My First Encounter with Religious Doubt: The Day I Stopped Believing in Santa Claus

By Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Letha's School
The two-room schoolhouse Letha attended throughout her elementary school years. (The white annex was added years later when the building was purchased for other use.)
Photo by Chuck Huttar.

The thought struck unexpectedly: “Santa Claus isn’t real.” I tried to push it away because it scared me, but the thought kept coming back.  “There is no Santa Claus. It’s all made up.”

I was six years old.

I can still recall the feeling.  I was seated at my desk in the first grade row of the two-room public school I attended in rural Pennsylvania.  Students entered through the only door, which opened into a small hallway with two rooms directly across from each other.  Grades 6 through 8 were in the room on the left;  grades 1 through 5 (my classroom) in the room on the right.  Each room had only one teacher.

My classroom was arranged so that each grade level was seated in a separate row perpendicular to the blackboard, with first graders in the row near the windows facing the little white church behind the school, and fifth graders in the farthest row on the other side, next to the windows facing the Grange Hall parking area out front.  The second third, and fourth grades were in between these two rows. When it was time for a particular subject to be taught, the teacher would call out “Fifth grade spelling!” or “Second grade arithmetic!” and the appropriate row of children would file up to the front seats for their class session. The rest of us had that time free to do workbook assignments, read books, listen to the lesson going on up front, or sometimes just daydream if we had finished our work.  That’s what I was doing on the day of my “faith crisis.”  I was just gazing out the window.  Thinking.

That year, 1941, was a time of many worries.  The Japanese military had bombed Pearl Harbor and we were now in World War II.  I didn’t fully understand what “being at war” meant, but I knew grownups were listening to the radio a lot, and my imagination darted in all directions.  I feared my home would be attacked and my parents killed while I was at school.  And in the midst of all these concerns, I found myself doubting  the existence of Santa Claus.  Not the best time for a session of doubt!

How doubt enters and why it’s so unnerving

Doubt does not march in beating a big bass drum; it glides in quietly on soft-soled slippers and waits to see if we will entertain it or push it away.  Its appearance can be as frightening as it is surprising.  It can shake the ground under your feet.  And so I struggled with what to do about it.

My theology of Santa had come from a song that was first recorded the year before my birth and immediately became tremendously popular, so I had grown up listening to it.  I knew the words by heart.  (You can listen to that first 1934 scratchy 78 RPM recording here —or on YouTube.)  The song’s message was clear: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and I’d better watch out!  He was coming to judge all us kids and reward us according to whether we had been naughty or nice.” He kept a list.  And he checked it twice!

What bothered me most during my first grade “crisis of faith” was the song’s claim of Santa’s omniscience. “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.”  And “he knows if you’ve been bad or good.”  I remember the anxiety I felt as I thought about those words.  If Santa knows when I’m awake or sleeping, he must know what I’m thinking!   And right now I’m thinking that he doesn’t exist!  He must be very angry with me! “

I was trying so hard not to believe, yet I couldn’t let myself believe in my unbelief!   Here I was, thinking Santa might not exist, but at the same time I was afraid he was angry with me for doubting his existence.  I agonized over what to make of it all.

If only I could talk to someone.

The loneliness of doubting and the fear of disappointing others

SantaI wondered if my classmates ever had such doubts, but I didn’t dare ask them. And I couldn’t ask my parents because Santa was a big deal in our home. My questioning  would have upset them.   My dad especially loved Christmas and believed it should be a magical time for children.  He had not had a real childhood himself, having grown up in a poor working-class family that insisted he quit school after sixth grade to work in a factory. And so when he had children of his own, even though we were born during the Great Depression, he played the Santa Claus game to the hilt. Through us, he could experience a childhood he had never had. There were gifts galore for my little brother and me, usually marked “from Santa,” (who would thoughtfully leave a thank-you note for the milk and cookies that we had set out for him).

The days leading up to Christmas were magic in themselves—wonderful, exciting times of preparation with special lights and decorations inside and outside, electric candle wreaths in the windows, a gigantic molded head of Santa we brought out of the attic every year and put on display in my parents’ “mom and pop” restaurant , and a fresh-cut tree brought home from the woods. Sometimes a little train or a tiny nativity scene would be set up under tree.  Plus there was another little aluminum tree with soft colored lights inside that we gleefully unpacked every year.  All this along with every other idea Dad could come up with to make this the most festive occasion possible.

I didn’t want to spoil his joy or hurt his feelings by voicing my questions about Santa’s existence. I loved my dad too much— and my mom, too, who also enjoyed making Christmas special for us kids. It was loads of fun for all of us.  How could I go home and announce I no longer believed in Santa Claus?  I knew what their first question would be, and I would have to answer no, nobody had told me this; I had just thought it up myself.

So I sat there in my classroom that day, oblivious  to all the children around me, pondering these weighty thoughts (and probably laying the initial groundwork for faith-related struggles of a different kind many years later).

