We could easily tell children the story of Santa Claus without all the hand-wringing about whether it's truthful. In the modern age, where children are faced with more access to fiction than ever before, they'd certainly understand the importance of a fictional story everyone celebrates. They understand Harry Potter.
But we don't do that. We pretend Santa is real. I seriously considered adding a content warning, but I have no way of titling this without at least in the abstract giving that one morning – I did try and make the headline and preview sentence abstract enough to not totally spoil the game for an immature reader. Etiquette is important, of course, even when we don't understand it.
But my understand is far less than total. I don't get it. For a long while, I assumed it was a trial. A way to have children develop the strength to confront adults, notice they've been lied to, and stick to their convictions even when everyone tells them they're wrong. Everyone I've mentioned this to has been horrified. I think they have less faith in the courage of children than I do, but it's also possible I'm just wrong. Maybe even that small utility is invented, and we tell children ridiculous lies for no reason at all.
Insert extremely snide comments about religion here – not your religion, of course, but all those other ones. You're the one doing the inserting, after all. Those parents, who believe in a false god, also tell their kids the wrong religion for little reason, but religion is a source of community. Religion, even the really, very wrong ones, need to maintain their wrongness as truth to sustain the community, so we ignore the more farcical aspects (even of Scientology) because the lie is at least useful and pro-social. Christmas doesn't need that because all the people giving out gifts and developing the manger scenes and celebrating in any way at all already know it's false. So why can't we tell the story and explain it's not real?
I've read a bit about this and have not yet found a reason to maintain this strange lie, beyond the respect for tradition. Don't get me wrong, that should be enough for most small decisions and for most people. But for a scholar, for someone wishing to know, shouldn't the reason be available to them? I am willing to carry the burden of whatever this knowledge is, and don't desire to destroy any useful tradition, even if, on the surface, it kind of looks like lying to kids for no reason.
I'm more concerned with what to do when no reason can be found. How can we follow the wisdom of Chesterton's Fence when no scholarship can illuminate a cause? Are we stuck with all mysterious traditions also being permanent? Is there a way to safely test out unknown changes to traditions, a safe way to explore new frontiers of wisdom without permanently destroying the thing you'd like to replace? Or is adherence to this practice a warning sign, a shibboleth for your loyalty to a system – if you can't be trusted to unwaveringly support Santa, you cannot be trusted to unwaveringly support the miracles of a minor Saint, and from there more and more traditions are banished from culture?