Once more, with feeling: Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality

Can we have art and literature, some with magic, as well as science, rationality, gifts, and a modicum of equality all in one modern society? These are the things I worry about.

This kind of joy-killing is extra necessary in this year of a very-early Hanukkah, when the Jewish kids have already gotten tired of their presents before the so-called “Holidays” are even really here. The other reason to dwell on this kind of anti-Christianity is just to undermine its taken-for-granted nature. Today an entire Virginia public school district closed rather than teach a single lesson about Islam. WhiteChristian terrorism still doesn’t really count. And out-atheist politicians are as rare as unicorns.

So you can consider this my overreaction. This essay isn’t perfect, but I haven’t come up with a revision yet, so reposting it for this Xmas season will have to do.


December 2014

Eric Kaplan, channeling Francis Pharcellus Church, writes in favor of Santa Claus in the New York Times. The Church argument, written in 1897 and barely updated here, is that (a) you can’t prove there is no Santa, so agnosticism is the strongest possible objection, and (b) Santa enriches our lives and promotes non-rationalized gift-giving, “so we might as well believe in him.” That’s the substance of it. It’s a very common argument, identical to one employed against atheists in favor of belief in God, but more charming and whimsical when directed at killjoy Santa-deniers.

All harmless fun and existential comfort-food. But we have two problems that the Santa situation may exacerbate. First is science denial. And second is inequality. So, consider this an attempted joyicide.


From Pew Research comes this Christmas news:

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened.

Here are the details:


So the Santa situation is not an isolated question. We’re talking about a population with a very strong tendency to express literal belief in fantastical accounts. This Christmas story is the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism. For the past 20 years, the General Social Survey GSS has found that a third of American adults agrees with the statement, “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” versus two other options: “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”; and,”The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” Those “actual word of God” people are less numerous than the virgin-birth believers, but they’re related.

Using the GSS I analyzed the attitudes of the “actual word of God” people (my Stata data and work files are here). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, political ideology, and the year of the survey, they are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

  • Agree that “We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith”
  • Oppose marriage rights for homosexuals
  • Agree that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”
  • Agree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”

This isn’t the direction I’d like to push our culture. Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists. But I expect it’s one risk factor.

Children’s ways of knowing

A little reading led me to this interesting review of the research on young children’s skepticism and credulity, by Woolley and Ghossainy (citations below were mostly referred by them).

It goes back to Margaret Mead’s early work. In the psychological version of sociology’s reading history sideways, Mead in 1932 reported on the notion that young children not only know less, but know differently, than adults, in a way that parallels social evolution. Children were thought to be “more closely related to the thought of the savage than to the thought of the civilized man,” with animism in “primitive” societies being similar to the spontaneous thought of young children. This goes along with the idea of believing in Santa as indicative of a state of innocence.

In pursuit of empirical confirmation of the universality of childhood, Mead investigated the Manus tribe in Melanesia, who were pagans, looking for magical thinking in children: “animistic premise, anthropomorphic interpretation and faulty logic.”

Instead, she found “no evidence of spontaneous animistic thought in the uncontrolled sayings or games” over five months of continuous observation of a few dozen children. And while adults in the community attributed mysterious or random events to spirits and ghosts, children never did:

I found no instance of a child’s personalizing a dog or a fish or a bird, of his personalizing the sun, the moon, the wind or stars. I found no evidence of a child’s attributing chance events, such as the drifting away of a canoe, the loss of an object, an unexplained noise, a sudden gust of wind, a strange deep-sea turtle, a falling seed from a tree, etc., to supernaturalistic causes.

On the other hand, adults blamed spirits for hurricanes hitting the houses of people who behave badly, believed statues can talk, thought lost objects had been stolen by spirits, and said people who are insane are possessed by spirits. The grown men all thought they had personal ghosts looking out for them – with whom they communicated – but the children dismissed the reality of the ghosts that were assigned to them. They didn’t play ghost games.

Does this mean magical thinking is not inherent to childhood? Mead wrote:

The Manus child is less spontaneously animistic and less traditionally animistic than is the Manus adult [“traditionally” here referring to the adoption of ritual superstitious behavior]. This result is a direct contradiction of findings in our own society, in which the child has been found to be more animistic, in both traditional and spontaneous fashions, than are his elders. When such a reversal is found in two contrasting societies, the explanation must be sought in terms of the culture; a purely psychological explanation is inadequate.

Maybe people have the natural capacity for both animistic and realistic thinking, and societies differ in which trait they nurture and develop through children’s education and socialization. Mead speculated that the pattern she found had to do with the self-sufficiency required of Manus children. A Manus child must…

…make correct physical adjustments to his environment, so that his entire attention is focused upon cause and effect relationships, the neglect of which would result in immediate disaster. … Manus children are taught the properties of fire and water, taught to estimate distance, to allow for illusion when objects are seen under water, to allow for obstacles and judge possible clearage for canoes, etc., at the age of two or three.

