When telling lies about Santa is a good thing
Wherever human beings have formed themselves into societies, telling lies is a pretty normal behaviour. To stave off unwanted attention from a male, a girl will give him a wrong address or a wrong number. To hide their mischief and avert a bouff, a scolding, or a licking, a child will invent a fiction for her teacher or parent. To impress a good-looking, classy young man, a young lady in less-than-worthy social circumstances will go to great lengths to misinform and mislead him. To land a well-paying, plum job in a State enterprise, under qualified United National Congress opportunists will think nothing of falsifying their qualifications and experience. And to keep a culture alive, many adults will tell lies to their children and experience no guilty conscience whatsoever.
I grew up in cultures based on lies. For example, partially in order to frighten me off the (then) unlighted roads at night, I was told that there were jumbies under every tree and around every corner. And to keep me unpromiscuous (and alive!), I was warned of the dangers of encountering a jablesse (It is the same thing with the culture of Christmas. Even though my parents told me, from a religious perspective, that it was not true that Christ was born on December 25 and that Santa Claus was an invention, most adults around me, including my teachers (who should have known better!), perpetuated the lies about Christmas and Santa.
And what is more, they justified them, the biggest justification being that these two cultural phenomena represent and encourage, even on their secular dimensions, the nobility and generosity of the human spirit — especially toward children, the poor elderly, and other vulnerable groups in our societies.
So Santa is okay. He brings gifts for all the children in the neighbourhood (I didn’t get any in my time!), in houses that had chimneys (clearly why I didn’t!), in orphanages (unfortunately, I had both parents seeing about me), and at school (I had to refuse on the pain of parental flogging; word got around!). We have turned a mythology into a culture of generosity for the most vulnerable in society. So there can be no law or principle against such generosity — not even the principle of honesty. Santa is a strategic cultural artifact.
Which brings me to an article by a professor of neuroscience who told lies to her two pre-teenage daughters to protect the myth of Santa Claus and who proposes that neuroscience places her lying on solid ground. The article, entitled ‘Neuroscience of Santa: How the holiday memories we create as kids become permanently implanted in our brains’, came to me from National Post via Zite, an app on my phone that curates news from a multiplicity of sources and builds a personalised magazine for me.
Prof Kelly Lambert proposes that childhood experiences, such as those of Santa Claus, are implanted in our brains and when we grow up, have a mature sense of reality, and prune away fiction from non-fiction, we can engage in mental time travel and re-experience remembered events.
Some of these memories can be traumatic, some can be mundane, and others can be happy as, in her case, her memories of Christmas and Santa. Prof Lambert claimed that neural investigations have found that adults travel mentally and fetch pleasant childhood experiences from their past and deliver similar ones to their children. And to give her children such experiences, she was prepared to lie to them.
She had bought Christmas gifts for her girls a week before Christmas and hidden them in the attic of the house, intending to surprise them on Christmas Day with the (lying) claim that Santa had slid down the chimney and delivered them on Christmas eve.
But, unfortunately for her, the girls could find no better place to play and explore than the attic where they chanced upon the gifts and opened a few of them (so they said!). Alarmed at the development, she assumed the role of Santa’s legal counsel and concocted the most remarkable of stories to protect the integrity of Santa. She explained that the children of the area were expecting bulky gifts that year and that, since Santa had a bad back, he had sent ahead only a few of the gifts, Mrs Claus having insisted that he couldn’t make all those deliveries on Christmas Eve.
Further, he had agreed that if children saw the gifts before Christmas Day, the gifts had to be sent back but if they had seen only a few only those would be sent back, but parents had to sign a contract to that effect. Everybody agreed with the plan, and the children in particular breathed a sigh of relief that they would get some gifts from Santa after all.
Lies, lies, and more lies.
Now why, you may ask, would a behavioural neuroscientist, whose science is based on reality, and who understands the truth about Santa, go to such lengths to lie about him? Her answer is that she had re-experienced ‘the magic of Christmas’ and wanted her children to (continue to) experience it.
She also knew that in time the children would figure out that ‘Santa can’t visit every child’s home in one single night and, even if he could make such a trip, there’s no way he could eat all those cookies. Magical beliefs are pruned away as mature neural circuits reflecting real-world contingencies become solidified.’
She goes on to say that the notion of mental time travel tells her it was right to try to keep Santa alive for her daughters. She exulted, ‘For every year I layered another set of Christmas memories into their brains, the easier it would be for them to relive those feelings.’
So the goal was to make her children happy in the cultural context, and it did not matter that a mythology, with all the moral implications, underlay her actions. What mattered was that mental time travel enabled her to re-experience happy childhood memories and deliver the same kind of experience to her children.
Question: Can we make the children happy in a truth-based cultural context?