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coal

One of my essays in Parenting Beyond Belief (“The Ultimate Dry Run,” p. 87) argued that the Santa myth, in addition to being a hugely enjoyable and harmless fantasy, can serve as a dry run for thinking one’s way out of religious belief.

It’s hard to even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with continued coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood.

I offer as further evidence the following conversation between my son Connor — 12 years old and well post-Santa — and his sister Delaney, six, whose Santa-belief Connor has apparently decided must be kept alive at all costs. The setting is Grandma’s house on Krismas Eve for the Opening of the Early Presents:

GRANDMA: Oh, look, here’s another one: “To Delaney, from Santa!”

DELANEY: EEEEEE, he he hee! (*rustle rustle*) Omigosh, new PJs!! With puppy dogs!!

GRANDMA: Now, if they don’t fit, we can exchange them. I have the receipt.

DELANEY, with accusing eyebrows: What do you mean, you have the receipt? How could you have the receipt?

GRANDMA: Oh, I mean…well, Santa leaves the receipts with the gifts.

DELANEY, eyebrows still deployed: Uh huh.

CONNOR: Laney, be careful. If you don’t believe in Santa even for one minute, you’ll get coal in your stocking.

DELANEY: I don’t think so.

CONNOR: Well, you better not doubt him anyway, just in case it’s true!

DELANEY: I think Santa would care more that I was good than if I believe in him.

Holy cow. Didja catch all that? The whole history of religious discourse in 15 seconds. Reread it, changing Santa to God and get coal in your stocking to burn in Hell. For the finishing touch, replace Connor with Blaise Pascal and Delaney with Voltaire.

(P.S. The boy and I had a small chat after this. We don’t ban much in our house, but thoughtstoppers are definitely out. The Doctrine of Coal is as verboten as any other idea designed to squash honest doubts.)

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.