Plus, perhaps unlike in industrialized society, their simple technology is understandable to children without the invocation of magic. And she observed that parents didn’t tell the children imaginary stories, myths, and legends.

I should note here that I’m not saying we have to choose between religious fundamentalism and a society without art and literature. The question is about believing things that aren’t true, and can’t be true. I’d like to think we can cultivate imagination without launching people down the path of blind credulity.

Modern credulity

For evidence that culture produces credulity, consider the results of a study that showed most four-year-old children understood that Old Testament stories are not factual. Six-year-olds, however, tended to believe the stories were factual, if their impossible events were attributed to God rather than rewritten in secular terms (e.g., “Matthew and the Green Sea” instead of “Moses and the Red Sea”). Why? Belief in supernatural or superstitious things, contrary to what you might assume, requires a higher level of cognitive sophistication than does disbelief, which is why five-year-olds are more likely to believe in fairies than three-year-olds. These studies suggest children have to be taught to believe in magic. (Adults use persuasion to do that, but teaching with rewards – like presents under a tree or money under a pillow – is of course more effective.)

Richard Dawkins has speculated that religion spreads so easily because humans have an adaptive tendency from childhood to believe adults rather than wait for direct evidence of dangers to accumulate (e.g., “snakes are dangerous”). That is, credulity is adaptive for humans. But Woolley and Ghossainy review mounting evidence for young children’s skepticism as well as credulity. That, along with the obvious survival disadvantages associated with believing everything you’re told, doesn’t support Dawkins’ story.

Children can know things either from direct observation or experience, or from being taught. So they can know dinosaurs are real if they believe books and teachers and museums, even if they can’t observe them living (true reality detection). And they can know that Santa Claus and imaginary friends are not real if they believe either authorities or their own senses (true baloney detection). Similarly, children also have two kinds of reality-assessment errors: false positive and false negative. Believing in Santa Claus is false positive. Refusing to believe in dinosaurs is false negative. In this figure, adapted from Woolley and Ghossainy, true judgment is in green, errors are in red.


We know a lot about kids’ credulity (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, etc.). But, Woolley and Ghossainy write, their skepticism has been neglected:

It is perplexing that a young child could believe that his or her knowledge of the world is complete enough to deny the existence of anything new. It would seem that young children would understand that there are many things that exist in the real world that they have yet to experience. As intuitive as this seems, it appears not to be the case. From this perspective, development regarding beliefs about reality involves, in addition to decreased reliance on knowledge and experience, increased awareness of one’s own knowledge and its limitations for assessing reality status. This realization that one’s own knowledge is limited gradually inspires a waning reliance on it alone for making reality status decisions and a concomitant increase in the use of a wider range of strategies for assessing reality status, including, for example, seeking more information, assessing contextual cues, and evaluating the quality of the new information.

The “realization that one’s own knowledge is limited” is a vital development, ultimately necessary for being able to tell fact from fiction. But, sadly, it need not lead to real understanding – under some conditions, such as, apparently, the USA today, it often leads instead to reliance on misguided or dishonest authorities who compete with science to fill the void beyond what we can directly observe or deduce. Believing in Santa because we can’t disprove his existence is a developmental dead end, a backward-looking reliance on authority for determining truth. But so is failure to believe in germs or vaccines or evolution just because we can’t see them working.

We have to learn how to inhabit the green boxes without giving up our love for things imaginary, and that seems impossible without education in both science and art.

Rationalizing gifts

What is the essence of Santa, anyway? In Kaplan’s NYT essay it’s all about non-rationalized giving — for the sake of giving. The latest craze in Santa culture, however, says otherwise: Elf on the Shelf. According to Google Trends, interest in this concept has increased 100-fold since 2008. In case you’ve missed it, the idea is to put a cute little elf somewhere on a shelf in the house. You tell your kids it’s watching them, and that every night it goes back to the North Pole to report to Santa on their nice/naughty ratio. While the kids are sleeping, you move it to another shelf in house, and the kids delight in finding it again each morning.

Foucault is not amused. Consider the Elf on a Shelf aftermarket accessories, like these handy warning labels, which threaten children with “no toys” if they aren’t on their “best behavior” from now on:


So is this non-rationalize gift giving? Quite the opposite. In fact, rather than cultivating a whimsical love of magic, this is closer to a dystopian fantasy in which the conjured enforcers of arbitrary moral codes leap out of their fictional realm to impose harsh consequences in the real life of innocent children.


What does all this mean for inequality? My developmental question is, what is the relationship between belief in Santa and social class awareness over the early life course? In other words, how long after kids realize there is class inequality do they go on believing in Santa? Where do these curves cross?


