Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cross-Post: The Man with the Bag

My mom was fretting about there not being enough money this year for all the Christmas miracles she'd like to have happen. I tried to comfort her, so I asked what made Christmas magical in her youth, expecting that she'd reflect on things like family togetherness, a few nice surprises, and the hoopla of celebration; instead, she looked me in the eye and sadly said, "Santa," as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. My first thought was, "You child," but then I realized that calling her out on this would do no good, so I tried to constructively point out what really made Christmases good for her: the actual good things.

Anyway, the Santa Claus lie (and misinformation with intent to deceive is lying, no matter what your intentions are) is still being perpetrated upon my youngest siblings, so here's this.
Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one in my family who doesn't think it's OK to believe something false because it makes you happy. There are only two situations where we do this: the "Bunny, Tooth and Claus" trinity, and religion. My parents have asked me to keep mum once again about Santa Claus, insisting on perpetuating the myth in young E’s mind. I assured them that I would maintain my position of evasive neutrality – really, it would only do more harm than good at this point, and he’ll soon figure it out for himself, anyway. Plus, he’s not even my kid. After that, C’s practically in the bag. Next on the hit list: the Easter Bunny, and then the Tooth Fairy!

I want to take a minute to clarify something, though, lest it go misunderstood: I love winter festivities. Sure, a few people turn into raging dick-bags when discussing the proper etiquette of how to greet someone, and fuck the haters (I say “Happy Holidays” a lot because I don’t really identify with the religious reasons behind any of them and therefore don’t really wish well for any holy day in particular, but if someone wishes me Merry Christmas or Happy Chanukkah, I’m content to interpret that as a wish that I have a good time throughout the season), but by and large, most people get a whole lot nicer. Also, winter is awesome and gift-giving is one of my favorite traditions. On the one hand, yay free stuff; on the other, it helps you get to know someone and keep them in mind when you’re shopping for something you think they’ll enjoy. I also think that the history of the Santa Claus myth is a fascinating case study in memetic evolution; however, as with any other work of fiction, I think the myth is valuable as a myth and only as such.

A lot of people are willing to get on one’s case about such things (like my parents), and I find it puzzling that they treat this with such idiosyncratic uniqueness. One of the more idiotic attacks that I hear is that if I don’t endorse the systematic teaching of the Santa Claus myth to young children as fact, then I must hate fun. It should be obvious that one can enjoy an end without approving of every single means available to achieve it (disapproving of rape doesn’t mean that someone hates sex). Similarly, I don’t have to hate Christmas to harbor qualms about one or two aspects of certain groups’ celebration of it – for example, the over-commercialization of the season, of which many people of varying creeds disapprove.

A more subtle approach is to say that I’m simply being no fun on this one subject, in this one respect – I take it too seriously and am making a mountain out of a molehill. I can actually respect that position, so long as I’m afforded the opportunity to defend my own, which is my goal in this entry (and this isn’t really directed at anyone who’s likely to read it, it’s mainly shit I would tell my parents if I thought it would do any good). First and foremost, Santa Claus is a symbol, and symbols are important: they shape the way we think, teach us lessons, and often serve as paradigm cases upon which we may base more pragmatic beliefs or courses of action. As a symbol, I think Santa Claus is actually a good thing; it’s the treatment of this symbol – the teaching of it as literal fact to young children, the reasons for doing so, and the attitudes with which this practice is commonly regarded – to which I take exception.

I also want to take a moment to head off any accusations that this is a thinly-veiled rant against religion. I don’t want there to be any veil at all, really, but this isn’t about religion specifically - it’s about the perpetuation of a tradition which I think is both totally unnecessary and harmful to a certain degree, yet paradoxically enjoys what I think is an undue amount of respect in mainstream culture. It just so happens that this is the same kind of problem I have with religion. These two issues share a huge amount of overlap, I make no bones about this. However, I wish to confine the discussion here strictly to Santa Claus. Once again, this is a beef I have with parents in general, and mine in particular.

As I said, I like the Santa Claus symbol, because it appeals to the na├»ve intellect of children but also bears out on a more mature reading. He’s a magical man who lives beyond the reach of human civilization and gives gifts to people in accordance with their conduct by means impossible to us mere mortals. To the child, this translates as, “Behave well and get stuff you want.” And, really, I think that characterizes the experience of children in most decent households: good behavior is rewarded, bad behavior is reprimanded. Good symbol. Us adults know, however, that sometimes a severely unethical course of action, when rigorously pursued, can still net a positive result for the agent (for example, the Enron fiasco, wherein corporate pirates robbed a lot of innocent people of money they deserved and – injustice of injustices! – were only lightly reprimanded for it - the punishment in no way fit the crime).

