So I know this is a bit late, but the holiday season is not yet officially over and I thought it would be fun for an atheist blog to share a story about losing belief…in Santa Claus. Not an unusual occurence, except my story happened a little shall we say, late in life, and happened all at once, rather than the gradual realization most kids seem to come to that this shit can’t possibly be real. But don’t worry; it has a happy ending. Enjoy!
My parents were very good at the whole Santa Claus thing. My mother in particular. Santa Claus never used the same wrapping paper, never had the same handwriting — sometimes his presents appeared adorned in a pool of glitter, glitter which I imagined Santa Claus wielded like pixy dust and perhaps just fell from him wherever he walked. Furthermore, Santa Claus appeared to have particular powers of gift giving my mere mortal parents lacked. One incident in particular cemented by belief in Santa Claus. When I was about 7, I loved nothing more in the world than Little Mermaid anything. One item I wanted in particular was a Little Mermaid watch that had water on the inside, with a small Ariel that you could swirl about by flicking your wrist. My Mom looked for it earnestly but told me that it appeared as though they sold out and were no longer in production. For the record she was being honest; but she actually was able to find some still on sale somehow, after she had informed me I couldn’t expect to get one for Christmas. So of course, what a perfect gift to label as coming from Santa — and to this day you can still watch the home video of me rationalizing, in open-eyed awe, that “No one else could get this but Santa could.” That sealed the deal.
So the years go by and my understanding of Santa evolves a little, but my faith did not fundamentally alter. I have to emphasize that I thought I had a very sophisticated view of Santa Claus — first off, it wasn’t really Santa Claus, but the ghost of St. Nicholas, a historical figure (I guess I was showing my interests early), who was obviously the real Santa Claus. As for the reindeer, the sleigh, the chimney delivery system — I thought all of that was absurd, and was very impressed with myself that I knew better. I knew that the ghost of St. Nicholas simply appeared in the houses of children whenever he wanted to, did his shit and then left when he was done. I have to confess though that I still bought the idea that he ate the cookies, although I’m not sure how this squared with my idea of him being an essentially non-corporeal being — and it’s hilarious to think now how convincing all those crumbled cookies were to me, how for some reason it just seemed implausible to me that my father could have eaten them. But in any case, I was a true believer.
But by the time I was 11, most my friends were not. In particular my best friend wasn’t, and this Christmastime we ended up in a bit of a heated discussion about it one afternoon. A few days later I was telling my mother about the conversation, and how sad it was that my friend was losing faith in the truth her childlike instinct pointed her towards (as I child I sentimentalized childhood, which might have had something to do with all this), and emphasized that I would always know that St. Nicholas was real. “Well,” my mother hesitatingly started, “he is real in a sense.”
In all honesty, I’ve forgotten what words she said next. My traumatized mind probably blocked it. The next thing I remember, I was on the playground, hiding in the inter tube bridge and crying my eyes out. I don’t really remember what I was thinking, other than “Oh my God the world is so much less magical now!!!” but I cried for quite a while. Then I heard someone calling my name in the distance and I realized it was father; so I sprinted over to him, jumped in his arms and let him comfort me. He was putting on a very brave face and ensuring me there was nothing I needed to be so sad about, and it did actually make me feel much better. (Mom later told me that Dad felt Mom should not have told me so bluntly; this is humorous to me since I can’t imagine what he would have thought would have been more appropriate, to allow me to go on believing until I got humiliated in front of school peers a few years later? Or maybe he thought I would have figured it out soon enough on my own, which I certainly hope would have been the case!)
A few days later I wrote Mom a letter telling her that I thought I could deal with the disillusionment if things simply went on as they did before — the presents, the glitter, the eaten cookies. She complied completely. I’ve always thought this was interesting, and it makes me wonder how much of religious attachment has to do with an attachment to ritual, to certain experiences that produce a sense of wonder. Because I really thought, as long as everything is the same, I think I can still enjoy myself, Santa or no. And indeed I have no memories of being very put off that Christmas, or any Christmas after it, although my mother of course did eventually phase out the whole leaving-presents eating-cookies thing.
I also remember, however, my mother helping me out by telling me to read that famous letter in The Sun, about how Santa Claus is real, as she put it, “in a sense.” The letter was a response to a girl, Virginia, who wrote in asking whether or not Santa Claus was real, because apparently some of her friends were doubters. It is worth quoting first off because it contains a classic denunciation of skepticism, but then follows it with basically the implication that the wonder of Santa Claus is real, in the same way as love or hope or poetry is real. Unfortunately it equates these things with magical beliefs, but still, as a child it made a lot of sense to me.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
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.”
What I now decide to take out of this quote, and what I took out of the whole experience of moving on to a Santa Claus-free worldview, was that the experience a belief helps you tap into does not disappear once you decide you can no longer believe in that belief — that my childhood joy and wonder was essentially a part of myself, and did not require Santa Claus to be real. I’d like to think it is the same for almost all religious believers who lose their faith – that they discover that the wonder of their lives is an attribute of their humanity, and will not be taken from them merely because they cease to belief in certain precepts or stories. What a great testament to how beautiful the human spirit is, and how, especially since we often fail to be inspirational or otherwordly, we should at least give ourselves credit for this beauty rather than making up stories that outsource the credit to some made-up entity.