! Ms. Caskey writes about how important Santa is in helping children to understand the spirit of Christmas and yet completely misses the cynicism involved in implying that the generosity and wonderment of the holiday season can only be gotten by believing in a myth.
My husband and I teach our children about the importance of giving to those less fortunate (all year long, not just in December) and about the true joy and beauty that is all around them during this holiday season, and I'm pleased that their joy isn't dependent on them believing in a lie about a fat man in a red suit being pulled by reindeer across the night sky.
Brigitte Jacobson, Baltimore
Some more emails
Hello Professor Johnson: A very good friend of mine sent me a copy of your newspaper article about the truth or myth about Santa Claus. It doesn't matter whether he was real, which by many historians, he was. However, many different images of him have been portrayed in many languages and countries around the world. Was he Europeon, Turkish, who really knows and who really cares? What is important to understand, in the eyes of a child, is that he is real, or the beauty of his story is real. Children are vulnerable and those who have been deceived for more reasons than just Santa Claus, deserve to believe in something positive in their lives. The fact of the matter is that many children will not receive a decent meal for Christmas or any other day, let alone a Christmas Present. Yes, I agree with you that our children deserve to know the truth about many, many subjects, that are more important than Santa Claus. We are living in an era of time, when our servicemen and servicewomen are fighting two wars. The emotions they are enduring are overwhelming, to say the least. My Late Father served in the military for 21 years. I was raised in this lifestyle, and although I was raised during peacetime, my late father gave me a dose of reality at the age of 3, when I watched him leave for Korea. When I called for him, he turned around, approached me, and kneeled in front of me, so we could have eye contact. He held nothing back. Dad informed me that he had to go to war and might get killed. He told me to be a good girl for my mother. I remember this as though it were yesterday. Today's military is facing worse challenges than my late father and his buddies had to face. War is war and it is devastating. How many of these children living in military families want to believe in Santa Claus? Everyone of them, and you can bet your bottom dollar on that. The time eras may be different, but the emotions are the same. How many children and even adults are losing hope in their lives and clinging to the dream that there is a Santa Claus to take them away from their worries for at least one day. Instead of giving these people something wonderful to hope for, for at least one day in their lives, they are being frightened by topics such as the end of the world, global warming, terrorism, afraid to go out of their front door, for fear of being kidnapped, shot, or killed, abuse, etc. Our children today can go to school, get frisked, walk through metal detectors, etc., but they cannot learn about the true history of America, and our obligation to Israel, they cannot pray in school, but they can read garbage like the Greek Oddesey, which is in fact a myth, and grossly morbid and disgusting. My oldest son had to read this and make a report on this myth and I found it disgusting. I worked as a Custodian, part time, in the schools and on the last day of school, 5 books on withcraft were found in the trash cans. The owners would not put their names in the books, because they did not want their parents to know what they were delving into. I was told by the school libraian, that the Bible, can,in fact be located in the school library, under the History Books. History books are based on true facts and as a person who wants our children to know the truth, than you know I am right about this. The Ten Commandments are not posted anymore on the walls in school halls. They were when I went to school, in both parochial and public schools. We were allowed to pray, no matter where we went. I don't believe in the end of the world, and global warming is questionable. Science is causing global warming everytime a space rocket or shuttle leaves our atmosphere and makes the hole in the ozone layer even larger and poisonous toxins are emitted into the earth's atmosphere from the rocket fuel. Global Warming, as it is called,can be prevented by humans. What is not being brought to the civilized world, if you want to call it that, is the fact that we are in greater danger of a Nuclear Winter, rather than Global Warming. Nobody is paying attention to this, nor are they preparing anybody for it. These are just some of the events that young people are being taught to be afraid of. Instead of teaching them fear, let's teach them about a Happy Event. I have noticed that today's youth are not stupid. Many children know that Santa Claus is not real, they just want something positive in their lives for just one day of the year. I am sure that you are receiving a lot of feedback on this topic, however, it is not my purpose to agree or disagree with you. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The date of His birth is really not known, and that truth should be told, however, His birth did take place and was recorded in the census in Bethlehem, where He was born. I look for His return. Trust me, Jesus will return and it will not be on a sleigh driven by a Jolly Old Man in a red suit with eight reindeer. The love, generosity, and kindness of Saint Nicholas, to poor children living in his village is what I was taught about. Saint Nicholas died, but the memory of his love, and generosity and kindness, lives on in the hearts of those who want to continue his mission of sharing gifts with one another. This is the beauty that our young people need to focus on, not just on Christmas, but everyday. The human race can get along for one day, Christmas Day, but the rest of the year goes to pot. It is a well known fact, that in World War II, German sodiers and American soldiers were able to live in peace together for one day, Christmas Day, and after Christmas was over, the bombs and bullets started falling again. Many kids have already figured the Santa Claus history today. Let's let them have at least one day of joy and give them a little bit of hope that one day we will all live in a better world. Not because of the Santa Claus theory, but because it is God's divine plan for mankind. Cordially: Charlotte
I could spend hours replying to your email, but I am only going to cover a few things.
First of all, take your comment: “Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The date of His birth is really not known, and that truth should be told, however, His birth did take place and was recorded in the census in Bethlehem, where He was born.”
Since I teach a course on this, I am obligated to correct your misinformation. First of all, the history of December holiday celebrations predates Jesus by at least 2000 years. The Ancient Romans used the season for feasting, drinking and generosity (in the form of presents to others and social inversion, like generosity to the unfortunate). Recognition of Jesus birth did not appear until the 4th century, and at that time it was “decided” to be Dec 25th because that is when people were celebrating the birthday of their Sun god Sol Invictus. It wasn’t even called Christmas until about the 1100s. But the Christian aspects of the celebration have never dominated the season—usually relegated to a Christmas Eve Mass or church service. And the bulk of the season is devoted to parties, feasting and the other pagan aspects of the holiday that predate Christ. This has continued to even this day—what was the last Christmas movie you saw that was about Jesus, instead of Santa or generosity (like A Christmas Carol, or It’s A Wonderful Life). Saying things akin to “Jesus is the reason for the season,” as if the season finds its origin in Jesus birth is just monumentally naïve of the historical facts.
The idea that his birth was recorded in the census in Bethlehem is downright laughable. First of all, if the Romans had a habit of recording the birth of babies, they would have also recorded the dates of their birth. So if we had access to this supposed “census,” to know Jesus was born, we would know Jesus’ birthdate as well. But, as you point out, we do not know it. But we also know that Romans did not record the birth of Jewish children (why would they care?). Any census they took would have only counted adult males—women and children would have been ignored, In addition, no census they ever took required relocation (they counted them where they lived)…much less one that required people to relocate based on their ancestral relations dating back 1000 years. In addition, there was no census taken during the reign of Caesar Augustus—as the Bible suggests. But, all in all, I defy you to find one credible source that says Jesus’ birth was recorded in a Census. Not even the most conservative scholars I have read have said anything like this.
Last, all the benefits of Christmas you mention—giving people hope, etc. You can have all of that without encouraging kids to literally believe in Santa. That is what the article is about—don’t teach your kids to believe, literally, that Santa exists. As I clearly state—telling the stories, giving gifts, the Christmas spirit—all of that is wonderful. But you can have all of that without lying to your children. So the main point argument of your email is completely moot.
To everything else you said, I can only say: Stop watching Fox News. In fact, stop watching cable news all together. It's bad for your mind.
Hello Again David: Thank You very much for your input. It is greatly appreciated. Our sons are grown men and they know the truth about the Santa Claus theory. It's as phony as the Easter Bunny laying colored eggs for Easter. It is just a beautiful story, but as you say, these are pagan rituals that have been passed down for generations. Two movies come to mind, in reference to the Birth of Christ and Christmas. They are, "The Bells Of Saint Mary's, and " Come To The Stables", starring Loretta Young. I do not live in dreamland, that is for sure. I am afraid that if I were one of your students, I would not make the grade, however, I respect your insight and your position as a Professor Of History. I live by something my late father taught me. (1) No matter what, always tell your children the truth and secondly, "Never trust a child's curiosity". He was a wise and exceptional man. I learned a lot from my late father, and I have learned a lot from you, in this email. Best Regards: Charlotte
Hi David Johnson--
A friend sent me your Santa essay, because he had read mine. Mine's on the same subject, but takes a different--well, opposite--approach. Thought you might be interested.
Nice article. I found myself agreeing with you often.
I think I would be okay if parents "played the Santa game"--as long as, as soon as their children ask for the literal truth, they give it to them. (I think, without parents encouraging the belief with false evidence and faux explanations, they will ask much earlier--3 or 4, instead of 7 or 8. Either way, I think it better to tell them up front anyway.) The parents can go on to say "but you can 'believe in' Santa, in a different way." That is fine. But to lie and trick them into literally believing, after they have their doubts, just risks too many things--their anger and credulity.
You seem to be cynical of a world without imagination. And I would be too. But it seems to me that belief in Santa is neither necessary nor sufficient for imagination. Of my friends who never believed in Santa, none of them lack imagination. And, as you point out, you can still "believe in" myths, without believing in them literally. But I am also unclear how literal belief in Santa encourages imagination. It takes imagination to pretend something is real when you know it is not. This is what actors do. (And this is what you could encourage by playing the Santa game at Christmas, but telling your kids from the start that he is not literally real.) But it doesn't take imagination to believe in something that doesn't exist, when people are tricking you into believing it is real. Suppose Jesus never existed--are Christians exercising their imagination when they believe that he does?
The world I am aiming for, by fighting literal belief in Santa, is a world where people don't believe things literally simply because they want to, or for their own benefit. It's a world where people actually think about the position they take on moral and political issues, instead of just thinking from their gut. It's a world where people are able to recognize good evidence from bad, and make informed decisions. It's a world where people are able to take myths for what they are, and not be willing to kill and control others in their name. (I'm obviously pointing at religious myths here.)
In short, I have no problem with "believing in" Santa, or any myth for that matter. But I don't think we must go through literal belief to get us there. It seems that the Greeks got along great simply "believing in" but not literally believing their myths. Why can't we?
Thanks for the link.
The difference between your essay and mine, your approach and mine to the Santa Claus thing, isn't really intellectual or theoretical, but mostly just a personality thing, I think. You seem angry about it for some reason, whereas I've decided to take the anthropologist's more detached approach. Maybe I'm just older (I'm 64).
Santa's a cultural ritual; better to try to understand it than to rail against it, which won't change anything anyway. Intellectually, the difficulty in your position comes clear in the paragraph in your note to me beginning "the world I'm aiming for"--because none of the clauses in that paragraph pertain even remotely to a 7 year old--that is, getting rid of the Santa myth wouldn't change adult attitudes about moral and political issues in the slightest. In fact, disillusionment about the Santa myth actually teaches us to recognize good evidence from bad; Freud calls it the reality-testing stage, and says it's essential to intellectual development at just about that age. While it lasts, what the hell, the belief in Santa is really just a belief in a benign universe, where wish fulfillment is the rule. I say, give the kids a break for a while before breaking the news to them that the world's a cold hard place where their wishes are irrelevant, and death rules. A happy childhood is worth a million bucks later on, psychologically. You obviously disagree, though. OK, we're all different.
I have no illusions about how hard it is to carry on a conversation on such a topic as strangers, by e-mail, after we've both committed our thoughts to print and feel obliged to defend them. We'd do better chatting over a beer, feeling generous in the Christmas season. In any case, it's been nice to revisit these thoughts again with you. Hope you have a nice holiday,
Clearly you don’t have a kids besides that you are a complete douchebag. Merry Christmas, Scrooge.
