I remember being touched by the Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus editorial as a kid. I’m not sure why. Certainly I believed in Santa Claus at the time, and it’s always nice to have one’s beliefs validated. But I think there’s more to it than that.
I read the editorial again about a year ago – it was my first time reading it for many years, as well as my first time reading it since becoming an atheist. I inwardly cringed at the part about the lawn fairies – how many bad arguments for the supernatural begin with “just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there”? But still, I found myself emotionally drawn to the message. The editorial as a whole gave me that warm, fuzzy feeling that, no doubt, is the reason for its popularity.
There is a value we attach to the ability to “just believe” in something. Recall the story, The Polar Express, in which a boy visits the North Pole and receives a bell from Santa Claus’ sleigh. When he returns home, he finds that he and his sister can hear the bell’s ring, but their parents cannot. The story ends with these now-famous lines:
At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.
Do you feel the emotional pull of that closing sentence? I feel it pulling me, and yet I don’t even know what it is about. What are we supposed to believe in?
Similarly, I recall an argument with a Christian friend of mine in which she remonstrated me, as an atheist, for “not believing in anything.” This is silly, because I believe in a great many things, but I think she meant it in more of a “you can no longer hear the bells ringing” sense. The message is that I am supposed to “just believe” in something – something magical, something improbable, something that requires faith rather than reason. Many people have a “belief in belief,”* and there is alleged to be something wrong with those of us who don’t.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus is about belief in belief. I read it again this year, and the coziness of the idea was gone for me. “The bell has gone silent,” as my Christian friend might say.
But it was an imaginary bell to begin with. The wonder and marvel of the actual universe we live in is represented by a million bells, each one ringing just as sweetly as any fiction.I don’t know why we are attached to the idea of believing in things we have no reason to think are true, but we need not be. We do not lose anything.
Greta Christina has done a lovely rewrite of the Yes, Virginia editorial this year which illustrates this point. It’s a message that both my heart and my head can get behind. Do give it a look.
And have a Merry Christmas.
*Credit goes to Daniel Dennett for this phrase.