The Santa myth: A joyful act of confirmation bias

The Santa myth: A joyful act of confirmation bias
by Ferre WOUTERS for FactCheckNI
21 December 2018

At FactCheckNI we are interested in facts. Through the training we deliver, we also come face-to-face with many of the beliefs people hold dear. Here we unpack one of the most cherished beliefs, and show how even fact checkers can engage with a little bit of magic …

Where did “Santa Claus” come from?

So where did “Santa Claus”/ “Santa”/ “Father Christmas” come from? The legend may have begun in the Lowlands, where every year, Sinterklaas, an old man with a long white beard wearing a red robe and mitre, holding a golden crosier, delivers presents to good children the night before 6th of December. He and his horse walk over the roofs of the houses, accompanied by his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who enters the houses through the chimney. Once inside, Piet finds the shoes of the children living there sitting alongside a carrot that has been left to feed Sinterklaas’ horse, and a bottle of beer for himself. Piet takes the carrot and beer, replacing them with sweets and toys.

FactCheckNI 20181221 - Santa - Dag Sinterklaas.jpg

Image source: https://www.ketnet.be/programma/dag-sinterklaas

If you think this story sounds very similar to that of Santa Claus, you are not far from the truth. “Santa Claus” is the English adaptation of the Dutch name “Sinterklaas”, which is based on Saint Nicholas, a 2nd century Christian bishop and the patron saint of children. In Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), Sinterklaas is still much more popular than the Americanised “Santa”.

During the 18th century, Sinterklaas’ name was changed by New York newspapers reporting on the holiday celebrated by Dutch immigrants. Different misspellings of Sinterklaas appeared until his title was adapted to “Santa Claus”. The first reference to “Santa Claus” appeared in the New York Gazetteer on 23 December 1773: “Last Monday the anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. a Claus, was celebrated at Protestant Hall, at Mr. Waldron’s, where a great number of sons of that ancient saint celebrated the day with great joy and festivity”.

The content of the Sinterklaas story was changed again when Washington Irving’s satirical book A History of New York (subtitled, “From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty”) was published in 1809 under the pseudonym of the made-up Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker on … the 6th of December! Irving describes that on the day of St Nicholas people hang “the stocking in the chimney” and “the good St. Nicholas … riding jollily among the tree-tops, or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets and dropping them down the chimneys of his favourites”.

The character of Sinterklaas here pictured is more familiar with how we know Santa today: “when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant wink, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared”.

Santa Claus, his sleigh and Coca-Cola

Irving mentioned that Santa is riding over threes and houses, but what kind of vehicle does Santa really travel in? The idea that Santa’s mode of transportation is a sleigh pulled by reindeer comes from the 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, better known as “The Night Before Christmas”.

The drawings of Thomas Nast played a big role in establishing the look of Santa Claus that we recognise today. During the second half of the 19th century, he drew various caricatures of Santa in the Harper’s Weekly magazine.

FactCheckNI 20181221 - Santa - Merry Old Santa Claus

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MerryOldSanta.jpg

Based on Nast’s portraits, the Coca-Cola company started to use Santa in their advertising campaigns in the 1920s. Paintings of Santa drinking a carbonated beverage finalised the image and popularity of Santa; introducing his red suit, and making him dominant in the public eye.

Evidence supporting his (non-)existence

Some argue that Santa does not exist, given that delivering all presents the night before Christmas is physically impossible. If Santa delivers gifts to 15% of total families, he has to visit 91.8 million homes. If he gives these homes one small present, his sleigh would weight 353,000 tons. Santa has 31 hours (different time zones included) to deliver his presents, which means that he has to travel at 650 miles per second at least.

Riding at that velocity with such a heavy sleigh would create enormous air resistance. Scientists conjecture that the reindeers in front “will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second”. Meanwhile Santa “would be pinned the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force”.

This is only true, of course, if we assume that the same physic laws apply for Santa as for everybody else, and that is as yet unproven! Though, remember, as he is presented in the various stories, Santa and his reindeers are not mere average beings.

“Santa is a true mystery to us all!”

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has tracked Santa Claus delivering presents to children around the world for more than 60 years on Christmas Eve. Based on historical data and their tracking information, they believe Santa is alive and well. Their “Santa Cam” images show that “Santa’s choice for quick transportation was a herd of flying reindeer”. Further details about his sleigh remain elusive: “Santa would never rush the important job of distributing presents to children and spreading holiday cheer to everyone, so the only logical conclusion is that Santa functions within a different time-space continuum than the rest of us. Santa is a true mystery to us all!”

FactCheckNI 20181221 - Santa - NORAD Tracks Santa.jpg

Image source: https://www.facebook.com/noradsanta/photos/a.501822902305

Despite the mystery, a stronger argument against the existence of Santa can be made, based on the fact that Santa rewards all good children:

  1. If there is a Santa, then all deserving children would receive something for Christmas.
  2. But there are plenty of deserving children who receive nothing for Christmas; thus
  3. There is no such person as Santa.