But if they don't, when they are finally old enough to understand and ask, simply tell them "No Virginia, Santa Claus is just pretend."
Of course parents will tell them the truth when they finally ask. Do you know anyone in their 20s who still believe? Why for the good of us all?
Of all the people who have written me hate letters so far, I think you are the dumbest. I seriously don’t even understand how you could have misunderstood me. Of course, parents eventually tell their kids the truth—but when I say “when they are finally old enough to understand and ask,” I am saying the FIRST TIME they ask. (I sure hope that the first time your kids asked, they weren’t 20. College must have been awkward.) For example, at age 4, if they ask “is he real” for the first time, you should tell them the truth, right then and there.
And if you think that parents do tell their kids the truth when they ask the first time, you are seriously deluded. The most famous piece of literature on this topic is an adult lying to a child, telling her Santa exists, when she straight up asks for the truth. “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Parents constantly lie to their kids when they ask, and they even make up all kinds of excuses to keep kids believing. There is even a Mockumentary DVD that is made specifically to squeeze more years of Santa belief out of kids, when they start doubting, with fake scientific evidence and faulty reasoning. The fallacy you have committed here is called “straw man,” just so you know. You have restated my argument in an inaccurate and weak way to make it easy to attack.
The reason I wrote this article was because I think that belief in Santa encourages a lack of critical thinking. Your stupidity and fallacious reasoning just helps me prove my point.
P.S. Calling me a “douchbag” committed a fallacy called “ad hominem.”…look it up, douchbag.
You are a pompous, arrogant, windbag (but I’m sure you know this already). Lets make a deal, I won’t delude my kids with stories of Santa Claus if you don’t brainwash your students with a liberal elite agenda that I am sure they have to hear daily from your and your ilk. Please tell them the truth about Obama, Pelosi and Reid or better yet, just keep politics out of your classroom all together (cue the “I never talk politics in the classroom” line). One question, how many trips to the couch did it take for you to recover from your mommy and daddy telling you the lie of Santa?
Why would five year olds be thinking critically?
Oh, and thanks for explaining a straw man argument to me. I guess you’d think you have a PhD to have heard the term before.
I don’t believe calling you a douchebag committed the fallacy of ad hominem, you just sounded like a douche when I read the article. I’m sure you’ve heard yourself referred to as douchebag before therefore there is precedent.
First of all, given that you committed the straw man fallacy, I was justified in thinking that you knew did not know what it was. If you committed it, even knowing what it was…well that is twice as bad as what I thought you were doing. (If you had only heard of it, I was justified in telling you what it was, given that you committed it.)
Five year olds should be learning lessons on how to think critically because those are their formative years. That is when they begin to learn to think critically. If they are instead learning that it is okay to believe whatever you want to simply because its fun—they could very likely grow up to be adults that do that too.
“But shouldn’t they be growing their imagination?” But belief in Santa is not necessary for imagination. In fact, it’s not even sufficient for it. It takes imagination to pretend something is real when you know it is not. This is what actors do. (And this is what you could encourage by playing the Santa game at Christmas, but telling your kids from the start that he is not literally real.) But it doesn't take imagination to believe in something that doesn't exist, when people are tricking you into believing it is real. Suppose Jesus never existed--are Christians exercising their imagination when they believe that he does?
“I don’t believe calling you a douchebag committed the fallacy of ad hominem,” Again…apparently you think that believing whatever you want is okay. I teach this stuff for a living…it was an ad hominem.
p.s. BTW, I do teach politics…along with ethics, religion, and a host of other things. But I don’t promote any particular view. In fact, I just got through with a class of mine, and they specifically said “I’ve never felt so free to think on my own and draw my own conclusion than I have in your class.” Many of them said this, out loud, and also privately. And they literally have no idea what I even think on the issues I teach about. The last question asked before I let them go on break was “what are your views on this.” And I refused to answer the question. …yet another fallacy on your part to label me without even knowing me.
Just writing to say I enjoyed your piece on Santa Claus, which I read in The Baltimore Sun. I went into it thinking “that’s cold blooded,” but I left agreeing with you. And I thought it was snappy, well written and filled with interesting facts. I bet you’ll get a lot of feedback. Do you have a blog or a place that you keep your most recent work?
Enjoy your holiday, however you choose to celebrate it.
Thanks for the praise! After all the hate mail I have received, the few positive letters I have received are a “godsend.” I glanced at the site you linked too—that is the kind of stuff we talk about in class. Very interesting.
I don’t have a blog, but do have a web-page that lists my other publications. Here it is: http://staff.kings.edu/davidjohnson/
I also have a longer article, forthcoming in “Philosophy and Christmas,” where I make the same argument I do in the op-ed but more completely and convincingly (and not so “fanatically”). I can attach a copy to an email if you would like.
I should have a blog. I have thought about posting a blog that has all the hate mail I have received. Maybe I will.
Thanks for your letter.
I got these emails on Christmas Eve:
I read your op-ed article about Santa Claus not being real. It was abrasive and uncomfortable in a way that urges one to think. I was raised in a Christian household where the "meaning" of Christmas was that it was Jesus' birthday. I was also lead to believe in Santa Claus as a young boy. I don't have anything to do with either belief now, and I don't remember any particularly traumatic event or result of having either of those fantasies foist upon me as a youngster.
I guess on the one hand it is refreshing to hear someone lay everything bare including ridiculous religious beliefs like Christians preach about along with the craziness that is Santa Claus. On the other hand, I have a 10 year old boy who knows Santa Claus is just imaginary, but has been raised to "believe" in the spirit of giving in Christmas and that Santa Claus is the face of that spirit, an avatar of sorts. For that reason, "we" believe in Santa Claus.
