I had an interesting conversation with my daughter a few days ago. I had asked her if anything fun was going on in her life recently. She didn’t need much impetus. She has a lively sense of humor and loves to share things that seem funny or whimsical to her. She told me the story of how she had recently lost a tooth. She told me she was slightly worried that it wasn’t a baby tooth, because she hadn’t noticed it getting loose. Instead, she noticed a small pain in her mouth, and when she explored the source, her tooth came out in her fingers.
She told me how she had given the tooth to her mother, but that her mother had lost it. “It’s okay, though,” she told me. “Mom gave me a dollar for it anyway.” Then she got a serious look on her face as she asked her next question. “Dad, what do you think Mom does with the teeth?” I wasn’t quite sure how honest I was supposed to be, so I asked if normally the tooth fairy doesn’t take them away. “Dad!” she said, her eyes lighting up with the pride of being among those in the know. “I already know about the tooth fairy!”
“I know about the tooth fairy,” she repeated. “And the Easter Bunny. And Santa.”
“How did you figure out about Santa?” I asked her.
“I saw the wrapping paper.”
I can’t tell you how desperately I wanted to ask the next question: “And have you figured out Jesus yet?” Unfortunately, one of the terms of the divorce decree are that I don’t interfere in my ex-wife’s desire to rear our children as good little Mormons. So I bit my lip and instead explained the sad truth of what really happens to lost teeth after they have been ransomed.
But the conversation got me thinking. As children we are fed all sorts of convenient or pleasant little lies by adults who arguably are only doing what they feel will help us be happier. Most of those lies we shed as youngsters. Some people even shrug off religion early on. But many can’t quite shake off some myths. I was among those who realized the truth of tooth fairies but didn’t connect the dots on the ultimate magical entity in my life for far longer than I should have. I wonder why that is.
Why do we see the ridiculousness of egg-laying rabbits, miniature dental black market traders, and flying philanthropists, but continue to believe in an invisible man who lives in the sky and watches our every move while awaiting anxiously our muttered requests so he can magically fix things for us? “Flying reindeer?” we scoff. “Yeah, right.” And then we kneel before bed and say, “Dear God, please bless Mommy and Daddy and keep them safe.”
Even though the stories of god are as ridiculous as the ideas of fairies, is there some supplementary logic that allows us to maintain the illusion longer, to live with cognitive dissonance for longer? I’m not the first to make the comparison between god and Santa.
Consider this short list:
- Neither deigns to make an appearance, though other people will often act as proxy for them.
- Both watch to ensure you are good and reward good behavior.
- You are supposed to ask each for special requests, but you’re expected to be happy with whatever you get even if it’s not a pony.
- Both are displeased if you express doubt in their existence.
- They share the same taste in facial hair grooming.
- They both wear silly outfits.
- Each has flying helpers.
- Each is lauded in seasonal hymns.
- They have each at various times ordered their followers to slaughter thousands of innocent women and children. Oh, wait.
With all the obvious parallels, I think what it ends up coming down to is the difference in these two conversations:
“Mommy, is Santa real?”
“Well, he gave you a present last Christmas didn’t he?”
“But how does he get around the world all in one night? And how does he fit all the toys for all the children of the world on his sleigh?”
“I’m not sure. It must be magic.”
“But I saw the present that Santa gave me for Christmas in your closet a few weeks before Christmas.”
“Fine, kid. You’re right. Santa’s not real.”
“Priest, is God real?”
“Well, he answers your prayers, doesn’t he?”
“But how does he listen to all the prayers of all the people in the world at the same time? And how can he bless every one of them if they ask for conflicting favors?”
“I’m not sure. It’s just one of his mysteries.”
“I’m having a hard time accepting many of the stories and laws in the Bible…”
“You must have faith.”
“I don’t think he really exists.”
“I’m sorry, my child. You are going to burn in hell for eternity. Repent and return to him.”
And on and on it goes. Without ever getting the admission, “Ha ha, just kidding. You figured it out. There is no God,” we continually revisit the issue, doubt our conclusion, wonder if we just don’t have enough faith.
Would we have little Santa cults all around the world if we took the same approach with Santa? Never admitting that he is just a myth? Would we have holdouts of “true believers” the same with Santa as with god?