‘Tis the night before Christmas and all through the world, parents are creating an elaborate ruse. Stockings are dangling, waiting for treats and gifts. Cookies and milk are set out nearby for the jolly man’s snack. Presents are wrapped in shiny paper before moving to their spot under the tree. When it’s time to tuck the children in, parents everywhere whisper, “Go to sleep or Santa won’t come with presents.” Parents lie.
Atheists don’t typically teach their children to believe in magical beings. Skeptics don’t typically teach their children to believe without question. Atheist skeptics make an exception though when it comes to Christmas. Not only is the exception made, but it’s an extravagant, deceptive exception at that. Even the most hardened anti-theists still perpetuate the Santa Claus myth with their children and for no apparent, logical reason.
Parents tell their kids stories all the time. There are books, movies, TV shows, and games that all have an interesting premise and a captivating plot. We take great pleasure in being charmed by a good story. It’s almost a magical experience. And yet, we don’t assert that these stories must be real in order to enjoy them. Children too can enjoy the myth of Santa Claus and not believe he is real. Kids love to be entertained by Christmas movies and books. It’s a beautiful tradition. Then parents take this wonderful experience and gild refined gold by insisting an old man actually does travel around the world in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.
Kids are intelligent and perceptive. They can separate myth from reality if we give them the tools to do so. Instead of teaching kids to believe in fairy tales as fact, we should teach them to value the celebrations we have in place. Christmas, as a holiday, isn’t simply Christ’s Mass. It’s a holiday that has been celebrated in one form or another for millennia. Some type of Winter Festival is commemorated all throughout the world and it’s rich with multi-cultural history.
Let’s teach children about Santa Claus. Let’s also teach them about Saint Nicholas and how gifts were given on December 6 instead of December 25. Tell them how Saint Nicholas was called Sinterklaas by the Dutch and Pere Noel by the French. Teach them about the god Odin and the Germanic Yule celebration. Dive deeper. Discuss Kwanzaa, Hanukah, and Saturnalia. There is no reason to maintain one Christian-Pagan tradition over so many others. Adapt new traditions and assimilate old customs. Let’s teach our children to appreciate all myths and fables as the exciting stories that they are rather than the one commercialized tale we’re all familiar with.
Winter festivals are a great time to teach generosity and compassion, to further humanism. Giving to others was the primary motive of early celebrations and we should educate and continue that tradition with our children.