The ontology of Santa Claus didn't impinge on my life until my son, Ari, was in kindergarten. Ari did not believe in Santa Claus. He was supposed to go to the zoo in early December with his friend Schuyler, and Schuyler's mother, Tammi, called me up and said she didn't want her son to go because there were reindeer there, and reindeer, she felt, would lead to a discussion of Santa Claus. Tammi's son, Schuyler, did believe in Santa Claus: He was still firmly a sweet child and not yet in sour and rebellious teenager territory, and she wanted him, at least for a while, to stay that way. So Tammi wanted to cancel the playdate to ensure that Ari would not tell her son, "There is no Santa — he's just your parents," and shake his belief.
I found this a troubling interaction because I thought Tammi was sacrificing her son's friendship with Ari, who was real, in order to preserve his relationship with Santa Claus, who was not.
W hy was I so sure he didn't exist? Not because I've never seen him — I've never seen Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli and she exists, or at least did as of this writing. And not because if I went to the North Pole, I wouldn't see him and his elves — just a lot of snow and ice and so forth — because there are any number of explanations that would square with that. Santa might emit a field from his beard that makes people miss him, the elves might have a machine that causes light to bend, or I could have met him and then been convinced by Mrs. Claus to undergo brain surgery that erased my memory. No, the real reason, I'm sure, is that nobody had ever told me he did, and belief in Santa Claus did not fit in with a number of other things I knew to be true — e.g., reindeer don't fly, toys come from the store, etc.
I told this story to my daughter and she said, "I believe in Santa Claus." I also asked her if she believed in the Easter bunny and she said, "Yes. I'm a kid, so I believe in everything."
I told this story to my wife, who is a psychologist raised in Communist Romania, and she said something along the lines of "American parents lie to their children about this stupidity, and then the children grow up and find out their parents lied to them. No wonder American children are screwed up."
I remained puzzled by Tammi's behavior. I could think of two possible solutions:
THE LIAR EXPLANATION
For some reason back in the past, American children were taught to believe in Santa Claus — probably because their parents thought it was a good way to scare them into being good. When the children grew up and stopped believing in Santa Claus, they decided it would be a good idea to trick their children into believing. So society is basically divided into two groups of people — the liars and the lied to. The liars have motivations ranging from the benevolent (parents presumably) to the self-interested (the sellers of Christmas merchandise, American politicians who want a national myth that will unite a nation of immigrants). Let's be blunt and call this the LIAR story.
I've observed evidence that the LIAR story is true. I work in Hollywood, which pumps a lot of images and stories out into the consciousness of the globe. When we were writing an episode of a television show called The Big Bang Theory, in which the character Sheldon kills Santa Claus in a Dungeons and Dragons game, one of the writers wanted to be sure that our story left the existence of Santa Claus open, because his kids were going to watch the show and they believed in Santa Claus. Of course, since he was a writer for a U.S. sitcom that is supported by commercials, his benevolent motivations for lying meshed with the less benevolent motivators of our advertisers.
THE CRAZY EXPLANATION
Another solution to the puzzle was that something in Tam- mi's mind is divided or dissociated. So, according to this theory, it's possible that a part of Tammi's mind does believe in Santa Claus. She doesn't talk about it when she talks to other adults, but when alone with her child, she believes. The part of Tammi that believes in Santa might not even be a part that has access to her mouth. So she might never say, "I believe in Santa Claus," but she is disposed to have dreams, fantasies, and feelings related to Saint Nick. As a consequence, she is uncomfortable with having her son lose faith in Santa Claus because some system in her brain believes too.
How can one person believe and not believe in Santa Claus? If you are a strong proponent of the conspiracy story, you may not believe this is the case — you might think that if she ever does confess to Santa belief, she is just lying. After all, she buys toys at the store — how can she honestly maintain they come down the chimney?
But people believe different things at different times and in different contexts. Let's imagine Tammi goes home and goes to bed. As she drifts off to sleep, she hears a voice in her head, one that sounds like her own. It says, "Santa does exist. I remember waiting for him to come. How do I know he didn't? Yes, part of me thinks he didn't come and never will, but why should I listen to that part?"
Tammi has a couple of different Tammis inside her. She has the Tammi who once believed in Santa but now buys toys from the store, and she has the Tammi who still does believe in Santa. This Tammi feels good when she thinks about Santa and angry when she thinks about Eric not believing in Santa. This Tammi can effortlessly respond to Santa images and Santa tele- vision shows and songs about Santa.
Tammi's self could be divided; she could be more than one of her Tammis at the same time — that is, she could have one voice in her head that says, "Of course Santa Claus does not exist," and another voice that says, "I hope he brings me some- thing good!" Or her self could be divided across time. That is, she could make fun of Santa Claus all year long until Christmas season and then talk during Christmas as if she does believe in the jolly old saint.
Since it invokes voices in the head, let us call this, uncharita- bly, the CRAZY explanation.
The LIAR and the CRAZY explanations are similar on a deep level because while LIAR appeals to dissociation on the interpersonal level, CRAZY appeals to dissociation on the intrapersonal level. Societies run by conspiracies built on lies are schizophrenic; crazy people lie to themselves.
In the CRAZY explanation, there is some kind of disunity within Tammi — there is a part of her that believes and a part that doesn't believe. In the LIAR explanation, there is a disunity in America — there is part that believes and part that doesn't believe. And in both, there is something sort of screwed up about the relationship among these parts. You can even switch the explanations. You can say that Tammi is lying to herself, or that America is a little crazy on the subject of Santa Claus.
Is the LIAR or the CRAZY explanation correct?