A program of the Center for Inquiry
Last year, a relative gave my wife, son, and I The Elf on the Shelf®, which she thought my son might enjoy as a holiday tradition. My wife and I decided when we gave religion the boot over a decade ago that we would continue to celebrate a completely secular Christmas and even added a new tradition to Christmas Eve—we watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas (namely, that it’s all made up). From what little we had heard about The Elf on the Shelf®, it seemed like a nice idea—until we received the book that comes with the chintzy stuffed elf doll and started to read it. The first time through, I listened as my wife read it to our son. After I heard the first sentence, I knew this wasn’t going to work for us.
The beginning of the book reads, “Have you ever wondered how Santa could know if you’re naughty or nice each year as you grow?” I stopped my wife right there and said, “We aren’t going to let him believe that.” My wife nodded in agreement but continued to read because my son, four years old at the time, was excited about the book. Its premise, for those who don’t know, is that Santa sends an elf to watch children to see whether they are naughty or nice. Every night after the children go to sleep, the parents move the elf somewhere else in the house, and the kids get to look for him in the morning when they wake up, giving the impression that the elf is real. But the real goal of The Elf on the Shelf® is to manipulate kids into behaving as the parents want them to by suggesting that the elf is watching, taking notes, and then sneaking back to the North Pole at night to report to Santa Claus on everything they do, even when they think no one is looking.
It was this last part that really bothered me, though not just about The Elf on the Shelf® but about many depictions of Santa Claus as well. Santa Claus is described in many stories as knowing whether children are “naughty or nice.” Receiving presents is contingent upon a child’s behavior, as though Santa has devised an econometric model of “niceness” that evaluates all behaviors on some scale from naughty to nice and then calculates a niceness quotient.
This is bothersome for two reasons. First, the idea that Santa Claus is watching is a pernicious invasion of personal space. I have argued elsewhere that I do not believe religious indoctrination is generally child abuse, counter to what Richard Dawkins and others have suggested. But one aspect of religious indoctrination that I believe comes close to abuse is the idea that some supernatural entity is always watching you—and in some traditions can also read your mind. Why is this potentially abusive? Because it gives people the sense that they are never really alone.
In the social sciences, a number of scholars and theorists have argued that when we are with other people, we are basically the equivalent of actors on a stage. We are socialized into specific roles in public life, such as student, parent, or police officer. Once we learn what the norms are for those roles, when we are called upon to play them we adopt the norms and act accordingly. This is why police officers are so solemn and serious when wearing their uniforms; they are performing their role. Police officers behave just like other people when they are off duty. According to this dramaturgical approach, public behavior occurs on the “front stage.” When others can observe our behaviors and we are aware that they are observing, it affects how we behave.
But if there is a front stage, then there must also be a backstage—a place where we believe no one is watching. It is only when we are backstage that we can be ourselves. Who we are when no one is watching may be completely different from who we are when we’re with our parents, when we’re at work, or when we’re visiting a nudist colony. But do theists have a backstage? If they truly believe that God is always watching, they don’t. They are always being observed. This is a tool used by religions to manipulate and control followers. They have removed their followers’ backstages. As a result, sincere theists can never truly be themselves. They are always being watched.
When young children are taught that Santa Claus is watching them, it serves the same function: it removes their backstage and teaches them that they can never be who they truly are. What are the consequences of this manipulation? As far as I know, there is no research examining this specific question. But we do know that religious people are more neurotic than are nonreligious people and that neurosis can even develop into a psychological disorder called “scrupolosity,” which is categorized by pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. To what extent that neurosis and scrupolosity are the direct or indirect result of feeling that someone is not only always watching but also judging should be investigated. My educated guess is that this is likely the culprit of religious neurosis—the lack of a safe backstage where people can just be. And this is the first reason why The Elf on the Shelf® isn’t welcome in my home, and neither is a Santa Claus who is omniscient or omnipresent: it is manipulative and potentially abusive to children to remove their backstage. All persons should, in my opinion, have a place or space that is theirs, where they can be who they are without anyone watching.
The second reason that depicting Santa Claus as watching children’s behavior is bothersome is because it serves as a legitimizer of monotheism. Secular readers will, no doubt, understand that God is a social construct—an idea that humans created. In their seminal book detailing how reality is socially constructed, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explained that reality is socially constructed through a tripartite process. Some behavior or idea has to become habitualized—for instance, Santa Claus giving gifts at Christmas. Once that happens, those involved in the behavior (parents and children) come to expect the behavior. When those expectations are passed on, whether from parents to children or from children to friends, a new reality has been constructed.