What led me to write this comment to you was the tone of your article. Are you really that worried about the mental strength and grasp of reality of 6 year olds? Small children believe all kinds of things and part of growing up is testing those beliefs and inquiring. When a child decides Santa Claus is not real and asks, it's lying if you insist he exists. Allowing a small child to believe in Santa Claus is harmless otherwise. I at least disagree with your assessment that it is immoral. I hope you were not personally hurt by being told SC is real and that you have found fulfilment in what you have found to be truth. Eventually every human tradition can be traced back to a time when history was not recorded and the trail will go cold. There are no original thoughts, only your decision to exist in a given context or not. Our tiny blip of an existence as modern human beings is most likely destined for extinction like the dinosaurs and all of this wont matter anyway.I hope this finds you well this Holiday season and that you have a wonderful new year.
Via Con Dios,
The tone of the article is mainly for editorial appeal. A controversial and harshly toned article is a lot more likely to get picked up—and is, I think, more fun to read. As you say, “It was abrasive and uncomfortable in a way that urges one to think.” But I am honestly concerned that parents are not concerned about teaching critical thinking skills to their children, and I do think that the Santa-Claus-Lie is not good for those skills. But, even if parents continue with the Santa-Lie, if they think twice about how well they are teaching them critical thinking skills, the article will have done its job.
The way you have approached the Santa Claus myth with your family seems to be in line with my argument. I have no problem at all with the myth of Santa—even “playing Santa” at Christmas. And obviously promoting Santa as an avatar of the spirit of giving is wonderful. I just think the lying and false evidence to protect LITERAL belief is something to be avoided. It risks too much.
Thanks for the letter!
I'm very much a believer in telling the truth. Honesty is my most important value. Most people would say that I am honest to a fault. That's a badge of distinction as far as I'm concerned. However, I don't see any need to tell my children that there is no Santa Claus. I believed in Santa when I was a kid and at some point I learned the truth. I don't remember being devastated or feeling like my parents lied to me. By the time I found out, I was already suspecting that Santa was really just my parents.Children do need to know the truth about the world because they go out into that world more and more independently every day. However, that doesn't mean that believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy is going to emotionally scar them any more than believing that a magician is truly performing magic and not just showing off a clever illusion. It's suspension of disbelief. When we see a clever magic trick, for a moment it feels like magic. We quickly remember that it's not of course but we are adults. And adulthood is something our children will experience soon enough. I for one will allow them a bit of magic in their lives before they get there.
I understand where you are coming from, but I don’t think that the suspension of disbelief is something to promote at any age. Often people excuse this behavior with “oh, come on—they are just kids.” But kids are not “just kids.” Our early years are our formative years, and encouraging your 6 year old to suspend belief could be a lesson he takes with him his entire life.
If there was a mound of evidence that children have sharp critical thinking skills despite earlier belief in Santa, I’d rethink my position. But I teach critical thinking as a college professor, and every semester I am shocked at the lack of thinking skills kids come to college with. You may think it is fun to not tell children that magic is illusion…but then these kids come to my classes thinking David Blaine really can walk on water. Not only is a lack of critical thinking damaging our society, but it also makes the non-critical thinker susceptible—they are easily taken advantage of, because you can basically make them think what you want with bad argument. Thus, I don’t see the Santa-Lie as “merely harmless”—if it risks a child’s critical thinking skills, it is not worth it.
Thanks for the letter.
My kids know that magic is an illusion. In fact, to show them, we bought a magic set and learned the tricks. I did this specifically so that they would learn that things are not always as they appear. But my kids still think magic is pretty cool. They try to figure out how the trick works. I am also teaching my children to be skeptical so that they won't just assume that what they see or what they are told, is in fact, the truth. And as you may have guessed, I'm an atheist. The notion of believing something to be fact based on no evidence makes no sense to me and is alarming. I agree with you that the world is filled with too many people that are not capable of critical thinking. However, allowing a child to believe in Santa Claus until they reach the age where they come to realize on their own that he does not exist seems pretty harmless to me. My children will not grow up thinking that some things can just happen magically because I won't allow them to do that. I don't really see Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny as the problem. All children eventually are told or discover on their own that these are fantasy. The problem that is almost certainly creating the generation of non-crtical thinkers you are experiencing in your classroom is religion. Religion is doing far greater because it's acceptable (and for 95% of the population, desirable) to believe in all of your life.
I think you will have a difficult time getting anyone to believe that Santa Claus is causing children to grow up as non-critical thinkers. Your article would be more correct if you instead talked about the negative effects of religion. However, I'm sure you know how people will react to that.
In the end, I don’t think that we disagree on much. I think that “playing the Santa game” is okay, as long as you are upfront about the lie once they ask about whether it is just a game. It sounds like you are doing something like that. Couple that with the amount of effort you are putting into teaching your children to think critically, and I have absolutely nothing to complain about. I love magic too (especially card tricks) and even use them in class the same way that you use them with your kids (showing them how it works, and encouraging them to figure it out on their own). I am a big fan of Penn & Teller because they do essentially this with their show (both in Vegas, and on Showtime).
I definitely agree with you about religion being a lot more damaging to critical thinking than belief in Santa. But I don’t think that literal belief in Santa helps anything, and in fact hurts things somewhat—it’s a step in the wrong direction. However (as I have said many time at this point), even if the article doesn’t get parents to stop the Santa-Lie, if it gets them to take their obligation to teach their kids critical thinking skills more seriously—well then the article has done its job.
Thanks again for the letter.
Your credentials seem solid, so I'm sure you know what you are talking about, but I must say that I disagree with your conclusion about not telling kids that there is a Santa Claus.I agree that we should not directly lie to our kids. If my kids were ever to ask me, "Daddy, is there a Santa Claus?" I'll give them the same answer I would if they were to ask, "Is there a God" or "Are there Aliens?" That answer would be, "What do you believe?" And I would leave it at that. This would encourage critical thinking, not stifle it. As with any kind of belief, I believe they should come to their own conclusions, and believe what they believe, not what they are told to believe. Now, if they were to turn the tables on me, and ask what I believe, then I would be straight forward and honest. Until then, I have no problem with them believing in a little magic, because it's fun!My parents brought me up the same way. I was enthralled with magicians. I loved the sense of wonder that watching and believing in magic gave me. When my parents saw that I actually believed that the tricks were real, they didn't say, "Oh, no, Joe. That's pretend." They saw how excited and amazed I was and let me learn The Truth for myself.
