The Santa Delusion

I don’t remember ever believing in Santa, although I was willing to play along with adults bent on perpetuating the myth in order to get the resulting treats. I know that on one occasion I asked to visit Santa at the shopping centre in the full knowledge that it was just some random dude in a silly suit. But hey, free stuff is free stuff.

As an adult I’ve been accused of having no soul, being too logical and questioning the magic. As a child I remember the idea of Santa’s simultaneous worldwide delivery system just didn’t really fly. The incidence of many different people presenting themselves as Santa (including my own father at a seasonal church event) really undermined the idea of him being one special entity. Also, if his powers extend to knowing whether children have been good or bad then surely he shouldn’t need them to write down their wish lists?

I don’t think my childhood lacked magic just because I didn’t subscribe to the Santa Delusion. I remember being fascinated by motes of dust dancing in sunlight, and sitting staring at wood chip wallpaper until the random texture changed into faces. I was a voracious reader, so spent a lot of time in the various dream worlds conjured by books. I created my own fantasy worlds to inhabit between being sent to bed and going to sleep, which was far more entertaining than listening to my parents’ arguments echoing up through the walls.

I never understood why adults, and particularly parents, think it’s a great idea to teach children to believe in Santa. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun for everyone when the kids still believe, but it doesn’t last. It sets children up to learn that the people they are meant to trust most will happily mislead them, and in many cases use a false belief system as leverage to manipulate their behaviour. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly healthy lesson in relating to others, but then again maybe it’s a good way for children to begin to learn that their parents are fallible.

Everybody lies, at least if Dr. House is to be believed. At any rate, it appears that lies-to-children is a standard and respectable educational tool for simplifying complex concepts enough for them to become accessible to children and laypeople. I first became aware of the concept by reading the works of the late, great Terry Pratchett:

“A lie-to-children is a statement that is false, but which nevertheless leads the child’s mind towards a more accurate explanation, one that the child will only be able to appreciate if it has been primed with the lie”¬†The Science of Discworld

If I put aside my misgivings about setting children up to have their bubbles burst and re-examine the Santa Delusion as a lie-to-children then alternate interpretations begin to appear such as:

  • A simplification of the Christian judgement concept in which the abstract concepts of heaven and hell are replaced with tangible consequences of gifts and coal.
  • A way to teach children that being nice to others leads to nice things happening to them and reinforcing the lesson with tangible rewards.
  • A behavioural tool to help children learn to seek delayed gratification, which was linked to improved academic performance and other positive outcomes by follow ups to the Stanford marshmallow experiment.

Then again it could all just be a conspiracy to get the kids to go to bed and let the adults relax with the booze and mince pies that were left out for Santa.



“There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself.¬†That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that-”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes-”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum