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Shelby Caruso

RELS 2600
Final Paper

As children we were told the Santa Claus was a real man living in the North Pole who

spent all year making sure we were listening to our parents and earning our coveted spot on the

“Nice List.” What we didn’t know was that this was all a lie. It is a manipulation tactic created

by parents to make children fear a lump of coal instead of an Easy Bake Oven. This lie can be

unpacked using the works of Sigmund Freud and Clifford Gertz. Through Methodological

Atheism Santa Claus can be viewed from a different lens.

Methodological Atheism is the studying religion from the viewpoint that what the

believer thinks exists, does not. It attempts to provide an unbiased view to belief systems. What

it does not take in to account is that Atheism, is a point of view and does still give the observer

some bias. With studying Santa Clause and trying to find the reasons why parents lie to children

and why the artifice of Santa Claus continues to exist in the minds of children. Applying

Methodological Atheism to the belief in Santa Claus is less complex than applying it to the study

of religion as a whole. Santa Claus is less complex than the belief in God or other deities. Every

child in the United States believed in Santa Clause at one point in his/her life. As adults studying

Santa Claus and the reason why lies about Santa are passed down from generation to generation.

It is easy to take a Methodological approach to the topic because the belief in Santa Claus does

not exist.

For a child Santa Claus is very real just as is God to Christians. By viewing children as believers

and using Methodological Atheism, a different viewpoint emerges. Methodological Atheism can

be used to explain to someone who views the tradition of Santa Claus as negative in a way that
removes the scholar from the beliefs. It is difficult to question religion when you are discussing it

with someone who believes deeply. I do not think that this can be studied from a neutral

standpoint since many Americans did believe in Santa Claus at one point. In the bulletin that

discusses Religious Studies and Methodological Atheism

The belief in Santa Claus is detrimental to children because it immediately sets them up

to be let down. Children usually believe in Santa before they form a real belief in a deity. Parents

who want their children to worship something should not teach them about an all loving man

who gives them gifts and then tell them he is not real. Santa Claus could be considered a

placeholder or an introduction to believing in something greater than one’s self. Before children

learn about the almighty God the Father, they learn about Santa Claus. Sigmund Freud says, “As

we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for

protection for protection through love which was provided by the father; and the recognition that

this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but

this time a more powerful one1,” Santa Claus fits into Freud’s relation to the father idea. Santa

Claus is an old man who provides joy and who is all loving and all knowing. Santa Claus also

has another side though. Parents use Santa Claus as a manipulation tool and threaten their

children if they do not comply. The tactic they use if the “Naughty and Nice list,” If children

behave badly then they end up on the “Naughty List” and receive coal in their stockings instead

of toys and candy. Santa is said to always be watching and to quote a popular song, “he sees

when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.” This sounds like the all-knowing father

figure people crave in their life. Parents lie to their children because it benefits them. They can

use Santa Claus as a tool for manipulating children into doing good things. So not only are

1 Daniel Pals, Introducing Religion, 84

parents lying to their children they are using Santa Claus as a tool for manipulation, which makes

it worse.

Clifford Gertz studied the Zande people in Africa. He was the first anthropologist to

actually spend time with the people that were being studied. He believed that cultural inquiry

must begin in the field and that theorists needed to encounter another culture and community

outside of their own. Gertz says about religion that,

Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, persuasive, and long lasting
moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and
clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem
uniquely realistic2.

This quote could also describe a child’s belief in Santa Claus instead of describing

religious beliefs. Santa Claus has a system of symbols, which establish power, for example his

Naughty and Nice List directly manipulates how a child acts throughout the year. There are

songs, which also warn children that Santa is always watching them, even when they are

sleeping. There is also an aura of factuality surrounding Santa Claus. Parents leave out cookies

and milk for him to eat on Christmas Eve. This is not only solidifying that he is real but it also

makes the child believe that his/her parents believe that this man is real. Today, there are kits to

replicate his boot tracks in the snow or Rudolph’s hoof prints. This solidifies in the children’s

minds that Santa is real.

Santa Claus is a manipulative tradition that sets children up for failure. Children who are

told Santa Claus does not exist may approach religion with uncertainty because they were lied to

at a young age. This may be an extreme example but Santa Claus and America’s obsession with

Santa and the symbols that surround him mimic religion in many ways.

2 Daniel Pals, Introducing Religion, 349


Pals, Daniel L. Introducing Religion. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.