My parents, and my older brothers and sisters went to great lengths to keep the magic of Santa alive for me. My sister would walk up and down the halls with sleigh bells, my dad would climb up on the roof to leave deer tracks, and my brother would point out the window at an approaching airplane and say, "Look! It's Rudolph!" They didn't do this to deceive me. They did this because they knew how great believing in the magic felt.
I eventually figured out "The Lie" when I noticed that Santa's hand writing was just like my mom's, and that a gift that my parents gave me had the same wrapping paper that Santa used. Does that sound like a kid lacking critical thinking skills? When I did figure it out, I played along, never letting my parents know that I no longer believed. I was 6 when I figured out. They continued to play the game until I was 16. Because It Was Fun! I did not get angry when I found out that my parents has be "lying" to me. I thought, "Wow! They must really love me to go to all that trouble!"
I play the same game with my kids. Santa's reindeer leaves footprints and half-eaten oats and carrots on our patio, and the occasional deer poop. Santa is a sloppy eater that leaves crumbs everywhere, and writes real sloppy with those big ol' mittens of his. Sometimes, when it's warm enough, he even leaves muddy footprints leading from the fireplace to the tree. This is not me lying to them. It is me making Christmas magical for them. They are now 13 and 16, and I'm real sure they no longer believe in Santa, but until they tell me that, I'll continue to play my role, and they will do the same for their kids, of that, I am sure. Why? Because they love it.
It might surprise you to know that I am vehemently opposed to lying. I won't tolerate it from myself, my wife, or my kids. I am this way because I got lied to by someone special in my life, and that hurt caused a strong reaction. I would not be surprised to learn that as a kid, your parents "lied to you" about Santa, and when you found out, you were hurt. So, I guess it depends on the kid. For my kids, who also love magic, I'm not about to spoil their fun.
Thanks for the letter
I don’t deny, at all, that teaching kids to believe in Santa can be fun—both for you and for them. (Although I think it really is more fun for the parents.) But I just don’t think that “it’s fun” is a justifying consequence for the Santa-lie…there are too many dangers. It’s still lying, kids could get really upset, and most importantly it risks damaging your children’s critical thinking skills.
I think the damage to critical thinking skills is most important. You seemed to have come out all right. You figuring it out at 6, despite the elaborate planted evidence your parents left, is impressive. I am also glad that your belief in magic led to you finding out the truth. But it doesn’t always work like that. Some of my students (before they take my class) still believe that some magicians are real. (Some of the magicians promote this kind of kind of belief—like Chris Angel’s “Believe” show in Vegas. Fortunately, magicians like Penn & Teller recognize the danger of such ignorance. They announce, up front, that it is only “tricks” and even show the audience how to do them (and it makes the show even better).) In addition, many students think that “believing what you want because you want to” is perfectly acceptable, despite the fact that the falsity of this “fact” is the first rule of critical thinking—you should instead believe in proportion to the evidence. The fact that you excuse the elaborate deception about Santa “because it is fun…because they love it” confirms my suspicion that belief in Santa reinforces belief in this false notion.
I guess, if you truly use the “Santa Game” as a critical thinking exercise, I can’t complain too much. But it seems that the heights you go to—boot prints and all—is geared to keep the kids believing as long as they can. One of my students said his parents played the Santa game, but left obvious clues that it was “just a game.” If you were doing this, I think I could believe that it was an exercise in critical thinking. But if you are trying to leave as much evidence as you can to make it seem that Santa is real…but I could be wrong.
I do agree with your take on letting kids draw their own conclusions—but we don’t and shouldn’t do this about everything. If your kids asked you whether the world was flat or round…you wouldn’t say “what do you think.” You give them the facts. You let them know what we as a species have discovered. Teaching children how to think is a parental obligation—but so is simply telling them about the world. And, when it comes to things that intelligent people know are false but people are still inclined to believe in—UFOs, ESP, creationism—I think it is also a parental obligation to set kids straight. (They might be fooled by the bad evidence later.) When they ask, you might ask them what they think to get their brain going a bit—but you can’t let them walk away believing in such nonsense. The longer they do, the more likely they will continue to believe it into adulthood (studies have shown that, once someone believes something (and the longer they do), it is increasing hard for them to rid themselves of that belief).
But, all in all, if the article makes you take more seriously your obligation to teach “critical thinking” skills to your kids, the article has done its job.
Found your article in the Baltimore Sun to be interesting. Although I ultimately disagree with you, I'm a scientist (genomics) and a rational and was wondering if you had any literature references to back some of the claims made in your article. Will sincerely investigate them if you spare any of your valuable time to send them.
Thanks for the letter. What claims are you wanting evidence for? I’m guessing it’s my claims about Christmas history. Here are some good books we read in class:
A great overview of Christmas History by Forbes.
A more academic work on how Christmas changed in the early 1800s to become less about drinking, food and sex and more about giving gifts to kids by Nissenbaum
Another academic work on where Santa comes from (he doesn’t come from St. Nicholas) by Siefker:
These are all books I have my freshmen read, so they should be no problem for you. They are also nice because they don’t confuse “popular stories about the origins of traditions” with real historical fact.
If you were wanting evidence for something else, let me know. I’ll be very glad to point you in the right direction.
I normally don't respond to op ed pieces in the Sun, but your point of view about Santa Claus prompted me to do so...
