Christmas Eve and the Outing of Santa Claus

Enough already about the war against Christmas. What about the war against Santa Claus? From the chic precincts of the Internet to the tony classrooms where progressive thought also rules, the ruthless conviction spreads from one enlightened adult to another: Santa has got to go. Never mind that most children like him just as he is. The jolly old enabler is living a lie. He needs intervention.

In part, of course, such nobly felt truth-telling is more fallout from a confessional age that believes in little else. Whatever adults do, many today seem to think, is fine if the more important criterion is met: i.e., that they are “honest” with the children about it. It’s what you might call the junior version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Don’t ask whether something is wrong in itself. Do tell all about it, especially to the kids. This climate is one reason why the jolly old elf is on the chopping block.

In larger part, however, the “Down with Santa” movement is a stalking horse for unbelief – and for good reason. St. Nick, many of his detractors suspect, is really just a starter kit for God. In this, they are right. The human longing behind children’s eyes every Christmas Eve is indeed the selfsame one that helps sustain religious belief. For most children, that anticipation – not the material payoff – is the most powerful emotion of the season.

After all, who remembers Christmas day as clearly as the excruciatingly long, exciting minutes the night before? Not the children in our house, or yours. Every year on this night, they and millions more demonstrate something that secular people either ignore or deny: we humans are obviously built from the ground up for anticipation, for longing that outstrips our needs, for belief in things we cannot see.

That is why Christmas Eve lives so sharply in our memories. Christmas mornings are by comparison an indistinct blur, at least the early morning gifting part. But Christmas Eve is something else again. In my memory, those nights burn through time like the peepholes I would melt with my fingers into the frosty pane on such nights, waiting and watching in the dark like everyone else for something momentous about to come.

This capacity from childhood on for boundless anticipation is surely one of the oddest things not only about children, but about humanity. This is a fact that evolutionary biology even at its most contortionist cannot begin to explain. What possible Darwinian good can come of this inborn deep yearning, this certainty that something huge lies ahead? How can so many possibly think this way when there’s nothing to it?

In his bold new book, Life After Death: The Evidence, my friend Dinesh D’Souza meditates beautifully on this point among others. Both this book and its predecessor, What’s So Great About Christianity, show that D’Souza has become one of the sharpest and liveliest Christian apologists writing today. And though he appeals to all readers, his great gift for clear prose make D’Souza’s books a natural choice for one group of readers in particular: young adults, especially college students. I personally have given his books as gifts to several such enthusiasts over the years – and will again this Christmas.

Life after Death addresses inter alia this point about the enduring hunger in us for great things to come: “The universality of belief in an afterlife is astonishing, because life after death is not one of those empirically obvious beliefs that one would expect every society from the dawn of mankind to share. No one is surprised at the universal belief in mountains or rainstorms or animals. . . .But it is an entirely different matter when all cultures in history right down to the present jointly proclaim a proposition that seems impossible to confirm through experience. This is a striking convergence of views that demands explanation.”

Indeed it does, but don’t expect the God-bashers to offer one. They insist that this promise of eternity is just an imagined consolation prize – the ultimate wish fulfillment, as Freud and others have said. But one hardly needs heavy artillery to see how easily this notion shreds under scrutiny. This religion of ours was made up to be comforting? Have these people even read the Testaments, Old or New, or contemplated the Judeo-Christian God? If such is the stuff of mere wish fulfillment, we should follow the lead of clever children and ask for more wishes.

Which brings us to the third force propelling that related matter of Santa-bashing. At a time when many people want to claim the right to act as children, the prerogatives of real children to do so is strangely shaky – as in the semi-sadistic “I’m telling you the truth about this Christmas nonsense for your own good.”

There may be good reasons for believers to jettison the old gent in the red suit. Some believers, notably some evangelicals, complain that he distracts too much from the main event. And even those of us partial to Santa seem to struggle every year to remember that Christmas is not about him.

But waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve shows, year in and year out, that belief in something larger than ourselves – something unknown yet worth waiting for as we wait for nothing else – comes as naturally as breathing, even to the smallest human beings. Every year, thanks to Santa, we mothers and fathers glimpse in those bright longing eyes something of the promise of eternity, the certainty that there is more to this world than is dreamt of in our secular philosophy. If that is not a little Christmas miracle all its own, I don’t know what is.

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and holds the Panula Chair at the Catholic Information Center. Her most recent book is Adam and Eve after the Pill, Revisited, with a Foreword by Cardinal George Pell.