David Livingstone Smith has written a short piece criticizing participation in the Santa Claus story (i.e. getting children to believe that Santa Claus is real); his article includes responses to three common justifications for this practice, followed by three objections to the practice. I agree with some of the points Smith raises, and in my view he decisively rebuts the excuses offered on behalf of Santa’s supporters. However, Smith’s case against Santa is not without its flaws either. Taken together, I believe that these flaws are fatal to his critique.
To begin with, Smith makes the simple observation that it is a lie to tell children that Santa Claus exists with the intention of getting them to believe that Santa Claus really does exist. As he quickly points out, some lies are excusable, and insofar as Smith is using the term “lie” in a purely descriptive sense, the claim ought to be utterly uncontroversial.
When are lies excusable? The most obvious cases involve an immediate threat of death or other bodily harm that can only be avoided by means of telling a lie. Obviously the Santa Claus story does not qualify, but there are other excuses which Smith does not mention. Practical jokes and magic shows tend to involve an element of lying as well. Both practical jokes and magic shows can be performed for malicious purposes, but they are not essentially malicious and often so morally innocuous that even calling them “excusable” seems overwrought. Practical jokes are most likely to be morally questionable when they are performed without a person’s consent, but consent to the circumstances in which lies are told cannot be a necessary condition for the lie’s permissibility; if it were, surprising someone with a magic trick would be morally wrong. Among other peculiar consequences, this would imply that most street magic acts — where the audience is gathered from passersby by the sight of apparently astonishing feats accomplished at least partly by means of deception — are morally wrong. The ease with which lies can be excused for the purpose of the deceived individual’s enjoyment establishes a defeasible presumption in favour of the Santa lie’s permissibility (although in what follows I tend to use the less loaded sounding term “story” rather than “lie”). Given this presumption, whether participating in the Santa story turns out to be permissible will depend on whether Smith’s criticisms of this practice hold water.
Smith’s first explicit complaint is that encouraging children to believe in Santa makes children’s struggle to comprehend the world around them unnecessarily difficult. Presumably the difficulty is posed by the incongruity between Santa-related phenomena such as elves and flying reindeer on the one hand and children’s knowledge of natural phenomena on the other. Not only are beliefs in these Santa-related phenomena false, but attempting to integrate such beliefs with one’s knowledge of natural phenomena in a coherent picture of the world will compromise the accuracy of children’s beliefs about those natural phenomena. For example, all flying animals use aerodynamic lift to achieve flight; reindeer, however, lack the physical structures required to generate aerodynamic lift. But according to the Santa story, some reindeer are capable of unassisted flight. To reconcile these facts and maintain consistency in their views of the world, children who believe in the Santa story will have to conclude that one cannot infer an animal’s capacity for unassisted flight from its aerodynamic characteristics. Even worse, if certain aerodynamic characteristics are not required in order for an animal to be able to fly, one may not even be justified in believing that the aerodynamic characteristics of animals that really do fly are what explains those animals’ ability to fly.
I find this criticism unconvincing, and you may already have guessed why. Very young children — children at the ages where they are most likely to believe in Santa — simply do not engage in the kind of sophisticated theorizing about the world that could be undermined by belief in Santa-related phenomena. As children’s reasoning abilities develop, they lose their Santa-related beliefs naturally. If belief in Santa posed an obstacle to the development of children’s reasoning abilities, Smith’s complaint would have more force. But I see no reason to believe this is the case. And as it stands, his complaint seems to concern the effect of belief in Santa on the content of children’s beliefs about the world, not the means by which they acquire those beliefs.
Smith’s second criticism is that the Santa story undermines children’s trust in their parents because convincing children that the story is true amounts to a form of betrayal. However, the reasoning employed here seems to be circular. The Santa story can only be a betrayal warranting a child’s withdrawal of trust in his or her parents if there is something wrong about convincing children that the Santa story is true. So this second objection carries no weight on its own; the wrong it purports to identify depends on participation in the Santa story having already been found to be wrongful on independent grounds, thereby justifying the claim that the Santa story is a form of betrayal warranting withdrawal of trust. If Smith’s other objections fail, then, this one can be dismissed automatically.
Finally, Smith implies that the Santa Claus story is a form of manipulation that undermines children’s moral development by encouraging them to base their behaviour on expectations of material reward and punishment rather than doing good for its own sake. However, reward and punishment usually play some role in the moral development of children whether or not they are raised to believe in Santa. Rather than retarding moral development, discipline of this kind plays a crucial role in bringing children’s moral capacities to fruition. Conceivably, participating in the Santa fiction could even come with certain advantages. Consider that Santa supposedly knows at all times whether any given child has been bad or good; parents and other authority figures, on the other hand, must monitor children’s behaviour more deliberately. If they believe that Santa is monitoring and evaluating their behaviour at all times, children may be encouraged to be more reflective about the moral quality of their behaviour even when they’re not being supervised by any actual person. Such reflection plausibly enhances children’s awareness and understanding of moral norms, and their ability to govern themselves accordingly. As children mature and come to appreciate the force that moral norms have independently of considerations of reward and punishment, they will surely continue to benefit from this habit of ethical self-reflection. So Smith is really setting up a false dilemma; we have reason to think that being good for the sake of staying off Santa’s “naughty” list is really just another way that people can learn to “be good for goodness’ sake.”
I conclude that in the absence of any compelling objection, it is at least permissible to encourage children’s belief in Santa. I would suggest, however, that this permission comes with a few qualifications. The first is that if adults portray Santa Claus as a moral authority, they must take care not to attribute highly questionable moral attitudes to him. Most importantly, Santa should be portrayed as being concerned with the rightness and wrongness of people’s actions and avoid characterizing children as being essentially either naughty or nice (or good or bad). In addition, elements of the Santa story that seem to promote excessive materialism and justify poverty and gross economic inequality (for example, the idea that Santa rewards children in proportion to the quality of their behaviour) should be downplayed or altered. Second, adults should ensure that their intentions are pure — that they are not treating children as objects of ridicule and mockery, for example, and that they are not simply seeking a tool with which to control children’s behaviour. Finally, adults should pay attention to children’s developing reasoning abilities and bring the Santa charade to an end when appropriate. At some point, keeping the Santa magic alive requires something very much like gaslighting. Adults ought to pull the plug on it well before that point. In the meantime, they should just make sure the chimney’s clear, pour a glass of milk, set out the cookies, and relax.