But new realities are tenuous. They have to be reinforced. Berger and Luckmann refer to these efforts to reinforce reality as “legitimizations.” Any effort to reinforce the reality that has been created is a legitimization. Thus, with Christmas and the belief that Santa Claus brings the presents, there are a number of legitimizations involved in reinforcing the reality: putting out cookies and milk on Christmas Eve that are mysteriously consumed overnight, the seemingly magical appearance of presents on Christmas morning, the writing of letters to Santa Claus, and so on. Each of these legitimizes the belief that Santa Claus stopped by to deliver presents.
But more subtly, the characteristics of Santa Claus actually serve as legitimizations of a different set of beliefs altogether. Santa’s omniscience and omnipresence—his ability to know what kids want and how they behave—illustrate to children that supernatural entities other than the monotheistic God their parents and pastors have been blabbering on about at church have these characteristics. What’s more, Santa’s remarkable ability to deliver gifts to all the children of the world (at least, those who have parents who can afford to participate in this costly holiday) also suggests that supernatural entities other than God are very powerful, if not omnipotent. Santa Claus is thus a legitimization of Yahweh.
Let me provide two additional illustrations of this point. First, for about one month out of the year, theistic parents conveniently stop telling their kids “Behave, because God is watching” and instead tell them, “Behave, because Santa is watching.” Santa becomes a direct stand-in for God, probably because Santa, for the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the United States, is more pervasive and far more real than God. His picture is plastered all over the place. He has villages and homes in shopping malls across the country. He’s on television; he’s in commercials; hell, he’s everywhere! The fact that both Santa and Yahweh are also commonly depicted as old, white males with long bushy beards (depending on the cultural milieu) probably also helps with the legitimizations.
The second illustration brings me back to that damned Elf on the Shelf®. Toward the end of the book, the elf explains that there is one rule children must follow—they can’t touch the elf. If they do, he’ll lose his magic and won’t be able to report back to Santa. The elf then tells the children reading the book: “I won’t get to tell him [Santa] that you’ve said your prayers, or helped to bake cookies, or cleaned off the stairs.” After reading this line, I very nearly threw the book in the trash. This sentence suggests to the kids that prayers are “nice” behaviors, such as helping around the house. But, more subtly, it illustrates the overlap between Santa Claus and God. The elf is telling Santa—a supernatural father figure who is depicted as omniscient, omnipresent, and quasi-omnipotent—whether or not kids are talking to a nearly identical supernatural father figure. Of course, The Elf on the Shelf® actually undermines Santa’s supernatural abilities at some level by suggesting that Santa isn’t actually omnipresent or omniscient—instead, he needs to rely on sneaky, teleporting elves—but the effect is still the same: Santa Claus legitimizes Yahweh.
In summary, Santa Claus, as popularly constructed, is evil. His omniscience removes children’s backstage, preventing them from being free to be who they want to be. And Santa Claus, when depicted as omniscient, omnipresent, and quasi-omnipotent, is a dead ringer for the God of monotheists, helping to legitimize religious belief in young children.
I’m fully in favor of a secular Christmas—let’s steal the holiday back from the Christians who hijacked it from the Romans, from the pagans, and from nature. I see no reason why we can’t have a pleasant day off toward the end of the year to celebrate friends and family and brighten up the dark days. But Jesus fucking Rudolph, there is no way I’m teaching my kid that Santa Claus is watching. That’s evil!
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967.
Cragun, Ryan T. What You Don’t Know about Religion (but Should). Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2013.
Francis, Leslie J., and Chris J. Jackson. “Eysenck’s Dimensional Model of Personality and Religion: Are Religious People More Neurotic?” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 6(1)2003:87.
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Siev, Jedidiah, Lee Baer, and William E. Minichiello. “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder with Predominantly Scrupulous Symptoms: Clinical and Religious Characteristics.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 67(12)2011:1188–1196.
Ryan T. Cragun is a sociologist whose research focuses on the nonreligious and Mormonism. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles and has previously contributed to FREE INQUIRY. He was the lead author (with Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega) of “How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States” (FI, June/July 2012), which won the Selma V. Forkosch Award for best article to appear in FREE INQUIRY that year. His most recent book is titled What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should) (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013).