Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality (a timeless holiday classic essay!)

This is a preprint version of an essay in Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible, by Philip N. Cohen. Oakland, California: University of California Press. It is revised from previous essays about Santa. Read this one instead.

Eric Kaplan, channeling Francis Pharcellus Church, writes in favor of Santa Claus in the New York Times. The Church argument, written in 1897, 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” (1). 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.

Science

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” (2).

On some specific items, the scores were even higher. The poll found 73% of Americans believe that Jesus was born to a virgin mother – a belief even shared by 60% of college graduates. (Among Catholics agreement was 86%, among Evangelical Protestants, 96%.)

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 may be 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.” (The “actual word of God” people are less numerous than the virgin-birth believers, but they’re related.)

Using the GSS, I analyzed people’s social attitudes according to their view of the Bible for the years 2010-2014 (see Figure 9). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, and the year of the survey, those with more literal interpretations of the Bible are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

  • 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”

In addition, among non-Hispanic Whites, the literal-Bible people are more likely to rank Blacks as more lazy than hardworking, and to believe that Blacks “just don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty” (3).

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 there’s some relationship there.

Children’s ways of knowing

Margaret Mead in 1932 reported on the notion that young children not only know less, but know differently, than adults, in a way that parallels the evolution of society over time. 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 that believing in Santa is indicative of a state of innocence (4). 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”) (5). 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 (6). 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.)

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 Figure 10, which I adapted from a paper by Jacqueline Woolley and Maliki Ghossainy true judgment is in regular type, errors are in italics (7).

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

“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” (8).

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 vaccines or evolution or climate change just because we can’t see them working.

We have to learn how to avoid the italics 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 New York Times 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, which exploded on the Christmas scene after 2008, selling in the millions. 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.

In other words, it’s the latest in Michel Foucault’s panopticon development (9). Consider the Elf on a Shelf aftermarket accessories, like the handy warning labels, which threaten children with “no toys” if they aren’t on their “best behavior” from now on. So is this non-rationalized 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.

Inequality

My developmental question regarding inequality is this: What is the relationship between belief in Santa and social class awareness over the early life course? How long after kids realize there is class inequality do they go on believing in Santa? This is where rationalization meets fantasy. 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.

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?


Notes:

1. Kaplan, Eric. 2014. “Should We Believe in Santa Claus?” New York Times Opinionator, December 20.

2. Pew Research Center. 2014. “Most Say Religious Holiday Displays on Public Property Are OK.” Religion & Public Life Project, December 15.

3. The GSS asked if “people in the group [African Americans] tend to be hard-working or if they tend to be lazy,” on a scale from 1 (hardworking) to 7 (lazy). I coded them as favoring lazy if they gave scores of 5 or above. The motivation question was a yes-or-no question: “On the average African-Americans have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are because most African-Americans just don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty?”

4. Mead, Margaret. 1932. “An Investigation of the Thought of Primitive Children, with Special Reference to Animism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 62: 173–90.

5. Vaden, Victoria Cox, and Jacqueline D. Woolley. 2011. “Does God Make It Real? Children’s Belief in Religious Stories from the Judeo-Christian Tradition.” Child Development 82 (4): 1120–35.

6. Woolley, Jacqueline D., Elizabeth A. Boerger, and Arthur B. Markman. 2004. “A Visit from the Candy Witch: Factors Influencing Young Children’s Belief in a Novel Fantastical Being.” Developmental Science 7 (4): 456–68.

7. Woolley, Jacqueline D., and Maliki Ghossainy. 2013. “Revisiting the Fantasy-Reality Distinction: Children as Naïve Skeptics.” Child Development 84 (5): 1496–1510.

8. Woolley, Jacqueline D., and Maliki Ghossainy. 2013. “Revisiting the Fantasy-Reality Distinction: Children as Naïve Skeptics.” Child Development 84 (5): 1496–1510.

9. Pinto, Laura. 2016. “Elf et Michelf.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9Pn16dCWIg.

2 thoughts on “Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality (a timeless holiday classic essay!)

  1. I came across this essay searching for research on class and belief in Santa—do poor kids not believe in Santa at higher rates and younger ages than children from wealthier families? While this essay essentially poses the same question rather than answers it, I appreciate the data you compiled here.

    My 4.5 year old has lots of Santa/reality questions this year that I’ve been turning back to him, unlike most things for which I offer a scientific explanation. The issue is complicated by a less privileged family member spending Christmas with us this year, and my desire to avoid striking disparities between their Christmas morning experiences. Fortunately the moral question isn’t even in play. I ignore the moral aspect of Santa as much as the religious aspect of Christmas.

    Any other related articles or posts you recommend would be appreciated!

    Like

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