Recently, Triple J presenter Avani Dias was dumped live on air during a conversation with fellow ABC host James Valentine, as she came dangerously close to ruining Christmas for families everywhere by outing Santa Claus as a lie.
Speaking later about the incident, radio veteran Valentine explained that with so many kids listening along with their parents, the risk – and likelihood of complaints – was just too high. Some things, like belief in Santa, are just sacred. “To shit on that, just for the sake of conversation on air, is an act of bastardry which should not be encouraged,” Valentine told Pedestrian.TV.
Shitting on Santa at the end of the most dumpster-firey year on record does seem like something not even the grinch would do. It’s Christmas, and Santa needs to be front and centre. He’s even been declared immune from Covid-19 by the WHO, ensuring he can spread festive cheer to a world left reeling by a global pandemic.
Do a straw poll of what Santa represents to families, and they’ll tell you a heap of great stuff. He represents generosity, wonder, the magic of Christmas and the spirit of giving. They might also say something about how he encourages good behaviour at a time of year when parents and kids are both at their wits’ end. Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good, and has a bunch of gift-wrapped reasons why you should be one rather than the other.
And yet, I feel compelled to be this year’s grinch and encourage some bastardry. We should be telling our kids the truth about Santa, and we should be doing it not to bury Santa but to praise him. Because here’s the Christmas secret nobody has let you in on: telling kids Santa is real ruins him. All the good stuff Santa brings is made better by knowing he’s a story, and believing he’s real gets in the way of some of his best features.
Let’s start with the discipline stuff. Motivationally speaking, Santa is more or less the equivalent of the carrots we leave out for his reindeer. He is the human embodiment of a karmic account of justice – a moral economy, where wealth and rewards flow to the virtuous. Do good to others and good will be done to you.
This would be a brilliant lesson, if it were true! But speaking as a philosopher and a formerly awful child, it’s not. There is no moral economy. Too often, bad behaviour gets results, rewards, promotions and presidencies. And when we believe Santa is real, it pours fuel on the fire. Almost zero children wake up to an absence of gifts because of their bad behaviour. Your child’s bully? The rude, entitled kid you see at the local supermarket? Yep, they’re going to get Santa’s seal of approval too.
Threats of coal might scare kids today, apoplectic as they are at climate emergency, but it’s bullshit. We know it – and after a little while, so do our kids. We’re not going to be the parent who actually gives our kids coal on Christmas Day (and if you are, I’m both terrified of you and admire your willingness to deal with the trauma that will follow).
So, believing in the big man in the red suit is not our friend when it comes to discipline. But he could be something better – not a threat but an idea to help stoke our children’s imagination and empathy. If Santa exists, we can leave the goodwill to him. But if Santa is something we all create together, then it’s up to each of us to be Santa to each other. As philosopher David Kyle Johnson writes, “By tricking children into actually believing Santa exists we rob them of the opportunity to imagine he does.”
This is the real joy of Santa. He is, at the end of the day, a kind of play – make believe of the very best kind, full of magic, wonder and absurdity. Which is why it surprises me so much that we insist that it’s so important for our kids to believe there is a sophisticated global surveillance system run by a man with an actual, honest-to-goodness troop of reindeer who pull him across the globe with gifts for everyone.
Provided with the opportunity, most kids will play imaginary games based on even more absurd premises than this. They’ll dive into characters and worlds with clear rules and boundaries that they’ve created together, under no illusion that the world is real.
The play is no less significant because they know it’s not real. In some senses, it’s even greater for that fact – because the play then belongs to them. For children, something doesn’t have to be real to be special; it just has to be special.
Suddenly, we have a genuinely magic Santa. He isn’t bound by the rules of the story we’ve told before. He can be an alien, a man, a woman, a polar bear or a super scientist with purple hair. This Santa can bring us together as a family, driven to spread joy to each other because he’s not there to do it if we don’t.
We can have our cake and eat it too – all Santa, no lying. And if we all accepted this, we could also do away with one of the most common excuses not to tell our kids the truth – that they’ll spoil it for other kids. Tell the truth and the lie loses its power.
And the lie does have power. That’s why we hold on to it. It has disciplinary power, affording parents control over kids at approximately the same time of year that they’re exhausted and off-track. It has symbolic power, representing the lost innocence of our own childhoods. And it has relational power – the Santa story connects parents and kids together and thus, for some, represents an enormous betrayal when the jig is up.
Some of that power we need to let go of. We don’t need lies to discipline our kids, and we need to find other ways to reclaim the innocence and magic of our own childhoods, rather than living vicariously though our kids. The other power – building connection, joy, and holiday fun – can be better created and is more sustainable if it’s not grounded in a lie.
It’s possible, if we don’t wed ourselves so closely to the traditions we were raised in, to transform them into something radical. We can have Santa without the bullshit. And that might be an actual Christmas miracle.
• Matt Beard is an Australian moral philosopher, fellow at the Ethics Centre and a regular writer on philosophy and ethics