One night this summer I woke up from a very vivid dream. Most of the details of the dream were lost almost as soon as I awoke. However, I had the overwhelming impression that I should raise my then unborn son to believe in Santa Claus. For some of you reading this, that may not seem like such an amazing thing. However, I can count on one hand the number of times in the last year I woke up with an awareness of even having dreamed the night before, and I can only vaguely recall the content of two. It is true that I had been considering whether to propagate this part of the Christmas mythology, but it was just one thing in a litany of concerns going through the mind of a parent-to-be. If I had been given a choice I certainly would have chosen something more significant.
As I got ready for work, after having the dream, I tried to remember as much as possible, but only two points lingered in my conscious thoughts. The first was that I should teach my son to believe in Santa Claus, this message was so vivid that I don’t think I could have forgotten it if I tried. I wrote it down, but that wasn’t necessary. The message is just as vivid to me now as it was then, even though I have lost the scrap of paper on which I wrote the reminder. The second, was the only rationale for the first point. The emotion attached to the second part of the dream wasn’t nearly as significant as the first, but it was the only other lasting impression I carried into wakefulness. The message was that Christ taught using parables. Those two things were all my unconscious provided, it was up to my conscious mind to noodle out the rest.
Being the incredibly rational, analytical, person that I am I began breaking apart what bits and pieces I could remember and tried to fit them into a framework that made sense. A few weeks before I had this dream I read an article about a psychological study that had been done regarding morality and a belief in Santa Claus. The results of the study showed, that children who had been raised to believe in Santa Claus had a better sense of right and wrong than those who had not. I found the results of this study somewhat ironic, because one of my biggest objections to this particular part of the Christmas tradition is that it seems to be a bold faced lie. Even if it works should we be lying to our kids to teach them right from wrong? It didn’t make sense until I considered the concept of Santa Claus within the context of parables.
As a parable, Santa Claus embodies religious concepts that might be too abstract for a child to understand. A being such as god that is always watching over you and doles out rewards or punishments only when you die, isn’t going to mean much to a child that doesn’t even understand the concept of death. A jolly old elf who knows when you’ve been bad or good and provides concrete evidence of his judgment on Christmas morning provides a means of illustrating the concept of morality to someone too young to appreciate the idea of rewards after death.
Instead of being a lie, I draw a distinction between literal truth and figurative truth. Did god create the universe in seven, 24 hour, terrestrial days? Did Noah really take two animals of every kind onto the ark? I think the answer to both of these questions is no. These stories illustrates a fundamental truth about the universe and the world we live in, but, like the idea of Santa Claus, they are only meaningful when considered figuratively; as literal truth they are absurd.
Admittedly the allegory doesn’t always work. For starters, I haven’t figured out the symbolism of the flying reindeer. More importantly, one of the serious problems with using this as a tool for teaching morality is that parents often don’t follow through on their end of the bargain. As Santa’s representatives, they are really the ones doing all the knowing about the bad/good sleep/wake business. If parents indulge their children on Christmas morning even though the kids don’t deserve the reward for being good, then it destroys the message. It in fact sends just the opposite message and reinforces bad behavior. Further there are parents who are unable to provide suitable rewards to their children, even though they have had exemplary behavior. As I said before, the symbolism isn’t perfect, and it is probably better for the children of these parents to know the truth, than to believe Santa was punishing them in spite of their good behavior.
Lastly, I think there is a certain magic to kids believing in Santa Claus. Children are remarkably perceptive, and I imagine they know the truth much sooner than any of them let on. Part of the magic of Christmas morning, is that children know that the adults are engaging in a fantasy with them, and adults even go so far as to sneak around putting presents under a tree and filling stockings in order to sustain the fantasy.
In spite of the drawbacks, I intend to heed the message of that dream. One day, I hope to find out why god, or my subconscious, or whatever cosmic force decided to send me that dream that night. And, even though I have decided that my son will be raised to believe in Santa Claus, I won’t stop questioning why, and to what extent, I should foster this belief in him.
Happy Holidays Everyone!