I was a subject in the world’s largest child psychology experiment. So, in all likelihood, were you. It may be the most irregular experiment in history. In the United States, it’s been running for more than 150 years. Today, almost every child born in a Western country belongs to the experimental group. For all intents and purposes, there is no control group. And no one’s keeping track of the results.
I speak, of course, of the West’s ongoing, if inadvertent, trial of the effects of convincing children that they are unceasingly observed by a powerful intelligence that will reward them lavishly, but only if they are good.
God? No, Santa Claus. And I’m speaking—well, typing—with tongue slightly in cheek, if not laying a finger aside my nose. Still, hundreds of millions of children have grown up believing in Santa, and to this day no one knows whether that is healthy, benign, or harmful. In his breakthrough book, Parenting Beyond Belief, Dale McGowan and I squared off on this subject (in a point-counterpoint that’s in the book on pages 85–90 but was mysteriously omitted from the table of contents). I made the case that early belief in Santa Claus might predispose children to accept implausible religious teachings later in life. McGowan argued that childhood disillusionment upon discovering Santa is not real may prepare children to more readily discard religious beliefs later on. We each admitted that there was no hard research in support of either position.
To the best of my knowledge, there still isn’t. And at some level, this should worry us.
What if being taught as a child to believe that Santa exists—that he knows one’s every thought and behavior and visits every household in one night bestowing year-end gifts without regard to parental desires and economic status—is harmful? Think about it. Parents encourage children to form an enormous emotional attachment to an impossible figure who does impossible things. Then, kids learn that their parents—and everyone else in their lives—were lying all along. Then, puberty. What could go wrong?
Researchers get grants to study the sex lives of obscure wild creatures and the cultural predilections of Brooklyn hipsters. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if the social sciences could finally tell us, one way or another, whether the effects of this whole Santa Claus deal are naughty, nice, or negligible?
After all, if there’s even an off-chance that the Santa myth twists young minds, we live in a society populated almost entirely by its victims.(For a related view, see Ryan T. Cragun, “On the ‘Evils’ of Santa Claus,” in this issue.)
I’ve had numerous discussions along this line over the years. As many Free Inquiry readers know, I am secular humanism’s resident Scrooge. I resolutely disregard the Christian winter holiday season and, however quixotically, urge my fellow secularists to do likewise. I’ve been fighting my one-person war on Christmas since long before there was a Fox News. I began in 1984, so 2014 marks my thirtieth year.
From 1984 to 1991, I treated December 25 as just another day. I enjoyed freedom from compulsory gift-shopping, tree-trimming, caroling, and workplace holiday parties. A weekday Christmas was dependably my most productive workday. It was great, but in 1992 I ruined it. I wrote an article in the Secular Humanist Bulletin (SHB) titled “Confessions of an Anti-Claus.” In the vocabulary of a later time, that essay went viral. I spent December 1992 doing nonstop radio interviews. A book contract followed. I had five months to research and write what’s become (make of this what you will) my most popular book, The Trouble with Christmas. Published in 1993, it’s still in print.
The book traced the holiday’s history. Despite the festival’s pervasive Christian aura, almost nothing about Christmas is uniquely Christian; indeed, the only Christmas tradition with no pagan antecedent seems to be the idea of midnight Mass. Countless later holiday traditions hail from post-Christian sources, many of them commercial. (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer started out as a promotion for that merchant of yesteryear, Montgomery Ward.) Yet there’s no avoiding the paradox of the holiday; all of its parts, sacred and secular, do end up submerged in that Christian aura, with the perverse result that the ubiquity of a holiday with precious little purely Christian content is nonetheless almost universally interpreted as justifying Christianity’s crushing dominance over the last six weeks of the calendar year. In my view, humanists who like to pretend that the holiday is really secular (or that it is becoming more secular) overlook the extent to which Christmas’s popularity helps to prolong the marginalization of not just the nonreligious but of all non-Christians. And so—sorry—I can’t help sniffing hypocrisy when nonreligious folks “keep Christmas.”
I’ve been practicing that view for thirty years and preaching it for twenty-two. Over that time, there have been some welcome changes. When I wrote The Trouble with Christmas, most unbelievers were still profoundly closeted. We were so good at keeping our heads down that all too often we reinforced our own marginalization. For that reason, I spilled much ink arguing that forthrightly boycotting Christmas would be a great way to make ourselves more visible and our fellow citizens more conscious of our true numbers. I still think it could have been an effective strategy. But we don’t need it any more. Our movement has found other ways to push unbelief out of the closet and onto society’s center stage. From the New Atheists to President Barack Obama’s shout-out to the nonreligious in his first inaugural, from the new Openly Secular campaign to a recent Pew study in which 72 percent of respondents agreed that religion is losing influence in American life, it seems clear that atheists and humanists no longer need to sit out Christmas for the sole purpose of making sure everyone knows we exist!
That said, as I reread the 1992 SHB column that started it all, some passages still ring true for me. Opposing the view that pagan traditions such as the winter solstice can be more appropriate for humanists than traditional observances with Christian themes, I insisted, “Many Christmas traditions aren’t Christian. But they’re still bogus. . . . Secular humanists should view the fruits of any superstition system, Christian or otherwise, with equal disfavor.” Later in the column I observed, “‘Going along’ with Christmas promotes a myth of consensus in American culture that serves the fundamentalist agenda.” You’ll hear that confirmed the next time some wag on Fox News prates, “Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist—on December 25 we all celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.” Um, no, we don’t.
At speaking gigs, I’m sometimes asked to name the most important argument against the holiday season that hadn’t occurred to me when I wrote that SHB column. It’s probably a two-pronged argument against investing too heavily in the winter solstice (yes, that again). Prong one: We live in an increasingly global society, and solstices have a consistent meaning only in one temperate zone at a time. (While we north-temperate types are applauding the approaching end of winter, our counterparts in mid-southern latitudes are dismayed that summer soon will end. And solstices don’t mean much of anything if you live in the tropics.) It’s chauvinistic to imagine that a festival based upon a solstice can long satisfy a global culture. To that realization, which made it into the 1993 book, I would add a companion of more recent vintage.
Prong two: Given society’s inability to take serious action to end global warming, it seems unlikely that any holiday rooted so heavily in the snows of winter can lo
ng endure. In a couple of generations, people will regard those Currier and Ives lithographs of Gilded Age New Yorkers skating on a frozen Central Park Lake as icons of a long-lost, magical time. And how much traction will the Santa myth maintain when most people know the North Pole as a crowded year-round shipping lane?
For all its scale and ubiquity, I still think Christmas may be nearing its dump-by date. And I still think atheists, secular humanists, and other freethinkers have something to gain by being enthusiastically engaged in that process. And so I wish you a happy whatever you will, or won’t, be celebrating this December 25. It’s a Thursday, so I’ll be behind my desk at the Center for Inquiry.
After all, it’s not the birthday of anyone I know.
Flynn, Tom. “Confessions of an Anti-Claus.” Secular Humanist Bulletin, Winter 1992.
———. The Trouble with Christmas. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993. Now distributed by the author.
McGowan, Dale. Parenting Beyond Belief. New York: Amacom, 2007.
Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. “Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, September 22, 2014.
In my editorial last issue, I stated that Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) withdrew its support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) prior to its passage by Congress. AU supported RFRA throughout the legislative process and still supports it today. I regret the error.
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry, the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and the director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum.