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Nathan Schlueter on a Disputation in the Scholastic Tradition
Fifth Article: Whether the Practice of the Santa Claus Tradition is Permissible according to the Christian Faith? We proceed thus to the Fifth Article:
Objection 1: It would seem that the practice of the Santa Claus tradition is not permitted by the Christian faith, insofar as pretending to your children that Santa Claus enters your home in some supernatural way, and gives presents, involves lying to your children. Lying, or “to tell a falsehood in order to deceive” ( Summa Theologica [ ST], II-II, q110, a1), is contrary to God’s commandment “Do not lie” (Lev. 19:11). As Scripture says, God will “destroy all who speak falsehood” (Psalm 5:6), and the devil is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Accordingly, the Catechism states that “by its very nature lying is to be condemned” ( Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2485).
Objection 2: Further, the consequence of lying to children about Santa Claus will be that children will lose trust in their parents when they discover the truth, and that they will become cynical and skeptical about the truly miraculous and supernatural.
Objection 3: Further, even if practiced for the benefit of children, this practice would not be without sin. For as St. Augustine states, even beneficial lies are sinful: “There are two kinds of lie, that are not grievously sinful yet are not devoid of sin, when we lie either in joking, or for the sake of our neighbor’s good” ( ST, II-II, q110, a4).
Objection 4: Further, the Sub-creator (J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories[ OFS]) distinguishes between Fantasy, or the creation of a Secondary World possessing the inner consistency of reality, and Magic, which “produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World” for the sake of power and the “domination of things and wills.” But the practice of the Santa Claus tradition involves the pretended alteration of the Primary World and therefore is like Magic rather than Fantasy. Magic, especially when it is associated with religious practice, is a potential source of confusion in the faith and is possibly even idolatrous.
Objection 5: Further, even if the practice of the Santa Claus tradition is Fantasy rather than Magic, Fantasy is contrary to the Gospel. For Christ alone is the Truth (John 14:6) which sets us free (John 8:32), while Fantasy, Fable, and Myth are rooted in falsehood and paganism, which Christ came to expose and extirpate.
Objection 6: Further, the contemporary practice of the Santa Claus tradition is a secularized substitute for the real meaning of Christmas and thus furthers secularization and consumerism.
Objection 7: Further, even if Fantasy is consonant with the Gospel, the practice of the Santa Claus tradition is contrary to the Gospel. For Fantasy involves the willing suspension of disbelief, in which the hearers of the story know and understand the story to be merely a story, whereas in the practice of the Santa Claus tradition children are being led to believe the story is true, and thus are being intentionally deceived by a deliberate falsehood. That is, they are being lied to, which as stated above, is wrong.On the Contrary
On the contrary, the Apostle states (1 Cor. 9:22–23), “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it for the sake of the Gospel, that I might share in its blessings.” But becoming all things to all men means sometimes appearing to be what one is not, as the Apostle claims to do in the preceding remarks: “to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law.”
For the same reason, the Apostle circumcises Timothy for the sake of the Jews (Acts 16), which would appear to be contrary to the Virtue of Truth. But St. Paul does this for the sake of the Gospel. Therefore not every act of falsehood is a lie.
I answer that, communication, as its etymology suggests (Latin communicare: to share), has as its natural end the sharing in truth of two or more persons. For communication to be effective, the subject being communicated must be presented in a way that is suitable to the mode of the receiver, as is written elsewhere: “The thing is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver” ( ST, I, q84, a1; II-II, q1, a2).
Now God designed the human intellect to understand not perfectly, in one simple act of apprehension, as with the angelic intellect ( ST, I, q85, a1), but imperfectly and discursively, as mediated through corporeal powers and by the use of phantasms. Phantasm is a word derived from the Latin phantasma, meaning “image” or “appearance.” (It is also the root of the word “Fantasy.”) It is the nature of an image that it is in some respects false and in some respects true, as when Jesus says, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1), by which he does not mean that he is essentially a vegetative being, but that he is the true source of life and spiritual nourishment for his Body, the Church. It follows that the human capacity to know and communicate truth depends upon the power of the imagination.
Now “God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature” ( ST, I, q1, a9), as was written above. Therefore, in his divine pedagogy of salvation, God has often condescended to the human intellect, making use of figures, parables, and the events of history itself to better disclose to human beings the reality of his Nature and to better prepare them to accept that reality.
