Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Santa's Lesson

I watched with amusement as my 6-year old rushed from her bed to the Christmas tree, and simply stood still; her hands folded, and her eye-brows intensely furrowed.

When asked why she wasn't opening her gift, she seemed upset, and barked, "Hmmpf. That's our wrapping paper. I saw it in the closet!"

Moments later, her 7-year old cousin rushed downstairs, picked up her gift, and began reading the accompanying letter that Santa had left her. "Hmm," she murmured, "this looks like my mom's handwriting!"

When her mom swung by shortly thereafter, she remarked, "Santa's handwriting is a lot like yours." That was the only possible explanation consistent with her beliefs, and empirical data.

I couldn't help but notice the striking parallels between the evolution of my daughter's belief in Santa, and my belief in God.

Mandatory disclaimer: My religious beliefs are hard to explain; especially, to myself. On Mondays, I am an atheist; on Tuesdays, I am Buddhist; on Wednesdays, I am agnostic; on Thursdays, I am born-again, etc.

When you are young, belief in Santa or God is imposed by authority, usually parents. The wider community perpetuates the myth by suppressing contradictory evidence. It is further encouraged by fun rituals and traditions (gifts, festivals, family and food), which plaster on a positive atmosphere around the whole shebang. Both involve prolonged singing and chanting.

Like God, Santa is opportunistically leveraged by those in power to regulate behavior. "Do you want to be on the good-list this year?" is but an age-appropriate translation of "Do you want to go to hell, mister?"

God and  Santa don't communicate directly, and even when they supposedly do, they are not particularly articulate ("Ho, ho, ho" anyone?).

Once you are old or wise enough, you begin noticing discrepancies in the narrative. "How does Santa fit inside our tiny chimney?", or perhaps "why does Santa's handwriting match my mom's?", or perhaps, as my sister's daughter once asked about a Hindu God, "do the four heads of Brahma talk to each other?"

As always, "that's funny!" is the prelude to "Eureka!"

When explanations to reconcile new data with existing beliefs start sounding too contrived, progress can be made by abandoning or revising beliefs to allow for simpler explanations.

If I were a betting man, I'd wager that the illusion of Santa would disappear before next Christmas, for both, my daughter, and my niece.

One part of me feels sad about Santa's impending transition from the real to the imaginary axis. The other part is thrilled in anticipation of this moment of metamorphosis.

The moment when they realize that they can throw away the crutch, and yet retain the spirit of Santa or God, to be merry, and do good.

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