By Jack Besterman | December 22, 2021
The same post goes around every December:
“I can not stress this enough. Stop telling your Santa age kids that their iPads, and iPhones, and 200 dollar toys are from Santa. Cause some families can’t afford that. Little kids wonder why they got socks or a coat or hand me down toys from Santa and other kids got an iPad.”
The post argues that letting kids believe Santa got them expensive presents for being good will make others believe they weren’t good enough to get the same. It tells children that class inequality is the result of immorality on the part of the lower class.
Santa is something of a magical moralizer, used as positive reinforcement for good behavior, by promising that this behavior will be rewarded. Parents who tell their kids about Santa want to instill this belief in a fair world – showing that good actions come with good results.
Contrarily, we live in a time of great inequality. Children can see as well as anyone that results vary wildly across our society. They’re aware that some of their peers get iPads while others get socks. In a culture where cost is equated with value, the quality of a child’s gifts are more closely linked with their parents’ class – something completely outside of their control – than their conduct. However, the Santa myth links gifts directly back to the individual. It tells a child that the quality of their presents is a reflection of their own moral value.
This isn’t an isolated facet in our culture. It’s an outgrowth of an ideology inherent to capitalism and evangelical Christianity. Prosperity gospel or prosperity theology says that material success is a sign of God’s favor. It teaches that piety and religious donations will be rewarded with later financial prosperity.
What does this have to do with Santa and Christmas? Christmas is a largely secularized holiday in the United States and many icons of Christmas – such as Christmas trees – come from pagan traditions. Nevertheless, Santa Clause was originally based on the fourth century Greek bishop St. Nicholas. Modern Christmas iconography often remains explicitly Christian, such as the Nativity scene. While not all Christians explicitly identify with prosperity theology, the values of extreme individualism and hard work were noted in sociologist Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Weber argued it was foundational to the development of American capitalism and the ideology that surrounds it.
While we want to teach our children that good deeds are rewarded, it’s easy to see how that isn’t true on a broad societal level. Many good people – including faithful Christians – suffer financial ruin in this country through no fault of their own. Any examination of inequality will reveal that the divide is not between the faithful and faithless, but between those who sell their labor and those who own the means of production.
There’s nothing wrong with telling kids harmless lies to preserve the whimsy and magic of childhood. Santa can be a good role model; he is meant to provide charity to everyone. When we tell each other magical myths, we should make sure that they instill good values in ourselves and those around us. Kids don’t need to have Santa held over them as an external threat who will judge them and punish them if they don’t always toe the line. Instead, he should teach them the importance of charity and equality.
This isn’t a message only for Christians. These ideologies permeate our entire culture. If we want to counteract them, we need to look at the stories we tell each other. We need to recognize when they serve to reinforce material hierarchy. Parents should tell the story of a Santa who gives all he can to everyone, not one who only seems to favor people who already have a lot of money. They should use magical thinking to inspire the highest ideals in their children in a way that empowers them to do good deeds for their own sake.