Anyway, I told myself, I could be wrong.  Doubt always carries with it that possibility.  Otherwise it wouldn’t be doubt;  it would be certainty.  Who was I to judgeMaybe Santa was real after all. And so I decided to just go along with the Santa game for a couple of years longer, while still occasionally thinking about my questioning that day in first grade. I guess it would be more accurate to say I became a Santagnostic  rather than a Santatheist  that day in the little red schoolhouse.

Having children of my own

Of course, I would face Santa Claus questions all over again years later as a mother.  I realized that no matter how much parents were determined to keep the focus on Jesus, children couldn’t help but see there was a Santa in every department store, inviting children to sit on his lap and tell him what they’d like him to bring for Christmas. There were Santas ringing bells on street corners.  Santas in advertisements.  Santa’s picture everywhere.  Santa songs blared out from the radio and television (although we didn’t have a TV until our younger son was four).

Santa couldn’t be avoided. The question was how to avoid the materialistic emphasis of the consumer society that especially went wild this time of year, and how to emphasize the season of Advent and the celebration of Jesus’ coming into the world—the wonder of the Incarnation.  Where would Santa fit into what our little boys called “Jesus’ happy birthday”?  Was there a way of keeping Christ central while also enjoying the fun of Santa Claus?  Or would that mean a kind of syncretism that would push the sacredness of the season into the background or overshadow it completely?

Simply ignoring Santa didn’t seem a solution (impossible, anyway!), nor was criticizing or condemning the practice of teaching children to believe in Santa Claus as some parents did, and as mine did long ago—although I cringed at the thought of another child conflating Santa with God as I had done that day in first grade (and a judgmental, punishing god at that).  But maybe there was another way.

The solution seemed to be to talk about the Santa tradition in a casual, relaxed way as a pretend game that lots of people liked to play at this time of year.  With that approach,  the children could enjoy hearing the stories of Santa and the elves,  or giggle delightfully over the night before Christmas when not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.  They could sing “Here Comes Santa Claus right down Santa Claus lane,” and cheer Rudolph’s red nose and how the characteristic that had made him different from the other reindeer and the object of their incessant teasing turned out to save the day. It was all a game of pretend.  And it was fun.  Even without a deified Santa, Steve and Dave could still sit on Santa’s lap in a department store and enjoy the candy canes they were given, knowing this was just a man dressed in a Santa costume and that there were many others just like him in other stores.

Both sons approached it all nonchalantly. I remember the Christmas when Steve was five and told us, after sitting on Santa’s lap, “The man dressed like Santa in this store must be a very old man. When he asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I said Tinker Toys, but he thought I said a train.  I don’t think he can hear very well.”

I did tell Steve and Dave just a little bit about the real St. Nicholas,  but I wish I had known much more about him while they were young. How wonderful it would have been to have had the resources of the St. Nicholas Center, which I learned about several years ago from David Myers when he and I were coauthoring a book.  His wife, Carol Myers, is the founder of the Center (a nonprofit virtual center on the web, as well as a traveling exhibit) that has excellent information, craft ideas, and even activities for young children—all centered around the ministry of the compassionate 4th century bishop who loved and helped children and others in need.  It would have been great, too, to show the kids C.G.P. Grey’s “Brief History of Santa Claus” (a 4-minute video), another example of resources available today that we didn’t have back in the pre-Internet days.

Thinking back on doubts

questionAs I think back on that day in first grade (and it is one of my most vivid childhood memories), I believe in some small way it provided  me with an understanding of how religious questioning operates.  Over the years, I grew to see doubts and questions as something to be welcomed and struggled with, even though disturbing.  And I knew already at an early age what such doubting and questioning  felt like—the back and forth between accepting  and not accepting what I had been taught, the inner struggles, the loneliness, the fear of ridicule or rejection, the anxiety about hurting others who still clung to beliefs I could no longer hold.

In the end, I learned that facing doubts and raising questions can actually strengthen faith while at the same time enabling one to separate the chaff from the wheat in religious belief and practice.  True, as a child, I was questioning the existence of Santa Claus, not God.  But the parallels are obvious. Had I been raised in a harsh, legalistic fundamentalism with its images of a punishing God, threatening people with hell, I might have doubted God’s existence, too.  But as it was, as a child, I had an image of a loving  God who cared about me and to whom I often talked as I sat outside on the grass on summer nights and looked up at the stars—fortunate to have lived in a time and place with no light pollution!  When I did sojourn into fundamentalism during my teenage years and several years beyond, I eventually began a different kind of questioning —not about God but about the anti-intellectualism and dogmatic stances on social issues that many fundamentalists have tried to make a part of the gospel message, along with their arrogant assumption that they should be the ones to make lists (or laws) about which persons or groups are “naughty or nice.”

Long after my first “crisis of faith” arose from doubting Santa Claus as a young child, new religious questions and struggles have continued to arise from time to time— for the most part centered not around the existence or nature of God but about religious systems that have developed and that all too often drive people away from God.  Questioning of this sort, I believe, does not constitute a crisis of faith but rather is a sign of spiritual growth and an actual strengthening of faith through working through the questions.

Copyright © 2013 Letha Dawson Scanzoni.  All rights reserved.

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Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

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