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During the pandemic lock-down I needed something to lift my spirits and went to my go-to place of childhood happiness — Santa Claus. As a mom and child rights policy chair with an international group of human rights scholars, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what he really represents and whether children should believe in him. The result has been my attempt to create a social movement advocating for The Santa Spirit, which is the spirit of joy and loving-kindness that anyone can share with everyone.
Are you rolling your eyes yet? Santa is just a children’s topic, or so I am told by adults who think me daft for studying what he means in contemporary society. Chances are that you have already half-checked out of reading the rest of this article. This is probably because you naively assume that Santa is silly, childish, and not worthy of serious adult contemplation. But this is what I mean. Santa, like children, isn’t an insignificant topic at all. It’s time to consider him in his larger social context. Santa Claus was created by adults to fulfill adult agendas. Children are just bit-players in a much larger performance of adults who are using a socially constructed figure, Santa, to manipulate a whole series of agendas that are designed for adult benefit. Santa, dear readers, is a politicized figure, make no mistake about it.
The original Santa character (of which there were many contributing figures) emerged during winter solstice celebrations to bond the community together to survive when cold weather and darkness prevailed and food sources became scarce. This period brought families and neighbors together to share food, sing, exchange information, and sometimes give little gifts that helped nurture joy and hope. Candles, stars, greenery and lights all inspired forward-looking community spirit. Celebrations often showcased elders who embodied goodness, kindness, and wisdom.
It didn’t take long for political officials, religious leaders, and business entrepreneurs to see the benefit of repurposing Santa figures for their own purposes. Santa gets used all the time when adults find trotting him out, or excluding him, will be to their advantage. Government leaders in ancient Rome co-opted pagan holidays and the appeal of Santa figures to promote their own political intentions. Almost two thousand year later, “Honest Abe” Lincoln used Santa as a form of psychological warfare during the American Civil War to have Santa side with the North and turn his back on Confederate children. Recruitment of Santa to promote NORAD’s expansion to fight foreign intruders like the Soviet Union is real but seldom discussed. This year there was an attempt by the Trump administration to give the first coronavirus vaccines to mall Santas, who were deemed essential workers, if they would just use their positions as Santa to advocate for everyone to take the forthcoming, and sometimes controversial, vaccines. A secular figure, Santa has also become the target of attack by people of different religions. Some argue that the letters in SANTA really stand for SATAN. Others refute him because “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Some don’t want children exposed to Santa because they could be indoctrinated to adopt values or views that adults don’t want them to have. A number of politically correct parents aren’t sure if letting children believe in Santa is respectful of people who have different faiths.
And of course, there is Santa’s contribution to the growth of big business. Coca Cola is known for creating lush pictures of a Santa who is kind and jolly. But they aren’t the only one. Over the years Santa has hawked cigarettes, alcohol, jewelry, computers, electronics, cars, and things no elf could possibly make. While once Santa figures only tucked a few home-made or simple items into children’s stockings or shoes, now he is expected to bring children massive amounts of expensive gifts. Financially-strapped families often choose to tell their children Santa isn’t real because they simply can’t afford him to come.
Santa, in fact, has become a sneaky tool to groom little people into big consumers of materialism. But it’s not just that. He has become a vehicle to perpetuate class divisions. Why is it that rich children get acknowledged by Santa, but poor ones often get forgotten? Rich=presents=nice, poor=no-gifts=naughty: think about that symbolic message for children. Bless the thousands of civic workers who go out of their way each year to collect toys, clothes, and food to deliver to poor children to off-set economic disparities and show children that Santa DOES care about them.
In fact, Santa has long been used by parents as a means of social control. The question of who is “naughty or nice” is wrapped up in the Santa story. Children are told Santa won’t come if you are bad; Santa only visits good children. We want children to display good behavior — how they best learn that is the question. Few people are good all the time; everyone makes mistakes and there can be benefits to sometimes being naughty if we can learn from them. (The creepy Elf on the Shelf is a child version of Big Brother who is always watching their every action.)
Whoever controls the mind of the child controls the future. How we have children think about Santa is far more than idle play. Santa is a symbolic, transitional figure that sets the stage for later, larger, long-term thinking patterns. Jolly, fun Santa is used to manipulate children’s minds. From reviewing years of data, it is clear that there are more benefits for believing in Santa as a spirit of goodness than the bringer of gifts. Believing in Santa can encourage children to use their imaginations and creativity, which will serve them well in life later on. Wrestling with the question on whether Santa is real inspires critical thinking as well as an appreciation of science. It can help them to consider whether two things can be real at the same time. Santa helps unite families as they prepare for his arrival. Discovering the joy and the importance of generosity are universally appreciated as positive values. But it all depends upon how Santa is portrayed.
Inherent in the Santa story is the debate between what is real, what children should know, expect, or believe. As sociologist W. I. Thomas noted, whatever we believe is real will become real in its consequences. 2020 has been a tough year, full of violence, racism, conflict, and adult attempts to manipulate reality as we are supposed to view it. We are in a dark and challenging December holiday season, no matter how you celebrate it – or don’t. It is my feeling that we, like Santa, are standing at a fork in the road where we get to choose which path to take that will inevitably influence how the future for children is going to evolve.
We have the opportunity at this point in history to transform Santa into an inclusive, diverse spirit of loving-kindness that anyone and everyone can share with others. Children are young only for a short time but what they learn lasts a lifetime and gets transmitted to new generations. Adults have the opportunity to transform Santa for the benefit of all children’s well-being by laying a foundation for altruism, generosity, tolerance, and respect.
What we need to consider is what we want Santa Claus to be in the lives of children. How can we re-create him to be inclusive, diverse, and respectful of everyone? It’s time to stop portraying Santa just as male, white, European, Christian, and elderly; while he could be those things, history as I read it indicates the figures who were his prototype were also female, nonwhite, not necessarily old in age, and neither European nor from any particular religious background. But they were all kind, especially when it came to supporting children’s wellbeing. Santas were generous, wise, brave, thoughtful, and knew how to laugh and be good neighbors to one another. They represented positive values that we hope our children will embody.
Re-imagining and transforming Santa Claus into a spirit of loving-kindness is within our control. It would go a long way towards healing the nation. Santa can help bond us together, just as he was created to do back in the days of old. The importance of loving-kindness is timeless, and we need it now more than ever.
A version of this post was originally published by the author on Medium.
Yvonne M. Vissing is the Founding Director of the Center of Childhood and Youth Studies and Professor of Health Studies at Salem State University. For more information on the evolution of Santa Claus, see her Re-Imagine Santa book on Amazon or at santalove.org.