Monday, December 22, 2008

Yes, Jenny, There Is A Santa Claus

By: Jenny Bruce

I never believed in Santa Claus. There were no presents labeled "To Jenny, From Santa" under the tree. There was no plate of cookies and glass of milk set out on Christmas Eve. There was no listening for the pitter pat of reindeer hooves on the roof. No childlike faith. No awe and wonder. I knew about the historical Saint Nicholas and that I shouldn't ruin the traditions of any of my Santa believing friends. I also knew that I should give my Christmas lists directly to my parents. And that I should thank them for my presents. I have absolutely no regrets about growing up without Santa and I always figured I'd raise my hypothetical children the same way.

Tony Woodlief published an interesting article about this subject in the Wall Street Journal last week. In "OK, Virginia, There's No Santa Claus. But There Is God", Woodlief proposes that belief in Santa and other fairy tales may encourage the development of our faith:

"I suspect that fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale, the one Lewis believed was ingrained in our being. New research from the Université de Montréal and the University of Ottawa indicates that children aren't overly troubled upon learning that Santa is a myth. But the researchers remained puzzled because while children eventually abandon Santa, they keep believing in God. Lewis would say this is because God is real, but Mr. Dawkins fears it is the lasting damage of fairy tales. While Mr. Dawkins stands ironically alongside Puritans in his readiness to ban fairy tales, Christian apologists like Lewis and Chesterton embraced them, precisely because to embrace Christian dogma is to embrace the extrarational."

He continues:

"As a parent, I believe (with the older apologists) that it's essential to preserve a small, inviolate space in the heart of a child, a space where he is free to believe impossibilities. The fantasy writer George MacDonald -- author of "The Light Princess" and "The Golden Key" -- whom Lewis esteemed as one of his greatest inspirations, suggested that it is only by gazing through magic-tinted eyes that one can see God: "With his divine alchemy," MacDonald wrote, "he turns not only water into wine, but common things into radiant mysteries." The obfuscating spirit of the "commonplace," meanwhile, is "ever covering the deep and clouding the high."

This sheds light on a seeming paradox in St. Paul's letter to Roman Christians: "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. . . ." How does one see "invisible attributes"? Only people raised on fairy tales can make sense of that. It belongs in a terrain where magic glasses can illumine what was heretofore hidden, where rabbit holes open into wonderlands. No wonder some atheists like Mr. Dawkins want to kill Harry Potter."

While I see where Mr. Woodlief is coming from (and am a great fan of Lewis and Chesterton), I question if children need fairy tales to view the world with a sense of wonder and believe in the impossible. Can't we encourage this same worldview using things that are real? Watching the fantastically strange birds of Papua New Guinea on an episode of "Planet Earth" fills me with more awe than belief in the Tooth Fairy ever did (I'm still not quite sure how I managed to reject Santa, but firmly clung to belief in this magical woman throughout elementary school. Maybe it was because she gave me money.) Once I almost started crying as I drove home because the moon was breathtakingly big. I'm consistently enthralled by the fact that God gave us taste buds. And the more I understand about how the world works, the more I am dumbfounded by God's wisdom and creativity.

Children naturally think the world is a wondrous and magical place and I think we can encourage this belief by thoroughly enjoying and appreciating all that God has made. I love fairy tales, but wonder if they are as important as Mr. Woodlief (and Chesteron, Lewis, and McDonald) make them out to be.

What do you think? Are fairy tales/Santa Claus crucial to our faith development? Have they helped you grow in your faith? And what's your verdict on Santa?

As always, I covet your thoughts.


Andrew Faris said...

Good post, Jenny.

Where I may disagree is this: I am not sure how belief in fairy tales for children is harmful. I don't think you find many kids growing up into the teens clinging to the belief that these stories are actually true.

But where I think MacDonald, Chesterton, and Lewis have got it right is where they agree that fairy tales stoke the imagination. Though I suspect you're right that kids don't need as much of this from outside sources- they're imaginations already work that way.

My guess is that it is actually we adults who, even as Christians, find it too easy to slip into the dominant cultural naturalism, writing off supernatural explanations for little things as easily explainable from natural causes. Kids see the magic in the world around us. We call it science.

Of course, we shouldn't throw out reason, but you see my point I hope.


Jenny Bruce said...

Ugh. I meant Chesterton and MacDonald. Proofreading remains my Achilles heel.

I see your point, Andrew, and I do think fairy tales can prime the pump and help kids believe in things that naturalism deems impossible.

I wonder though, if there is a difference between leaving the option open and telling kids things that are false.

For instance, if a kid reads a story about aliens and asks if they really exist, I don't have a problem with saying that we don't know. Or a kid asks about the existence of fairies. I've never seen a fairy and there doesn't seem to be much evidence that they exist, but I could be wrong. In both cases, I think it's fair to leave the option open because we honestly don't know if fairies or aliens exist. And maybe that helps kids embrace the idea that things can exist outside the realm of what they can prove scientifically.

However, I don't quite see how telling kids that the presents you purchased are actually from Santa helps them with this worldview (although I think it can be a delightful family tradition and a fun part of childhood.) Because that option is not left open.

Eventually they find out that it was all pretend. And although kids don't seem to reject God once they've learned the truth about Santa, I'm not sure it's helpful in the same way that leaving the option open about fairies and aliens is helpful.

So perhaps I'm pro-fairy/anti-Santa.