The power of belief

More important than the actual existence of Santa Claus, is the power of believing in him. Santa is so prominent in people’s minds that some, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, argue that believing in Santa is analog to believing in God. Children are shaped by evolution to soak up the culture of their environment. Preprogrammed to absorb useful information at a high rate, children’s brains are open to almost any suggestion. As a consequence, a young child takes adults for their word that God or Santa really exist. However, there is an obvious difference between the two, a difference that is puzzling for Dawkins. Children stop believing in Santa at some point, while many adults strongly believe in God for all their lives.

Studies show that children generally stop believing in Santa around the age of 7, with 54% of children coming to this conclusion on their own. Research also shows that disbelieving coincides with increased levels of causal reasoning; when children are able to view reality in terms of logical and physical principles, and conceptual understanding; when the Santa myth no longer appears credible, regardless of the testimony they continue to receive in support of his existence.

Children are minimally upset when they find out Santa is a myth; it comes with generally positive feelings, and most children think other children should be encouraged to keep believing in Santa. Conversely, parents feel more upset when their child finds out; 40% experience rather sad feelings, and only 6% feels glad.

That children stop believing in Santa but not in God does not surprise cognitive scientist Justin L. Barrett, as Santa does not count as a God concept. In his article, “Why Santa Claus is not a God”, he argues that for something to be classified as a potential God, it must comply with 5 features. These features include possessing strategic information that matters to the daily survival of believers. Perhaps thankfully, Santa only makes a once annual appearance; we (most of us) somehow manage without him for the rest of the year.

Santa fails to satisfy all of Barrett’s criteria because there are too many inconsistencies: “Santa Claus does not matter most of the year, he fails to possess rich inferential or explanatory potential, he does not demand attention or speculation, and he is not easily linked to moral or social concerns”. God or not, Barrett points out that Santa at least resembles a God concept close enough to explain his cultural prominence, despite the lack of a community of “true” believers.

Is Santa Claus misinformation?

Dictionary.com has chosen “misinformation” as the word of the year 2018. It is defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead”. Telling children about Santa may come with good intentions, but can still be deemed as spreading misinformation, under this definition. Some even argue that it is unjustified lying towards children, which may damage parental trustworthiness and encourage credulity and ill-motivated behaviour.

FactCheckNI 20181221 - Santa - Polar Express

Image source: https://peoplesbanktheatre.com/event/the-polar-express-2017

It is hard to see Santa Claus as misinformation, when he is obviously a fiction [Editor: How dare you call Santa fake!]. We are not really saying Santa exists, we are simply engaging in the pretence that he exists. The Santa story is a social practice, wherein children participate and receive gifts. To participate in this practice, it is essential to engage in this pretence. If we read a book, like The Polar Express, we pretend to believe there really is a polar express, in order to really get into the story. In another context we would of course deny that it is real. In the same way, to really get into the social practice of Santa and Christmas, we pretend to believe that it is true. We need to pretend Santa exists to make further claims internal to the Christmas story (e.g. that Santa has a sleigh, that he has elves as helpers), but outside of that context everyone knows it is a myth. [Editor: Everyone? Where’s the evidence?]

“Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus!”

The fact that the Santa is a fiction does not mean that feelings about Santa are false. In 1897, the eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asked her father whether Santa Claus really existed. Her father suggested she should ask this in a letter to the newspaper, The New York Sun. He promised her that when it appeared in The Sun, then it really must be true. In the newspaper’s 21st September edition, The Sun told Virginia and its readers:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.”

Similarly, a recent example of widespread (and indeed, official) reinforcement of the myth occurred in Ireland, where the Dáil granted official permission for Santa to fly over Ireland. On 15 December 2016, TD Jim Daly asked the Tánaiste (Frances Fitzgerald) in the Dáil to allow Santa to travel in Irish airspace: “Under the Irish Aviation Authority Act, has the Government agreed a proposal this year to grant a permit for Santa Claus to travel the length and breadth of the country?” The Tánaiste answered that she saw no objections to allow Santa to fly across Ireland the night before Christmas: “There will be no difficulty with Santa Claus’ permit for travel this Christmas.”

Summary

Saint Nicholas has been an inspiration for children’s holidays in Europe for centuries. “Santa Claus” is said to be an Americanisation of “Sinterklaas”, a legendary figure and holiday brought into New York by Dutch immigrants. Over years, the figure made its way through press, satire, and advertisement transforming into the Santa we know today.

There has been evidence found both in favour and against Santa’s existence. We can conclude that the question about Santa’s existence cannot be answered with science, but with Santology only!

Some might think that the power to belief in Santa is so strong, you could consider him a God. While there are clear differences between the two, you certainly can’t escape their presence during Christmas time. Children stop believing in Santa Claus when their cognitive capacities increase (averagely on the age of 7), but this does not seem to put a hold on the Santa myth!

People joyfully engage in the pretense that Santa exists. Pretending makes Father Christmas a fiction, rather than misinformation. A strong fiction nonetheless, as newspapers answer to children’s letters that Santa is alive and kicking, and Ireland gave him official permission to fly through Irish airspace.

Merry Christmas one and all!