The Case Against Santa

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Santa

As we have noted previously on this blog, Christmas is a drag. The holiday’s norms and founding mythologies are repugnant, especially when compared to its more humane cousin, Thanksgiving. The story of the nativity doesn’t make much sense; moreover, it seems odd to celebrate an occasion that involved the slaughter of innocent children. And the other founding myth – the myth of Santa and the North Pole – is one of a morally tone-deaf autocrat who delivers toys to the children of well-off parents rather than life-saving basic goods to the most needy. But, when you think about it, the Santa myth is far worse than even that.

To start, the Christmas mythology has it that Santa is a being who is morally omniscient – he knows whether we are bad or good, and in fact keeps a record of our acts. Additionally he is somnically omniscient – he sees us when we’re sleeping, he knows when we’re awake. Santa has unacceptable capacities for monitoring our actions, and he exercises them! In a similar vein, Santa takes himself to be entitled to enter our homes, in the night and while we’re not looking, despite the fact that we have locked the doors. In other words, Santa does not respect our privacy. He watches us, constantly.

This is important because the moral value of our actions is largely determined by our motives for performing them. Performing the action that morality requires is surely good; however, when the morally required act is performed for the wrong reasons, the morality of the act is diminished. Acting for the right reasons is a condition for being worthy of moral praise; and, correlatively, the blame that follows a morally wrong action is properly mitigated when the agent can show the purity of her motives.

The trouble with Santa’s surveillance is that it affects our motives. When we know that we are being watched by an omniscient judge looking to mete out rewards and punishments, we find ourselves with strong reasons to act for the sake of getting the reward and avoiding the punishment. But in order for our actions to have moral worth, they must be motivated by moral reasons, rather than narrowly self-interested ones. In short, under Santa’s watchful eye, our motivations become clouded, and so does the morality of our actions.

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Waging War on Christmas, to Save Thanksgiving

Blackfriday Weeks before Halloween, Christmas decorations started appearing around town. At the local department stores, mannequins of witches and zombies were crowded by Santa’s elves. The Christmas season has, it seems, overcome Halloween. Halloween is a charming holiday, so this is lamentable to some degree. But given the relatively stable interest children have in candy and play-acting, Halloween is not in danger of extinction. The constantly-expanding Christmas season does not threaten to undermine its spirit.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Thanksgiving. When pitted against the aggressive encroachment of Christmas and the corresponding shopping season, Thanksgiving, our most humane and decent holiday, doesn’t stand a chance.

Unlike Halloween, Thanksgiving is a holiday of human significance. Though it is occasioned by the mythology of Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, the point of Thanksgiving is not that of rehearsing or commemorating that original event. In this respect, Thanksgiving differs crucially from other holidays. The Thanksgiving gathering is not a means to some other end, such as memorializing the signing of a document (July 4th), observing an ancient liberation (Passover), celebrating the birth of a god (Christmas), or honoring the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers in war (Veterans Day). The point of Thanksgiving is rather to gather with loved ones, to reaffirm social bonds, to enjoy company, and to appreciate the goods one has. To be sure, the Thanksgiving celebration is focused on a meal, typically involving large portions of turkey and cranberries. Still, the details of the meal are ultimately incidental. The aim of the Thanksgiving gathering is not to eat, but to be a gathering. The coming of people together is the point– and the whole point– of Thanksgiving.

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