Sometime around twenty years ago when I was in my early twenties, I read a book called “Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed” by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. I can’t seem to put my hands on it now, but I remember the preface opened with a bit about Santa Claus. The author was wondering how parents can justify teaching their children to believe in Santa Claus even though they know that Santa isn’t literally true, he doesn’t exist in the same way that trees and rocks and dogs exist. I don’t remember if he used the words lie or lying, but the implication was certainly that parents, in telling their children about Santa, are lying to their children. That’s a common enough idea, but I think it is ultimately incorrect. Santa may not be literally true, but that doesn’t mean that parents who teach their children about Santa are lying.
Before really getting into it, I should state for the record that I have no moral objections to lying. I’m philosophically committed to the idea that lies are only good or bad in context and I believe that most lies are morally neutral. I don’t have the time or space to explain that reasoning here (maybe in another post sometime), but I want it to be clear that I’m not choosing this position to make myself feel better about lying to my child. I lie to my child all the time without qualms. All the time is a bit of an exaggeration, I’m actually a lousy liar, but I do lie to her and still sleep soundly at night. I’m only interested in this topic because I think calling Santa a lie is a mischaracterization which can hurt our ability to distinguish between truth and lies down the road.
Clearly, not every untruth is a lie. It would be absurd to call someone a liar if that person has simply made a mistake. It would be equally absurd to call someone a liar for being ignorant. A lie must be a specific kind of untruth. I had a professor at college who defined a lie as an intentional falsehood meant to cause somebody harm. While that would mean Santa isn’t a lie, I think it goes a little too far. Not all lies are harmful, nor are they all meant to do harm. I think a better definition of a lie is a falsehood intended to deceive.
With that definition, intention is key. Of course, that can be maddening because intention is notoriously hard to determine in many instances. But, I think we are relatively safe saying that a parent’s intention in telling kids about Santa is not to deceive. It is to pass on the spirit of Christmas or to bring joy or to make the holidays magical. Parents aren’t thinking, “Let’s trick those kids.” They are most likely thinking that Santa is a kid friendly way to express the meaning of the holiday. In essence, Santa Claus is a myth that we tell children.
Santa is certainly not the only myth we tell our children. They are everywhere from our religions and superstitions to our sports and societal norms. It would be weird to think that we are lying every time we pass on one of these myths. Would you call someone a liar for telling another person to knock wood or for telling a kid that she should wear a rally cap after the seventh inning if her team’s down? Would you call someone a liar for celebrating the 4th of July or Bastille Day? Rally caps and national holidays aren’t true in any strict sense of the term and most people know that. But they aren’t lies either. They are myths. They are stories we tell each other to bind communities or give our lives meaning.
Most people would rather not be liars. And most people would like to strengthen the bonds of family and community. Santa Claus is a way to strengthen families and communities without lying. He’s the perfect way to celebrate the holiday season.