The piece was very well written...from a Scrooge perspective. As a psychologist I must say that your colorless, hopeless point of view is the kind that contributes to the automatons our children are becoming. No fantasy... no hope ... no expectations ... no movement from childhood to adulthood as one naturally figures out who/what Santa really is... what a sad world they face!
I do hope that, in person, you are a more optimistic kind of fellow!
Marie xxxxx, (PhD)
I’ve heard this “our children are automatons” reply a few times now, and I simply don’t understand it. Automatons are mindless robots, simply doing what they are programmed to do without thought. What I am suggesting we protect by not teaching our children to literally believe in Santa—critical thinking skills—is exactly what they need to not be automatons. I am suggesting that they should learn to think on their own—to be able to weigh evidence, and distinguish good evidence from bad. Only in this way can they draw their own conclusions and not merely be automatons, believing blindly whatever they come across. Our children are becoming automatons, but not because they lack fantasy, nope and expectations. It’s because they are taught that it is okay to believe things simply because “they are fun to believe,” and their evidence evaluation skills are retarded by parents leaving half eaten cookies and bootprints from the fireplace to the Christmas tree. Because they were taught to just accept what was in front of them as convincing evidence, now they can’t tell the New York Times from a conspiracy theory website.
In addition, how in the world does literal belief in Santa promote fantasy, hope and expectation? This is similar to the claim that belief in Santa promotes imagination. Believing something your parents tell you, because you trust them to tell you the truth, does not take imagination. (No more than the fundamentalist uses his imagination when he believes that Adam and Eve literally exists because he read it in the Bible.) Telling your children that Santa isn’t literally real, but saying “but we are going to pretend that he is real for fun”—now that would promote imagination. And I’m all for that. I think something similar could be said about fantasy, hope and expectation. The literal belief doesn’t do any work when it comes to that stuff—it’s the myth, the stories, that do that. And I am all for telling the stories—it’s only promoting literal belief that I object to. And of all those I know that never believed in Santa, none of them lack imagination, fantasy, hope, or expectation. On the contrary, of all those who are emailing in defense of belief in Santa, insisting that their belief in Santa did not promote a lack of critical thinking skills—nearly everyone of them commits major logical errors as they do so. Ad hominem, straw man, appeal to pity, “it’s okay to believe what you want as long as it’s fun”…just to name a few.
Thanks for your letter, and Merry Christmas.
Whatever... it must be sad to spend one's time trying to logically explain away a part of tradition...and, what's wrong believing in things that are just fun to believe? Sorry that you are a member of the faculty at a Catholic institution...where I would hope that students developed their own critical thinking skills...without having them so coldly explained... I have taught at several colleges and interact often with college students and don't find them as bleak as you describe them....
I was trying to be nice by giving you the benefit of the doubt...but “whatever”? You have a PhD, and I took the time to give you a well thought out and clear argument—and the best you can give me is a valley-girl “whatever”?!?!
And, you ask, what’s wrong with believing things that are just fun to believe? Are you kidding me? Did you not take any logic or argumentation in your years of schooling? The first thing any good critical thinking teacher teaches students is that one must proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence, and that it is not okay to believe something simply because it’s fun—simply because you want to. You may think it harmless, but any time believing something is justified in the name of “fun,” a habit of doing so is promoted. And such belief—a childlike faith in whatever one wishes to believe—is literally tearing our world apart. It is this childlike faith in religious fundamentals that fuels terrorism, creationism and the conflict in Palestine. It fueled the inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and the crusades. Such lack of critical thinking skills also fueled Nazism. (People readily believed conspiracy theories about the Jews, even though any critical thinker can see through them. Rudolf Hess even believed that the Arian race did not descend from animals via evolution…but fell from heaven frozen in ice. His limited education in “critical thinking” as a child allowed him to believe such non-sense. He wished to believe Arians were superior, and his assumption that it was okay to believe what he wished allowed him to do so.) Such belief has been encouraging political division for years, and has seemed to find a home in the Republican Party ever since Obama declared his candidacy. The damage they are doing should be obvious.
You are sorry that I teach at a catholic college because apparently you think that students at a catholic college should develop critical thinking skills without having them coldly explained. (I am not sure how this is different from students at any other college.) It’s unclear what evidence you think you have regarding my teaching skills. Obviously, a contentious op-ed is not going to reveal my pedagogical philosophy. I guess, since you apparently think it is okay to simply believe whatever you want to simply because you want to—since you want to believe I am a bad teacher, you do. But I assure you that my classes are nothing but cold—they are popular, fun, fill up quickly, and are highly reviewed.
One reason I am pessimistic is because I see the lack of thinking skills my students have before I get to them. There are so many things that they do not know that they should before they get to me. But I am also pessimistic about the college experience because it seems that many of my fellow professors lack the very same skills that my students do. For God’s sake, shouldn’t someone with a PhD know these things? They are the foundation of human progress! And if they lack them, they can’t teach them to the students that don’t happen to go through my classes.
My conversation with you has done nothing to lift my spirits in this regard.
Subject line: Do you have any Children?
Evidentally not! Even the Bible states that we should be lime children input beliefs. The innocents and unabounding love a child has before they are hurt learn about hatefulness in the world .... This is the love that Jesus spoke of. If the whole world..... All the religions in the world taught LOVE instead of hellfire and damn- nation.... Well, in my opinion, the whole world would be a better place..... There would be no people trying to hurt themselves and others to further their own religious beliefs. Innocents and pure love for one another, are traits that everyone should search out. Not ruining the too few, years of innocents that these beautiful "gifts from God" enjoy! You should think about what you preach to others before you get on your soapbox.
I'm having trouble making sense of this email you sent me. It's a mess. As far as I can tell, you are suggesting that, since the religious of the world lie to children making them afraid of hellfire and damnation, we should counter this lie by making them literally believe that Santa will reward them at Christmas with gifts if they are good. I agree that religions should preach love, instead of damnation—but I don’t really think that the Santa-Claus-Lie is the answer to that problem. At the least, I would think that telling them that the whole “hellfire/damnation” thing is a lie—and calling the religious on their lie when you hear it—would be a better strategy.