Good behavior, on the other hand, often goes unrewarded for a very long time, and sometimes is never rewarded at all. Obviously, the karmic reciprocity embodied by Santa Claus holds little sway over real life, but I think that the symbol here serves not as a lesson, but as an example: should we not strive to make our society such that the good are recognized and rewarded, and the wicked are chastised? This is not a mechanism by which the world works, but rather an embodiment of values which I think many of us share. Reap what you sow, and all of that.

Additionally, I think there actually is a much deeper lesson that is instructive (as in the children’s example), rather than exemplary (for the grown-ups): you can cheat other people, but there’s no cheating reality. If you do a good job at something, then that will be reflected in the product of your labor; if not, then it’s garbage in, garbage out. There are exceptions to this, of course, but this is the general rule. OK, maybe this last one’s a stretch, but still.

The problems arise when we consider the teaching of this myth not as a symbol, but as a literal fact. In the first place, it’s a lie: misinformation with intent to deceive, plain and simple. This, on its own, is not much – it’s the context and the consequences of actions that determine their moral content, not their mere descriptions, but I think this should serve as a warning sign. Lies generally turn out bad. And let’s not forget the enormous, conspiratorial scale on which the Santa Claus myth is foisted upon young children.

When taken as literal fact rather than fable, the “be good, get stuff” ethic can be disheartening to children when compared to how things actually play out: if Santa Claus is really magical, and satisfies the wishes of children based on their behavior, shouldn’t you be able to get anything you want if you’re just good enough? And if you don’t get what you want, then doesn’t that mean you’ve been a bad child (or not good enough)? And how come Tommy, that spoiled brat next door, got what he wanted from Santa, but you didn’t? What’s this guy up to, anyway?

Of course, this isn’t the way it always goes down, but my point is simply that Santa isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There’s also the fact that a lot of kids, upon learning that Santa isn’t real, are heartbroken: obviously, this is a cherished belief, since they’re not saying, “Huh, I thought there was something strange about that whole story, I’m kind of relieved to learn it was all hooey.” This effect has a double-edge, I believe – on the one hand, it provides evidence that belief in Santa is a good thing while that belief is maintained (and that’s the killer); on the other hand, the more cherished the belief, the harder it is to let go of it.

So yeah, Santa’s got his up-side, sure, but there’s also a down-side which I think a lot of people underrepresent. It’s kind of a wash, though, as most of this business goes down at an age that many don’t very clearly remember, so who cares? Let’s look at the ostensive reasons behind Santa, then; or, just what this myth is used for. “Be good, or Santa’s gonna give you a lump of coal in your stocking.” That’s a threat, right there. A fairly innocuous one, to be sure, and almost always empty. However, what strikes me as sleazy is that the source of the threat is externalized from the threatener: Mommy or Daddy is threatening to do something you don’t like, but under the guise that it’s a threat from someone else, an all-seeing and implacable judge of right and wrong who – wait, I said I wasn’t going to talk about religion.

The other side of that coin is that when the kid gets stuff they really like, who gets the praise? Not the people who did the actual work to make the Christmas Miracle happen, but the unseen benefactor in the sky – err, I mean, at the North Pole. Dunno what I was thinking there, innocent grin is me! (Look, I find it tremendously ironic that Santa’s like training wheels for a monotheistic deity, but so few outgrow the latter as they outgrow the former. No further comment on that, I promise.) In all seriousness, though, I do honestly think that the substitution of a false and magical justification for good behavior, in lieu of a rational and Earthly one, is a bad thing – both for the fact that it’s empty and wrong, and for the precedent it sets at such an impressionable age.

Look, one may say, all of this is small potatoes. The whole point of Saint Nick is that it’s an entertaining fantasy that’s fun for kids to believe while the magic of childhood lasts. Right? Still bad, says I. The fact that it makes you feel good to think something is true does not mean you actually ought to think it’s true. Take romance, for instance. Say one of your coworkers fancies another: do you think it would be good to make that person believe the feeling was mutual, knowing that that’s false? Of course not, you’re simply setting them up for disappointment – either quickly, when they start to act on those affections and get embarrassed, or gradually, as they wait for the other person to act on affections which are simply not there.

