A friend (who shall remain nameless) sent a link to an article after we had several discussions this season about Christmas and Santa (yes we both have kids).  If you still believe (or find the whole discussion about the issue(s) tedious) then come back tomorrow.  I hate reading blog posts and articles like this, and can’t believe I wrote one, but when ideas get stuck in my head they need some way to get out or my head will explode.

I read New Scientist (used to subscribe) so an article from them is usually worth checking out – even if it is titled “The Santa delusion, is it harmless fantasy or cruel deception.”

The article contains the typical arguments over the psychological impact of the moment a child learns the “truth” about Santa (typically between 6-10) – nothing really new here except more assertions that kids who find out the latest in life can have the biggest impacts.

The part that kept/keeps me thinking is the whole social/economic angle of how the “American Santa” has differed from other International renditions.  I remember working in retail how fierce and heated the marketing was during the holiday season was – it really bugged me, to tell the truth.  In many ways the health of the nation’s economy will be judged by how well retailers did around Christmas. So it is almost “anti-American” to discuss this, and I know it verges on a “conspiracy theory”, but could Santa have been adapted over time for this purpose (at least for the sake of argument)?

The article’s premise is built on the words of John Kremer on the work of George Homans …

… who argued decades ago that all social relationships are based on reciprocity and the balancing of rewards and cost. This is starkly revealed at Christmas, says Kremer. Each gift must be carefully matched in value with another, each card must be met with a card, or you risk embarrassment or worse. ‘Children find themselves in this intricate web of exchange without the necessary social skills, nor indeed the resources, to become active participants.’

Santa is the perfect solution. “Because Santa gives presents to children but expects nothing in return, he protects them from the minefield of social exchange known as Christmas,” Kremer says. “This allows children to learn the ropes of gift-giving, without having to play an active role.”

Who hasn’t felt awkward at one time or another at Christmas when giving/getting a gift that is clearly of a different value than the one going the other way?  Did you ever, as a child of course, “do the math” to figure out if your brother/sister did equally well at Christmas? How many times are identical gifts purchased for siblings to make the fairness completely obvious.  I think the “reciprocity and balancing of rewards and cost” is an accurate (if simplistic) description of many social relationships.

From a cultural outsider looking critically inward to American Christmas traditions, it looks like capitalism run amok.  So how do people across the country arrive at this strange belief that they must buy equal or better gifts for a variety of people once a year – even when doing so can break budgets and max-out credit cards?  Enter Santa.  For a period of their lives (i.e. the pre-income-earning stage) they will be on the receiving end of significant gifts from a mysterious and magical person who expects nothing in return.  Then at the appropriate age the myth will be revealed and you enter into the true capitalistic social system of “reciprocity and balancing”.  In short you have been initiated into a “materialistic culture”.

The author’s recommendation? “You could resist the tide of commercialism and limit Santa’s gifts to the traditional orange and sweets in a stocking. Trouble is, it may not bring you much in the way of peace and goodwill.”

And that then is the issue.  Even if it is sad that many social relationships are built on the “reciprocity and balancing of rewards and cost” it is still very true – you will have more/better friends if you buy them more/better presents – and you will look really “cheap” if you give a nice big orange and candy cane to everyone.  Also, if too many people opted-out of the clearly commercial segment of the holidays, our country would probably fall into an economic recession or worse. 

Surely there is room for generosity and giving around Christmastime.  But how do we keep our kids (and ourselves) focused on the act of giving without the expectation of something in return.  I’ve seen the look of disappointment in my own kids eyes when surveying their presents, so I know I’ve passed on some of this to them (I know I have it in me). But I’ve also seen the joy in their eyes when giving and serving other people.  The later is what I want to focus on bringing out in years to come as it sure reflects better the true meaning of Christmas.

Man that got long …. um, Merry Christmas

Cognitive Edge: The Santa Delusion