Is Santa Real?

What traditions haven’t been altered in some way by the year 2020? Family gatherings delayed indefinitely. Vacations postponed if not missed altogether. Holidays without the whole family around the table. Even regular events like apple and pumpkin picking, made a little less comfortable with masks on. One can only imagine how different Times Square will be for New Years Eve and I can’t wait to see the Year-in-Review montage they put on. It’s impossible to overstate how much 2020 has impacted our most firmly held traditions.

Well… sadly for us we will not get a picture of Tristan with Santa Claus this year as is the case for many other families. I’m sure the old man is in the high-risk category anyway and I think we’d all understand if he decides social distancing is the way to go this year. Of all the years for this to happen though, I’ll selfishly admit this year probably worked out best for us. We got our Santa pic last year for Tristan’s first Christmas. And he’s not quite old enough this year to really understand who this jolly man named Kris Kringle truly is. If he were to miss a year on this experience, this seems to be the best one.

But taking him for his first pictures last year made both Morgan and I ponder, was this Santa Claus tradition one we wanted to continue with our kids? We both grew up with parents who had entertained this tradition with us. Leaving out milk, cookies and reindeer food. Having to stay in our rooms until sunrise. Even opening letters from Santa on the years when we just barely made the cut for the nice list. For many many years the answer to the question, “Is Santa real?” was an emphatic “Yes!” No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

But things change for all of us as we grow older. We begin to question the ability of one man to bring gifts to the whole world in one night, how reindeer can fly, and why Mom and Dad have been holding out on Christmas gifts for us all these years. We eventually learned that the story behind the presents under our Christmas trees wasn’t exactly what we were told when we were younger. Instead of a high-octane sleigh ride through the sky to deliver presents from the North Pole, our parents simply survived the brawl in the Toys ‘R’ Us parking lot on Black Friday to get the gifts we wanted. Today those gifts are obtained in more humane, albeit far less exciting ways like Amazon Prime. And on Christmas Eve they were “simply” walked to the tree from one room over in our parents’ closet. The milk and cookies weren’t eaten by big man from the north pole, but the big man we called “Dad.” The answer to the question “Is Santa real?” went from an emphatic “Yes!”, to an equally certain “No!” It was all so obvious now. Why didn’t we see through this hoax all along?

I don’t recall the moment my parents telling me the truth about Santa as being particularly traumatic. I had a hunch for some time but didn’t talk to my parents about it. But once I knew, it was expected that I would take part in maintaining this “secret” to keep from ruining the magic of Christmas for my younger siblings. Was Santa real? It depended when you asked me and if my little sister or brother were around.

It was this same hesitation that made Morgan and I ponder what we would do with our own kids. Cautious about repeating traditions just because that’s what we’ve always done, we wanted to make sure we knew why we were doing what we were doing. We had heard of other parents avoiding the Santa tradition because they didn’t want to lie to their kids or unnecessarily sow distrust in their relationship. Others that saw parallels between Santa and God and not wanting to unsettle their kids’ faith when they would realize Santa wasn’t exactly who they believed him to be. Genuinely thoughtful stances, and opinions that we were considering ourselves. Once you start to look up articles online about this topic, you’re bound to find plenty of people willing to tell you how to raise your kids. This is a personal decision (one we’ve clearly been working through ourselves) and one I do not want to critique in other parents.

But I wanted to offer a new way of framing this conundrum around how you could tell your kids about Santa without the feeling that you’re simply being deceitful. We decided we would continue this tradition ourselves and I thought it may be valuable to share why. One practical reason was that we would rather be the ones telling “lies” than our kids. We didn’t want to have them navigate how to “lie” to their friends who did believe in Santa Claus at such a young age. But there was a second reason, that really convinced me that I wanted my kids to believe in Santa as children.