Beyond worrying about how Santa rewards or punishes them individually, if children are to believe that Christmas gifts are doled out according to moral merit, than what are they to make of the obvious fact that rich kids get more than poor kids? Rich or poor, the message seems the same: children deserve what they get. Of course, I’m not the first to think of this:



I can’t demonstrate that believing in Santa causes children to believe that economic inequality is justified by character differences between social classes. Or that Santa belief undermines future openness to science and logic. But those are hypotheses.

Between the anti-science epidemic and the pervasive assumption that poor people deserve what they get, this whole Santa enterprise seems risky. Would it be so bad, so destructive to the wonder that is childhood, if instead of attributing gifts to supernatural beings we instead told children that we just buy them gifts because we love them unconditionally and want them — and all other children — to be happy?

6 thoughts on “Once more, with feeling: Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality

  1. The 2007 Baylor Religion Survey has a question about childhood belief in Santa Claus. The two groups of adults that were (equally) least likely to belief in Santa Claus as children are atheists…and Fundamentalists.


    1. Chuck, I assume that this survey asks adults to recall what they believed when they were kids. Current ideology can change how we remember the past and what we remember. These two groups — fundamentalists and atheists — may have ideologies which are the most discrepant with the belief in Santa.


  2. I posted this last year, but if you are interested in anthropological takes on this you *really* should read Lévi-Strauss’s essay Father Christmas on the Pyre. He persuasively builds a case that Santa Claus and Halloween festivities are all one big winter ritual and the gifts we give to children on both occasions are tributes intended to ward off death / winter / the dying of the light etc.

    It’s interesting that in recent decades both are increasingly upended in favour of Halloween becoming gorier, sexier, and more “adult” each year (vide: the proliferation of decorations intended to frighten children, when the original idea was for children to play tricks on and demand things from adults; the creeptastic nature of many costumes now sold for little girls; the general conversion of Halloween from a children’s celebration to a time of pub crawls and costume parades for grownups) and Christmas rituals ever more elaborately highlighting adult control and surveillance over children (Elf on the Shelf, you better watch out, etc.).

    These trends invert the prior dynamics, where children briefly stood in for the awful power of death and reigned supreme for the period of the festivities in a world turned upside down with license to play the trickster against adults, demand candy, and receive heaps of tributary gifts.

    on the subject of inequality, it’s also become a common Halloween lament that the children of poors turn up in better neighborhoods demanding good middle class candy… the whole idea of these times being times of inverting inequalities (adults give to children, largesse for the poor, etc.) is being flipped on its head so that they are instead used as heightened disciplinary occasions rather than times for suspending normal rules.

    Anthropologically speaking, it is interesting. Sociologically speaking, it’s a bummer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. oh! and the notion that children have to “earn” presents by good behaviour… absolutely at odds with the prior spirit, which is that adults humbly render presents to the temporary lords of misrule in the form of children. So measurement wouldn’t enter into it as in the current your stack of presents = the measure of your goodness; the spirit would more be, “please accept these unworthy tributes from your humble supplicant, would that they were more but they can never be sufficient”.

    (I can hear the contemporary reaction: “oh god, but what if children get SPOILED? We can’t have that.” I suspect these trends in ritual practice have intimate subconscious connections to the failure of wealthy late modern society to eliminate child poverty).


  4. I don;t know, I’m a Christmas loving athiest and Santa will be visiting our house when I have kids. I think it’s a bit of fun for very young children and I don’t see “Santa”going anywhere anytime soon and I’m not going to tell me three year old “Santas not real” when all her little three year old friends at kindy are excited about Christmas and Santa.
    I do see issue with presents as a reward for good behaviour, but kids get that at birthdays and on holidays and other times in the year “If you don’t behave I’ll turn this car around/you won’t be having a birthday ect” I don’t think it’s exclusive to Chrissy time, and I think you can have a Santa story without using it as a way to try an coerse good behaviours.


  5. Actually, there is nothing rational in morality at all. We are just machines, and our morality is just result of evolution – our morality evolved because it seemingly helped our species survive. But we have also other evolved traits, which may have helped our species survive in the past, but which now we may consider harmful or clearly irrational (why we fear spiders more than cars?). Therefore, morality also may be ill suited to nowadays’ life.

    Just as there is no rational cause to believe in God, Santa or Krishna – it is also not rational to actually believe in helping the poor, in believing in equality, in believing that in reciprocity (i.e. “if I will be nice to you, you will be nice to me”. This is not a rational belief).

    Sometimes you just have to accept that your beliefs are not rational, but on the same time, accept that we are not able to live without those beliefs. I know my morality is irrational. But I can’t help to have a morality.

    But I do not pretend my morality is any more rational than belief in Santa Claus. Or God.


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s