Tuesday, November 9, 2010

(No) Miracle on 34th Street

Santa Claus doesn't make the cut for Edward Feser, as he explains in this post.

His post includes a type of argument I've always found perplexing, which we might call the argument from artificial distance:

I would urge them to stop. A child is completely dependent on his parents’ word for his knowledge of the world, of right and wrong, and of God and religious matters generally. He looks up to them as the closest thing he knows to an infallible authority. What must it do to a child’s spirit when he finds out that something his parents insisted was true – something not only important to him but integrally tied to his religion insofar as it is related to Christmas and his observance of it – was a lie? Especially if the parents repeated the lie over the course of several years, took pains to make it convincing (eating the cookies left out for “Santa” etc.), and (as some parents do) reassured the child of its truth after he first expressed doubts? How important, how comforting, it is for a child to be able to believe: Whatever other people do, Mom and Dad will never lie to me. How heartbreaking for him to find out he was wrong!

All of us, or virtually all of us, grew up believing in Santa Claus as small children. Yet Feser writes as though the experience of discovering the truth about Santa Claus is something about which we can only speculate - what must it do to a child's spirit? The artificial distance allows him to imply that all sorts of horrible things must happen, which aren't specifically spelled out, but are darkly hinted at. But if we remember that we ourselves believed in Santa Claus, and if we remember that time with fondness, and with gratitude to our parents for making the experience possible, then perhaps we will be forgiven for thinking that Feser's diabolical Santa Claus legend is more mythical than anything we believed as children.

There is a reason that the Santa Claus tradition has carried on and grown over the generations. It isn't because, despite being traumatized with it themselves as children, parents felt duty bound to inflict it on their children. It's because parents remember the whimsy and joy of their early years, of which Santa Claus was an integral part, and wish their children to share in a similar experience. Early childhood is a world of magic, innocence, whimsy and wonder; a time when cows jump over moons, boys climb beanstalks into the clouds, and fairy Godmothers turn pumpkins into carriages. The fairies even occasionally drop in on an ordinary child's life, as when they substitute a quarter for a tooth under your pillow.

In what sense is Santa Claus "false"? The practicalities involved with Santa Claus are so preposterous that any child, as soon as he approaches the age of reason, cannot but see the impossibilities. But then Santa Claus is not a creature of the age of reason; he is a creature of the age of imagination and wonder. When a child starts to leave the world of early childhood and reason begins to dawn in him, he will say goodbye to Santa Claus as an old friend whom he has outgrown; but one who will be remembered for communicating truths that can be learned in no other way. We love films like Miracle on 34th Street because they reintroduce us to our old friend, and to ourselves when we were innocent enough to believe in such things.

In one sense there certainly is a Santa Claus. Somebody is putting all those presents under a tree. It turns out that Santa Claus doesn't live on the North Pole, but in the room just down the hall. I don't remember being shocked or heartbroken when the truth about Santa Claus began to dawn on me; what I remember is it beginning to occur to me how unselfish my parents were. They had given me lavish gifts for years, but had gone out of their way to make sure they got no credit for it. Mom and Dad weren't lying; it was more like they were telling a long, wonderful practical joke, one they knew I would figure out eventually... and be forever grateful they played it.


Joshua said...

You know, I agree with the Profess or on a lot of things, but I really think his analytic philosopher streak has been overtaking his humanity lately. I mean, I read his Santa Claus post, then the first comment is a Chesterton quote:

"Personally, of course, I believe in Santa Claus; but it is the season
of forgiveness, and I will forgive others for not doing so."

And, there it is. If there is one failing about Prof. Feser, it's that I don't think he has a proper respect for the mythopoeic in his philosophy.

David T. said...

yes, sometimes I think it is possible to OD on the logic... if Santa Claus (St. Nick) doesn't count as good clean fun, what does?

Anonymous said...

In fact I agree with Feser. You don't have to lie to your kids to stimulate their imagination. Posts like this one include the strange notion that the "age of reason" is opposed to the "age of imagination and wonder." You only have to look at people like Chesterton, Tolkien, or Lewis to realize how mistaken this is. The proper role of myth is not that it be mistaken for literal reality.

David T. said...

Actually Santa Claus is just the sort of folk tradition Chesterton loved: