My wife and I aren't super-grinches around Christmas.
We're pleased to let religiously minded people engage in their fantasies about virgin births, humans who are sons of God, and other miraculous supernatural stuff.
But I've got problems with encouraging a belief in Santa Claus as a real entity.
Looking upon Santa Claus as akin to the Easter Bunny is preferable. I doubt many kids believe in the literal reality of the Easter Bunny as intensely as they believe in Santa Claus. And giving up a belief in the Easter Bunny seemingly comes earlier and easier than a belief in Santa.
Every year on Christmas Day both of the newspapers we get, the Salem Statesman Journal and Portland Oregonian, run the annoying "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" piece. Supposedly it's the world's most reprinted newspaper editorial.
I wish it were the least reprinted.
For a long time I've ignored this attempt to support an anti-scientific faith-based view of the world. I'd forgotten what it specifically said, being content to glance at the headline and move on to more useful newpaper reading, like the comic pages.
Yesterday, though, I forced myself to read the unsigned editorial in the September 21, 1897, New York Sun. I was reminded of how much there is not to like here.
I am, of course, influenced by my own personal experience with the myth of Santa Claus.
My mother helped me learn to read at an early age. She loved to tell the story of how I gained admittance to a preschool by reading the front page of the newspaper to the person in charge. One of my clearest earliest memories is of reading the fine print on a toy I'd gotten for Christmas when I was four or five.
"Made in Japan." I asked my mother how Santa Claus could have brought a toy supposedly made by him when the gift actually was built in Japan. Unhesitatingly she said, "There is no Santa Claus."
Thank you, mother. Thank you for that honesty.
Likewise, she had me go to catechism class for a brief period because she thought an exposure to Catholicism would be good for me. But when I resisted learning more religious crap, my mother made no attempt to continue my indoctrination.
Truth meant a lot to her. Not, however, to the anonymous author of "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
The editorial starts off by reassuring Virginia that her child companions who say there is no Santa Claus are mistaken.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.
This is a very strange statement. How else do we humans know about something, except through our minds/brains? Has anyone in the history of the world ever known anything without using his or her mind? But this much is true: there's a difference between what exists, and what is known to exist.
Beyond the boundaries of what is known about the cosmos always will lie unknown mysteries.
My problem with the editorial is that the author believes that only he, and apparently selected others, have a special relationship with the unknown side of reality that those dreaded skeptics lack. He can know about things for which there is no demonstrable evidence.
This entire paragraph in the editorial is a terrible throwback to a pre-scientific religious faith-based age. Maybe it was appropriate in the Dark Ages, but not today.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
Sure, nobody can conceive or imagine everything that doesn't exist outside of fantasizing human minds. Conceptions and imaginations are limitless. Knowledge of reality is bounded. We should know the difference between the two.
The editorial conflates them. It claims that the most real things in the world can't be seen. Indeed, they are unseeable. Like God. Taken on faith. Which is a dishonest way to live, and shouldn't be encouraged in children.
Sentiments expressed in "Yes, Virginia..." are superficially appealing. However, on closer inspection they are confused and confusing. The author takes Santa skeptics to task for denying the reality of certain things that actually no one denies.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.
Love, generosity, and devotion are all observable, albeit difficult or impossible to measure. It is eminently possible to point to loving, generous, and devoted people who perform loving, generous, and devoted actions and feel loving, generous, and devoted emotions.
On the other hand, it isn't possible to point to Santa Claus delivering presents to billions of homes, pulled in the sky by a team of reindeer.
I'd have no problem with this editorial if it had simply said that Santa Claus is the spirit of loving, giving kindness -- reflected in a myth that personifies universal qualities which exist in varying measure within every human being, and almost certainly many animals.
But Virginia is being encouraged to engage in a form of dualism which disparages the natural world and praises a "supernal" realm divorced from what can be sensed, known, understood, communally shared.
You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
This Platonic sort of philosophy, which fits with Christian and other monothesitic theologies positing heavenly realms far superior to this world, is at odds with a humble naturalistic scientific way of being.
"Santa Claus" becomes a symbol for mythical supernatural entities which should be the object of our devotion, not real people, real objects, real living beings, this whole real physical world.
I'm not attracted to that sort of fantastical living.
There's no harm in looking upon Santa Claus as a human-created cultural custom, like Zeus, the Cookie Monster, and Donald Duck. But to follow the advice of this editorial and make him into a unseen object of faith, like God -- ridiculous.