When we ask the question, “Is Santa real?” what in the world do we mean by that word “real?” I’m assuming when most of use the word real in regards to Santa, it’s to say that the only way he would be real would be if he was a living breathing human alive today, living at the North Pole who delivers presents to all children with his magical reindeer and sleigh. And in that sense, no Santa is not in fact real. But maybe there’s an opportunity to teach our kids that maybe there’s another, and quite possibly a better way of thinking about what is in fact “real?”

Are the only real things in the world those that we physically see or touch? Those that we can measure or quantify? Those that can be explained by the hard sciences like physics, math, chemistry, or biology? The problem is that if these are the limits to what we can consider as real, then what do we make of things like Christmas spirit, generosity, kindness, or love?

Many of us would say that these are also real, yet we can’t see them, physically touch them, measure, or count them. Yet these very “real” things animate us. Move us. Motivate us to live in particular ways. They govern our actions. We can feel them. To give gifts as parents without an expectation of anything in return, even the recognition for giving our children gifts. To behave as children like we are always being watched, even when Mom and Dad aren’t within sight.

Many of the most “real” things in this world are not made of merely material things. Love, joy, wealth, patriotism, ideologies, school and team spirit, are all in their essence devoid of material substance yet they drive people to act in a multitude of ways.

Likewise Santa, the embodiment of generosity, kindness, charity, without expectation of reciprocation, has motivated parents and kids alike, over multiple generations to take part in this beautiful Christmas performance of giving and receiving. A performance that most likely would not occur if not for the story of Christmas and the way that story has manifested itself in the character of Santa Claus.

So is Santa real? I think he’s one of the most real things we have in our culture and I look forward to sharing him and the story of Christmas with our children. And when they are old enough to question the actual existence of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, I’ll be excited to share with them that the story can continue to inspire generosity, kindness and love within us if we are willing to play a role in the magic.

It was never really just about Santa. Santa points to something even more real about the culture it fosters within our families and communities and getting a better glimpse of the true meaning of Christmas.

The most real things are those not bound to temporal material things like gifts or even our lives. They are the those things that are most enduring and that motivate us to live and love well. This cultural adaptation of the Christmas story has lasted long before we were born and will almost certainly last beyond our final days. And it is a story that we are all invited to partake in.

So is Santa real? I would say most definitely “Yes!”

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!!!

Update: After finishing this post, we had the pleasant surprise from none other than Santa himself who happened to make his way into town. Our neighbor captured a fun photo for us to remember this less-than-ideal, yet very special 2020 Christmas season. Thank you to the local fire department for making that special event happen for our son, who was very excited to see the renowned Santa Claus!

Jordan Peterson and the Question of Belief

Within the past few months I stumbled upon Jordan Peterson. And by “stumbled” I mean, I was binge watching his videos for pretty much all of November and December last year once I was introduced to him. Some of you may know exactly who I am referring to and I’m sure many of you have no idea who he is as well.

Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist from Canada, who is known for his contributions to conversations on psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. His videos with Joe Rogan and a contentious and laughable TV interview with Channel 4 News are a couple of the videos that gained him a significant following. Also his highly publicized book entitled “12 Rules for Life” has sold over 3 million copies so far.

His personal YouTube channel has nearly 2 million subscribers and one of his most popular lecture series on the stories of Genesis consists of two-hour-long videos each with hundreds of thousands of views and in some cases millions. He captured the attention of so many people, who never would have ever considered listening to approximately 40 hours of lectures on the Bible, and presented the stories in a more sophisticated manner than many of us experienced in Sunday school. I found them to be incredibly fascinating (especially the one on Cain and Abel) and I linked one of my favorite excerpts from his lectures below to give you a quick peek into who he is.

He never claims to be a theologian but sought to demonstrate the value in these older texts and the lessons that could be learned from reading them. He never even claims to be a theist, atheist, or agnostic during his conversations. The result of his lecture series though, among his many other interviews and lectures, is that people have been reconsidering their own personal beliefs and worldviews. And not just that, there are many cases of people being lifted out of depression and nihilism. So what the heck is going on with this guy and the people who are listening to his lectures?