A couple of other things to mention:
“Even the Bible states that we should be lime children input beliefs.” Apparently your iphone doesn’t correct grammar well. Did you mean that we should be like children in our beliefs? If so, although this is something that can be found in the Bible, it is one of many biblical passages that we should ignore (like the passages in the OT that condone and even approve and order genocide, and the death penalty for blasphemy and adultery—and the NT passages that tell us to not own more than one coat, sell all our possessions, and for women to be silent in the churches). People believing like a child—not weighing evidence, and just believing whatever is “most fun” or convenient—is literally destroying our world. It is childlike faith in religious fundamentals that fuels terrorism, creationism and the conflict in Palestine. It fueled the inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and the crusades. A lack of critical thinking skills also fueled Nazism. (People readily believed conspiracy theories about the Jews, even though any critical thinker can see through them. Rudolf Hess even believed that the Arian race did not descend from animals via evolution…but fell from heaven frozen in ice. His limited education in “critical thinking” as a child allowed him to believe such non-sense. He wished to believe Arians were superior, and his lack of critical thinking skills allowed him to find a way.) Childlike faith is literally killing our world, and should not be defended in any context.
Lastly, your conclusion that I don’t have any kids—while true at this moment—is completely unjustified. I know numerous parents who agree full heartedly with my argument. The assumption that all parents agree with your position on Santa is arrogant, naïve, ignorant and presumptuous.
Thanks for your letter.
Hi Mr Johnson:
I found your article about Santa Claus very interesting.My kids are grown now, but if I could do it again,
I would have gone your route. however, when you said it was amazing people still believe...(several things listed) you mentioned "ghosts"
I'm sorry, there are way too many "ghosts" that have been seen by average people it cannot be discounted. There are at least 8 references to "ghosts" in the Bible.I know you may not give THAT much credit, but obviously whatever a "ghost" is (to be debated) too many people have seen them for thousands of years, and to say there is no such thing is simply wrong.WHAT THEY ARE can be debated, but that they exist and are seen OFTEN, cannot.
The reason I'm writing though, is you said people believe there are "witches" which in your mind is foolish.
If somebody calls themselves a witch, they are a witch! Just as if somebody calls themselves an atheist, they are an atheist. You cant tell somebody they dont exist!
Witches have ceromonies, beliefs, fellowship, etc.. To say they "dont exist" is folly. "Tell a witch..."you dont exist, I know because I am a professor." They will say, come down off your ivory tower I'm standing before you! If you want to find one just "google" it
they are not like "ghosts"!
As for ghosts...
Thanks for your letter. I'm so sorry it took me so long to respond, but for some reason your letter got put in my junk box and I didn't look at my junk box until today. (I don't know why that happened. I received dozens of other letters about my op-ed and they arrived in my inbox just fine.) I'm glad to see you agree with me about Santa, and I think we can come to an agreement about ghosts and witches.
About Ghosts. I don't deny that there have been and are many ghost sightings. You suggest that this means that ghosts exist, and just leaves the question "what are they?" You are on the right track, but is not entirely correct. What one cannot deny is that "ghost-like experiences" exist. But experiences don't always match up with reality, so ghost-like experiences don't show that ghosts exist. The question is: What causes those experiences? Do these experiences have a supernatural explanation of some kind, or can they be explained by natural phenomena? It is a simple fact of modern reasoning that "The simplest explanation" should always be preferred--this notion is called Ockham's razor. So, if there is an available natural explanation--that uses forces and facts that we know and understand--for a "ghost-like experience," then that explanation should be preferred over a supernatural one (that uses forces and facts beyond explanation). Ghosts sighting and experiences are all easily accounted for by natural phenomena--waking dreams, hallucinations brought on by sensory depravation, magnetic fields affecting the brain (all of which have been documented to cause "ghost-sightings" in controlled conditions where we know there are no ghosts), etc. Even if there is some "really weird" ghost experience, unless all natural explanations (and not just the ones you can think of, but all of them) for that ghost like experience have been considered and rejected, the rational thing to do is assume that there is a rational, natural, explanation for it. That being the case, the rational conclusion is that there are no ghosts.
I encourage you to read "How to think about Weird things" by Schick. (You can get it cheap used on Amazon.) Especially Chapter 7, where he explains very well why belief in ghosts is irrational. But let me draw an analogy, in case you don't get a chance to read it. When a magician performs a trick that seems to defy the laws of physics, I do not assume that the magician is really performing "magic"--that he is defying the laws of physics and doing something supernatural. I know how a number of magic tricks are done, so I assume that he is just doing something similar. Even if I can't figure out how he did a particular trick, I still think it is a trick--there is a natural explanation for how he did it, there is nothing "supernatural" involved. That is the simplest explanation--I'm just employing Ockham's Razor. The same is true for ghosts. All the "ghost like experiences" I have come across have been easily explained away by natural phenomena. And even if I came across one where the explanation was not obvious--just like "how the magic trick was done" was not obvious--I would not throw up my hands and say "oh, well THAT one--unlike all the others--must be real." I would realize that the rational thing to do would be to conclude that there must be a natural explanation for it.
Once you employ this kind of reasoning, you will see that all the "evidence" for ghosts--like that presented at the website you suggested--just seems silly.
Regarding Witches. I realize that people call themselves Witches. But some people also call themselves ducks--that does not make them a duck. A witch would be someone who actually has certain powers--who can curse people (and not just by word, but actually cause bad things to happen to them by uttering certain words), and who can perform supernatural feats (who can transform into a cat, fly on a broom, or perform any other act that witches were classically thought to perform during that whole "Salem witch trial" era). There were no peoples who could perform such feats then--that is what makes the fact that so many people were killed as witches so sad--and there are no people who have such powers today. Thus there are no witches.
