Among the Intellectualoids

The Gift Delusion

This Christmas season lie to your children.

By 12.21.09

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What kind of Grinch would recommend parents tell their toddlers that Santa Claus isn't real? If you guessed a liberal arts professor at a prestigious east coast college, give yourself a grade-inflated A plus.

What is it with academics? Don't they ruin enough of childhood with their dull lectures and reams of homework without trying to do in Christmas too? Is there no end to their sadistic need to spoil everything? Prof. David Kyle Johnson thinks not. Johnson, associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is author of a recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun in which he advises parents to stop perpetuating the terrible lie of jolly old Saint Nick.

Perhaps I am dating myself, but I am old enough to remember a time when associate professors of philosophy would write about Kant's categorical imperative and Descartes' ontological argument, and not the "Shocking Truth about Kris Kringle."

According to Prof. Johnson, perpetuating the lie of Santa Claus is immoral, sort of like Holocaust denial or voting Republican. You have to wonder if Prof. Johnson has any children. If he had, he'd know that parents lie to their kids all the time. Lying is essential to building healthy family relationships. Without some degree of deception, civilization as we know it would collapse in upon itself like an intergalactic black hole, and homo sapiens would revert to savages. Honest savages, but savages, nonetheless. 

What mother hasn't lied to her children when confronted with the following question:

"Mommy, who do you love best, Timmy or me?"

"I love all my children the same."

 I suppose Prof. Johnson would have mothers speak the bitter, unvarnished truth:

"Why I love Timmy the best, silly. And then I love Susie next. In fact, you're my least favorite of all my children, now quit bothering mommy, you whiny little freak."

Prof. Johnson has stores of recollections of "finding out the truth about Santa, and many were stories of genuine embarrassment and resentment." (Trust me, Professor, you don't want to find out the truth about Santa. It would make your head explode.) Johnson suggests that whenever the topic of Christmas comes up, enlightened, post-Santa children should tell their little playmates: "At our house, Santa is just pretend." Yippee, let's all go over the Johnson house on Christmas Eve and wrap ourselves in a wet blanket.

OF COURSE, WHAT is really bending Prof. Johnson's whistle is the idea that so many Americans believe in so many patently absurd things. What's needed, then, are more skeptics, and the first step to raising a skeptical generation is to bust the myth of Santa. Once that domino falls, down will come belief in ghosts and God and Sarah Palin's qualifications for the presidency. As the father of a monosyllabic sixteen-year-old boy, I can tell you that raising nihilistic, cynical, skeptical kids is not the problem. Getting them to believe in something -- like speed limits or proper hygiene -- is the struggle.

I have a confession to make. I myself was a victim of the "Santa Lie." My parents allowed me to think that the presents I received on Christmas morning came not out of their own meager savings, but from some stranger who lived among dwarves on an ice sheet somewhere in the Arctic Ocean. I bought it, of course. I believed that reindeer could fly, that Santa could fit all those presents into one tiny sleigh, that he visited every home in the world in a single night. Then, one day, a week before Christmas, my older brother took me aside. "Look, it's about time you knew the truth," he said. "You're 18 years old, for Chrisake." It has taken years of therapy, and even now my therapist says I will never be completely cured (how else will he pay for his Mercedes luxury sport-utility hybrid?), but today I am happy to report that I can walk past a sidewalk Santa without wetting my pants. Well, no more than usual. I am middle-aged, you know.

I suppose there is a chance that Prof. Johnson was writing with his tongue in cheek. But that would suggest that he has a sense of humor, and based on my careful examination of his piece in the Sun, that seems unlikely.

Since I am at least as qualified to dish out child-rearing advice as an associate professor of philosophy, I would like to recommend a radically different approach: this Christmas celebrate the birth of our Lord by keeping up the charade. Lie to your children. Sure, when they learn the truth they may suffer a temporary twinge of embarrassment, but they will survive it, long enough, at least, to lie to their own children.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.