It is the season when everyone in the movies and on television talks about believing—but what they really mean is pretending.
Belief is about committing yourself to someone or something. Pretending is about playing games and living in a fantasy world of make-believe.
Specifically, popular culture talks about believing in Santa Claus. Of course, nobody except little children really believes in Santa Claus. Yet we are supposed to all pretend to believe to keep children happy.
The idea goes back at least to an 8-year-old girl named Virginia who wrote to the New York Sun newspaper in 1897 to ask if there really was a Santa Claus, in the belief that if it was said in the newspaper, it must be true. The paper’s answer has become a Christmas classic, reprinted endlessly as a piece of immense wisdom.
The paper’s editorial response deftly avoided giving a direct answer to the question but implied that Santa Claus exists as surely as love, generosity, beauty, joy, childlike faith, poetry, romance, eternal light, and the “supernal beauty and glory” of “the unseen world” exist. Thus, Santa Claus became a pretend substitute for the Christian God, the source of all good things. It is interesting that the author of the Dear Virginia response was a man named Church.
And so that message has been repeated over and over again in popular literature. In the classic 1947 Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, a lawyer tries to prove in court that an old man is Santa Claus even though neither he nor anyone else really believes Santa Claus is real. In the end, the judge rules that the man is Santa Claus since the US Post Office delivers to him all the letters children have written to Santa Claus.
The 1994 remake is perhaps more disturbing. In that movie, the judge rules that since the US government asserts the existence of a mythical unseen being named God (since its currency states, “In God we trust”), then another unseen mythical being named Santa Claus could also exist. This movie thus reduces God to the status of a non-existent being that people only pretend to believe in.
This view is not that far from the view of modernist liberal theologians who do not really believe in the God of the Bible but who only pretend to in order to preserve necessary virtues such as faith, goodness, and love.
The thing is that if goodness and love are dependent on a pretend character, then they are only pretend virtues and they don’t really exist. Santa Claus is a fun fictional character; there is nothing wrong with telling stories about him, as long as we don’t try to invest him with unwarranted significance.
The harsh truth is that without the Christian God, there is no love or goodness or purpose. The myth of Santa Claus might inspire some present giving once a year but is a poor substitute for living a life of service to God and humanity.
In the more recent Santa Claus movies, the character played by Tim Allen talks about the importance of “believing” and states that without Santa Claus, there would be no Christmas. This is sentimental silliness and utter nonsense. It is not Santa Claus who delivers presents to children around the world who otherwise would not have any. It is people, many of them inspired by Christian faith, faith in a God who really exists. Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, an event of cosmic significance which was celebrated centuries before the invention of Santa Claus and which will be celebrated long after Santa Claus is forgotten.
In contrast to much other popular literature, the children’s author Dr. Seuss got it right. In his famous book How the Grinch Stole Christmas, an evil character steals all the cultural trappings of Christmas, the toys, presents, decorations and food—everything that Santa Claus represents—and it makes no difference at all since love and joy still exist. This is because love, joy and peace do not depend on a recently invented mythical figure named Santa Claus. They depend on the reality of the eternal God who created the universe.