Another analogy. There are people who call themselves "psychics." But that does not mean that they are really psychics. Someone who was really a psychic would be able to see into the future. People who call themselves "psychics" can't actually see into the future, they just use cold reading and vague statements to fool people into believing they can see into the future. Thus they are not psychics, despite the fact that they call themselves "psychics." In the same way, people who call themselves witches are not witches--for they cannot do any of the things that one would actually need to be able to actually BE a witch.
If you showed me someone who, under controlled conditions, could turn themselves in a cat, fly on a broom, or turn me into a fish-headed chicken with brooms for hands...then I'd believe in witches. Until then, they will remain--with Santa--in fairy tales.
Hope that helps.
wow, such a long thoughtful response to my santa claus note. thanks
I hope this gets thru to you and not directed to your "trash"
I'm using a Mac, maybe that had something to do with it.
I will note that book you recommended.
I agree pretty much with your whole thesis, but anticdotal evidence to
the contrary abounds in my life experiances.
I can give you 2 accounts in my life that dont "prove" anything
but are interesting.
I bought an old country house and had many trees removed that the prior
owner planted when his kids were born,to watch them grow as his kids grow, yadda, yadda. When I had them chopped down my yard looked like a tornado went thru
it, with "Jessies" trees laying all around on their sides, it was a
mess. They looked like 5 ton toy "pick up sticks" on top of each other.
THAT night my daughter who slept in his old "man cave" in the basement
(bar, stuffed wild animals, etc.) heard the door opening and closing ALL night, though the lock/handle was in perfect condition. she would click it closed and it would open again a half hour later, over and over.
Jessie was pissed his trees were cut down. what the "ghost" was I have no idea. Old energy lingering, lost soul, etc..)
I dated a "witch" she once woke up with her parents around her bed
chanting and sprinkling her with who knows what, candles all around,
anyway...she was giving "sty" (sp?) infections to peoples eyes by
looking into their eyes chanting something in greek or latin something
I went by one night where we hung out and the people who woke up with
the eye infections said
to the new girl in town:
"Cindy see if you can give Pete a sty"
she came to me starting rambling mantras of some sort in my face.
I told her ..."you only have the power over me I CHOOSE to give you."
The guy standing to my right 2 feet away watching over my shoulder
looking at her had a "sty" infection in his eye the next morning.
We were bowling once, she went up to the foul line with her back to
everybody ball in hand. The pins on both corners fell over she was still holding the bowling ball and turned around smiling at us. She "thought" she was a witch. She did things that made her seem so. These werent "magic tricks" you alluded to (as a good example).
I dated her briefly (she was gorgeous) besides....how often does one
get to date a "witch"? aside from those events she was pretty normal!
I do hope that you read the book I recommended. It will make obvious a much clearer and simpler way to look at such things--and I use the term "simpler" intentionally here. Although the examples you cite here are not magic tricks, the same logic applies. You don't accept a magicians tricks as truly magic because there is a simpler, natural, explanation--it is slight of hand or an illusion. In the same way, for the antidotal cases from your own life (and its good that you admit that they are merely antidotal), there are simpler explanations than the ones you gave.
Stys are quite common, especially among the young. The fact that someone claims responsibility for the stys that people already have is not evidence that she actually has such powers. Only if she can, repeatedly, give stys to the specific people she declares beforehand that she will give them to would you have warrant for believing that she can give styes "by curse." The fact that someone else nearby got a sty as she tried to give you one is evidence for very little. And even if his sty was somehow the result of her "mantra"--what does that story entail? She has such a power, but that power can be counteracted by you simply saying "I don't give you the power." If witches powers were so easily "countered" would they be any threat at all? In addition, it seems to entail that her power "bounces" like a ball off of someone who doesn't like it, and can land on someone else? Is the curse made of rubber? Was your friend made of glue? Hopefully you can see how silly this starts to seem once you examine it. If a curse is anything, it is not something physical that can "bounce" like that. I could more easily believe that friend gave himself a sty by not washing his hands after he went to the bathroom than I could in "magic witch powers." Again, if you lined up 10 people you and she didn't know and said "give them all styes," and she recited her mantra in front of each, and then they all got stys the next day--I'd rethink my position. But until then...
The same hold with the bowling example. I've seen pins fall down on their own when they are not properly set down, but never thought it was the result of "magic." You have to ask yourself, did she make the pins fall down--or did they fall down on their own, and then she took credit for it afterward? Again, if she said "watch this, I'll make those two pins fall down just by thinking about" and then they fell down--that I might take seriously. But weird and unexpected things happen all the time. I could make people think I was a witch (or a warlock I guess) if I went around taking credit for them all the time too.
Regarding Jesse and the door. From this incident you conclude "Jessie was pissed his trees were cut down" and you think the only question remains is whether the ghost was "Old energy lingering, lost soul, etc." But the conclusion that your daughters experience of the opening and closing of the door is best explained by "Jessie's ghost" is far from warranted--there are much simpler explanations. How old was your daughter? Is it possible that she dreamed the sound? Perhaps she thought she heard it opening and closing but in fact it was something else? (Did she check it? If so, did she ever see it open, or was it always closed when she checked it? If it was always closed, she was probably hearing something that sounded like a door opening and closing and thought it was that door.) Did you check to see if the door opens and closes easily even when you don't use the handle? If so, and it was fine during the day, did you check to see if it does the same thing at night? Perhaps the cold of the night contracted the frame of the door making it wider and enabling the door to swing open and closed via a draft or wind. There are so many more much simpler explanations than "it was a ghost." And, again, when you think about the ghost explanation it seems kind of silly--When the spirit of Jesse gets mad he "opens and closes a door." Really? That is how he expresses anger? By opening and closing a door? Hopefully you can see, with me, that the ghost explanation falls apart once you start to think about it critically.
Thanks again for the correspondence.
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