In 1897, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to The New York Sun inquiring if Santa Claus were real. In what would become one of the world’s most famous editorials, the Sun lied to her. Here, in part, is what the editorial said:
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. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!
What a disservice to humanity—not to mention to the child who asked for the truth. And to what end? To preserve raw, cheap sentimentality. A world without Santa would be no more dreary than the world is with him right now. Nor would his absence harm childlike faith, poetry, or romance. On the contrary, if Santa Claus and his coterie of reindeer and elves were suddenly to go poof, the holiday season—a happy time for the already happy, but frequently a miserable time for those who are less than happy—would offer people of all faiths, or no faith at all, a much better shot at finding a bit of love, generosity, devotion, beauty, and joy than they can ever find while Santa lives.
Born centuries ago, from the union of paganism and Christianity, today’s Santa is fully backed by an adult conspiracy that ranges from parents and teachers to NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which has been “tracking” Santa’s movements since 1955). Santa is about terror, not love (anybody else ever had to hold a screaming child who’s refusing to sit on the lap of the man in the red suit?), and he’s about greed, not generosity. If it weren’t for the blustering blinders imposed by “tradition,” we’d have come to our senses and gotten rid of him a long time ago.
The 19th-century Santa was invented in 1862 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. A jolly fat fellow, the first, full-blooded American Santa couldn’t keep from loving children. Nast’s Santa has long since disappeared, replaced by a bearded bully who’s pumped full of capitalist adrenalin, with a modus operandi that stimulates artificial desires in children and stirs feelings of guilt in their parents.
Our 21st-century Santa boxes parents into a corner, from where they either give in to their children’s materialist cravings or feel at risk of losing their affections. To children, he offers the all-or-nothing proposition that they’re either entirely good or entirely bad—nothing in between. He insidiously substitutes vice for virtue, teaching that goodness is never a good in itself but a mere bartering tool for material goods. As for that fatuous grin, the man is downright dangerous—a pervert possessing the demonic power to ferret out what children are doing even when no one is looking. On top of this, he’s the cruelest of teases, beckoning millions of poor children whose parents lack enough money to live up to his reckless promises.
Where the 19th-century Santa handed out a couple of oranges and chocolates, our 21st-century Santa passes out millions of dollars worth of violent video games, iPhones, iPods, and “back to basics” Barbies such as the one now nicknamed “Busty Barbie.” In the strangest, cobbled-together, irrational non-story ever concocted, Santa somehow merges with, but at the same time remains separate from, the Christian story of the baby Jesus. (Although I don’t have a dog in this fight, I thoroughly understand why devout Christians would be appalled at the way Santa trumps the Christian message.) Finally, let it not be forgotten that for parents who are not Christian, or Christian parents who don’t want to play along, Santa offers nothing but headaches.
Because believing in Santa is doomed to come to a crashing halt, children eventually find out that their parents lied to them. Not that children think this exact thought, or think it when they first learn there’s no Santa. At that moment, they’re more likely to worry that with the jig up, the presents will end. But while parents are thinking of Santa as a small fib whose purpose is to bring happiness to their children, children aren’t making that distinction. The lesson that lingers is that parents lie even to their own children.
If Santa were to go away, the world would be a better place. Christians could return to telling their story of the Christ child, and non-Christians could turn to Aesop’s Fables or other ancient tales or tales from faraway places. But Santa’s the type who will never leave on his own. No way. He needs killin’.