The Apostles and Church Fathers imitated this pedagogy when proclaiming the Gospel, in what came to be known as the principle of dispensatio, or “economy.” Clement of Alexandria ( Stromateis, vii, 9) was expressing a sentiment shared by Origen, John Chrysostom, and Jerome when he praised the man who “both thinks and speaks the truth, except when careful treatment is necessary, and then, as a physician for the good of his patients, he may deceive or tell an untruth, as the Sophists say.” By “untruth” Clement did not mean telling moral and metaphysical untruths, but imaginative and figurative ones.
Therefore Not a Lie
Therefore, the practice of the Santa Claus tradition is not a lie for two related reasons: First, it constitutes imaginative action that conveys metaphysical truths; second, its intention is not deception, or to lead children into error, but to give them a deeper apprehension of the truth. This it does in three important ways: First, it provides an opportunity to teach children spiritual truths of the faith such as the Communion of Saints, the Church Triumphant, and so forth.
Second, it helps cultivate those imaginative powers in children upon which the depth and richness of human knowledge depend, such as a sense of mystery and wonder, and therefore makes them more receptive to the supernatural mysteries of the faith. Finally, it helps instill in them the moral lesson of selfless giving. Just as St. Nicholas of Myra (Santa Claus) gave gifts in secret, so too, may parents give gifts secretly to their children. Nor is it presumptuous to assume that St. Nicholas approves of this custom of giving secret gifts in his name.
Reply to Obj. 1: The practice of the Santa Claus tradition is not lying, as stated above.
Reply to Obj. 2: When the Santa Claus tradition is practiced within the full context of the Christmas celebration, there is no danger of distrust or cynicism. To the contrary, a failure to cultivate children’s imaginations with Fantasy makes them vulnerable to scientism and rationalism, and damages their ability to appreciate the mysteries of the faith. As stated above, in the practice of the Santa Claus tradition, children are given a concrete experience of mystery, wonder, and happiness, which in some sense is a participation in and preparation for the mysteries of the faith.
As the Wit says (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy), “The test of all happiness is gratitude. . . . Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs?” Just so, children who discover the deeper reality of the Santa Claus tradition are grateful to their parents for the sense of wonder and mystery that nourishes their faith, and they see in the care and attention of their parents for their happiness the ways of the Divine Father.
Reply to Obj. 3: As stated earlier, the practice of Santa Claus is not a lie for the benefit of another, and therefore the objection fails.
Fantasy, Not Magic
Reply to Obj. 4: The practice of the Santa Claus tradition is more like Fantasy than Magic. Unlike Magic, the practice of the Santa Claus tradition does not desire “ power in this world,” nor “domination of things and wills.” Rather, like Fantasy, it seeks to instill Secondary Belief in a Secondary World. Nor does Fantasy require that its Secondary World be completely separate from the Primary World.
As the Sub-creator (Tolkien, OFS) has written, “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It [i.e., a successful Fantasy] is not only a consolation for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to the question, ‘is it true?’” Similarly, the “Gospels contain a fairy-story . . . but this story has entered History and the Primary World.”
Reply to Obj. 5: According to the Sub-creator ( OFS), “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of the Maker.” Therefore, Fantasy “is not a disease at all, though it may, like all human things, become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is the disease of the mind.”
Further, “Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them” ( OFS). Similarly, the Wit (Chesterton, Orthodoxy) calls fairy tales “entirely reasonable things.” “Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense.”
Accordingly, the Church has never rejected what is true and holy in Fantasy, Fable, and Myth. Instead, as with other spiritual qualities and cultural endowments, “with supernatural riches it causes them to blossom, as it were, from within; it fortifies, completes, and restores them in Christ” ( Gaudium et Spes, 58).
Reply to Obj. 6: As stated earlier, the Santa Claus tradition is rooted in the Christian practice of celebrating and commemorating the fourth-century saint, Nicholas of Myra. While it is true that the modern practice of the Santa Claus tradition furthers consumerism and obscures the meaning of Christmas, Christians need not abandon religious practices because they have been usurped by secularization. To the contrary, the recovery and purification of this tradition of Santa Claus, who is best remembered for his life of selfless (and anonymous) giving, can be a powerful means of combating both consumerism and secularism and restoring Christian culture.
Reply to Obj. 7: Fantasy does not require the willing suspension of disbelief. On the contrary, the Sub-creator ( OFS) writes that it is “essential to a genuine fairy-story [i.e., Fantasy], as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as ‘true’. . . . The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.” For this reason, he calls the willing suspension of disbelief “a somewhat tired, shabby, or sentimental state of mind.” Nor does this aspect of Fantasy make it a lie, for the reasons stated above.
Nathan Schlueter is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he lives with his wife and six children. He is currently writing a book entitled Utopian Fiction: Recovering the Political Science of the Imagination. His latest book, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry (ISI Books), will be out this spring.