At the end of each lecture, he would have a time for attendees to ask questions. And one of the most common questions he gets presented with is “Do you believe in God?” It’s a personal question. It is a question so often asked to determine which group are you in. Do you belong to the Christian, agnostic, or atheist communities or a different faith group all together? We like to delineate ourselves and see if we’re rooting for the same teams. Especially with all of the success and publicity he has received recently, there are many people clamoring to hear him identify with their group.

I’m sure at some point in our lives we have all been asked this exact question. Sometimes we’re prepared to give an emphatic “yes” or “no”, or maybe we cringe a bit at the question and evade an answer out of fear of how our answer will be received. Many have felt pressured into saying they believe something that inside they really don’t believe. Or maybe among friends and family, there is a pressure to say we do or don’t believe in a God, because the alternative answer would be unpopular or shameful.

Jordan Peterson, put into a similarly awkward position, however gives quite an interesting response. He most often replies to this question with the response “It depends what you mean by ‘God’ and it depends what you mean by ‘believe’?”

His response initially seems like a cop out. “C’mon man… just answer the question!” But I think as you listen to his lectures you realize the genuineness with which he says it and the deeper reasoning behind the response.

The word “God” can mean so many different things to so many different people. Do you mean the old white dude up in the clouds standing behind the pearly gates? Do you mean white Jesus with the dashing brown hair and those spiffy brown sandals who’s everybody’s best friend? Do you mean that judgmental God who is willing to let people burn in hell because they didn’t obey the rules? Do you mean the Jesus who would be taking part in social justice parades today or rocking a MAGA hat? Or a different God from a different religion all together?

And what about the question of “What do you mean by belief?” Is it just a verbal proclamation? Is it mostly an intellectual posture? Is it a matter of how we act? Is belief a one-time occurrence in our lives where we say the magical prayer so we get an out-of-jail free card to go to heaven?

To answer “Do you believe in God?” with a simple “yes” or “no” requires so many assumptions that we may be completely misunderstanding each other when discussing the topic. I think that is why Jordan Peterson responds the way he does. And I think it’s for this reason that he has gained so much popularity. Jordan Peterson elaborates in over 40 hours worth of these lectures that God and belief, among many other topics, are not so simplistic, that there is more nuance to the conversation, and he allows his listeners to explore their own ideas.

The Bible is full of stories of people’s understanding and knowledge of God changing as they experienced him. Even the disciples, those closest to Jesus, had their understanding of who God was completely changed within the last week of his life. Jordan Peterson, though not a self-proclaimed Christian, is wrestling in front of everyone with who he thinks God is and it has been changing people in incredible ways, myself included. 

And dare I say that we can look elsewhere than the Bible to gain an understanding and knowledge of God? I think Jordan Peterson’s contention with the tragedies of the 20th century and watching his own daughter struggle with debilitating health issues that has shaped his understanding the way it has. 

Jordan Peterson in one of his interviews said that he avoids answering this question with a simple “yes” or “no” because he isn’t even scratching the surface in his forty hours of biblical lectures. That takes humility to admit that honestly. And I think it’s his authenticity that really makes people gravitate to his messages. He doesn’t provide an exhaustive explanation of who God is or what it means to believe because he can’t, and if we’re being honest, none of us can. 

I agree with so much of what he says but not everything. But that’s not really the point. He’s clearly struck a chord with so many that were longing for this type of long-form conversation on God and meaning within our lives. It’s been absent for so many of us and I think there’s been a longing for it. I would highly recommend watching his videos, especially if you’re within the church, because I think there are many things to be learned from him from how he has conversations, the insight he can give into the psychology of the human mind, and a fresh outsiders view on the value of these stories.

Maybe we can all revel a little more in the mystery surrounding who God is. Maybe it’s okay for us to admit just how little we know and be willing to ask tough questions. Maybe it’s in the seeking out of who God is that we will find the deepest and most profound answers. Maybe Jordan Peterson just might be helping this younger generation take a step back and really assess what we all believe in and what “belief” really means.