The same principle applies, and the same thing happens, with jolly old Kris Kringle. Perpetuating the illusion just adds to the let-down. And the whole “magic of childhood” tack kind of rubs me the wrong way, too. The message, as best I can tell, is that “magic is fun, reality is boring” (or “childhood is fun, adulthood is boring”). I find that false, and frustratingly so. If magic were real, then it would be like any other part of reality: discoverable, usable, investigable. There would be nothing special about it, just like there’s nothing special about computers (which, to my mind, are a kind of magic). As far as I can tell, what’s exciting about magic is not that it’s magic, but that it’s different. Kids who know there’s no such thing as Batman can still have fun playing Batman with their friends, or Hell, playing Cowboys and Indians when they know that they are not in fact cowboys or Indians. I did. Shit, I still do this stuff whenever I roleplay.

“Something Different,” every now and again, is exciting. It breaks up the routine. And you don’t need to think it’s true to have fun, you just have to pretend and have a functional imagination. Plus, reality is fucking exciting, too – you just have to know where to look. Boredom sets into the boring mind, and all that good stuff. Plus, the “magic” of childhood never really has to die, anyway. I find that, as an adult, I have more access to the stuff I liked doing as a kid, and now that the responsibilities are my own (which, to be sure, carries its own price – a price I pay gladly, by the way), I can determine when and how I do those things to a much greater extent than I could as a child. Being a grown-up fucking rules (and screw you, Mom, cake is a breakfast food!).

The point with all this is that I don’t have a problem with Santa decorations, or Santa floats in parades, or any of that nonsense. Go nuts. Really. Please, just, do whatever you like – I like the Santa myth, and adults know what’s up, so it’s all in good fun (for real). But when it comes to treating it like fact in a misguided attempt to "magic up" your kid’s childhood, I mean, nothing good comes of that which can’t be had by more wholesome means, and the bad stuff could all be rather neatly avoided by treating it like a superhero comic and telling your kid that it’s not true, it’s just a fun story. That’s really the source of my confusion: why the Hell isn’t Santa Claus treated just like Batman or Spider-Man?


John Morales said...

Good post.

re: On the one hand, yay free stuff; on the other, it helps you get to know someone and keep them in mind when you’re shopping for something you think they’ll enjoy.

Well, it ain't free, since there's an expectation of reciprocity. Also, I consider that if it requires social obligations to "keep someone in mind", then it's not genuine.

To me, it's the equivalent of a "day of obligation"¹, and I don't buy into it.
I haven't given anyone an obligatory gift for decades, though I do give gifts on an opportunistic basis (i.e. "wow, XXX would love that! What the hey.")

PS I found out, in my youth, that it really isn't the thought that counts, but the gift.


¹ Anniversaries, father's/mother's day, valentine's day, etc.

D said...

Well, it's free to children. For a time. Also, all of life is going through motions; I just so happen to have found some motions I genuinely like going through (oh, and the gift ritual helps keep a person in mind, it's not the whole thing). In my family, we do pick up gifts throughout the year, we just save 'em up for Christmas & birthdays.

But yes, the naive starry-eyed whatever is naive and starry-eyed, I'll definitely give you that one. Thanks for the comment!

jim said...

Thanks for the post, D. Regarding the Santa thing, I was against teaching it to my children, but got overruled by the wife and extended family (yeah, I bent over. You do that sometimes, especially for the sake of family harmony). I'll admit, I enjoyed the idea when I was young, but precisely for the wrong reason, which is the real reason behind the season. False hope based upon magic powers. God is the adult Santa Claus, nuanced for the more experienced/cynical adults' digestion. Plus he provides revenge, which is an added bonus. But it's all the same... "Kids, there's a place at the end of the rainbow if you behave yourselves, your enemies will suffer a lump of coal in this life and a burning sulfur enema in the next, and we're NOT just bags of meat awaiting a future status as worm food."

D said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, and I'm sorry to hear you got steamrolled by a bunch of silly nonsense. However, your last line sticks in my craw... I mean, we certainly are bags of meat destined for worm food (unless I get eaten by a bear first!), but to say that we're "just" that is one of my favorite informal fallacies: the fallacy of mediocrity. If you've never heard of it, you should check it out!