Topic: Professions & Institutions

Attack of the Santa Assassin
(12/30/2005)

The Scoreboard regards the parental conspiracy to support Santa Claus mythology as an excellent rebuttal to the Kantian contentions that all lies are unethical. Here is a fantasy told to the very young that imbues them with a sense of magic and wonder, and greatly enhances their enjoyment of a holiday having great social, historical, and cultural significance. It draws families together, and produces a uniquely memorable series of annual rituals that become a focal point of childhood: the late night parental setting of the scene around the tree, a child waking parents at dawn to see what Santa has brought, the first sight of the presents, and the subsequent ecstatic moments of unwrapping, surprise, and discovery. If there are children who feel that they had been mistreated by their parents perpetuating the Santa fantasy until it was no longer credible, they are a distinct and peculiar minority. Even Natalie Wood in "Miracle on 34th Street" wanted to believe in Santa Claus.

But Theresa Farrisi, a substitute music teacher at Lickdale Elementary School in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, just couldn't bring herself to participate in this vile falsehood. So as part of her assigned duty of reading "The Night Before Christmas" to a first grade class (!), Ms. Farrisi took it upon herself to explode the myth, spill the beans, and break the spell.

"The poem has great literary value, but it goes against my conscience to teach something which I know to be false to children, who are impressionable," Farrisi explained, after several of the children arrived home in tears, and others accused their parents of lying to them. "It's a story. I taught it as a story. There's no real person called Santa Claus living at the North Pole."

But, she was at pains to point out, Farrisi did not tell the students Santa Claus was dead. "I said there was a man named Nicholas of Myrna who died in 343 A.D., upon whom the Santa Claus myth (is based)," she told reporters.

Surely, the fine distinction between hearing that Santa Claus is dead and learning that the person whom Santa Claus was based upon has been dead for almost 1700 years was a great comfort to the kids as they attempted to salvage Christmas from the wreckage of their shattered illusions. Thanks, Ms. Farrisi!

The fantasy of Santa Claus is squarely in the realm of family tradition and ritual. It is absolutely not the role of an elementary school teacher…an elementary school music teacher…a substitute elementary school music teacher… a substitute elementary school music teacher with delusions of grandeur, in fact…to take it upon herself to veto a parental decision to foster the belief in Santa Claus for a precious few years until logic, reality, and MTV blows it away. Telling the truth is a virtue that has a time and a place. A pop quiz for Ms. Farrisi: Are any of these examples of spontaneous truth-telling ethically legitimate?

"I know, Johnny, that your parents told you that you were always their little boy and the stork brought you to the wrong family, but the truth is that your real mother was a crack whore who gave you up for adoption."  

No.

"I'm sorry, Alice, but no matter what your Daddy says, the truth is that your mommy won't be getting better, and will die horribly within six months." 

Uh-uh.

"Yes, Billy, I know your Mom says your Dad loves you and just has to travel a lot, but everyone knows that he left you and your mother to be with his 20 year-old Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader girlfriend, and only gives you a thought when he's putting a check in the mail." 

Mmmm…don't think so!

And telling a first-grader that there isn't any Santa Claus in contradiction of his or her parents is similarly wrong, arrogant, thoughtless, and cruel.

The teacher had other, better, and less damaging ways available to her if her conscience was truly rebelling at the prospect of colluding with parents to deceive her young charges. She could have declined to read the poem, for example. Far better that the kids wait until another day to hear about the famous visit from St. Nicholas than for them to learn prematurely that he would never be visiting them at all. If she really felt so strongly about it, she could have told the school principal that she would not read the poem as a matter of personal conviction. But that would have taken forethought and courage. How much easier it was for her to just spoil Christmas for a group of six-year olds…all in the name of truth, of course.

The magic and innocence of childhood is destroyed in due time. For a teacher to willfully hasten that loss and justify it by invoking conscience is an ethical travesty. The convenience of ethical absolutism is that it requires no thought. The flaw of ethical absolutism is that it is too often applied thoughtlessly.

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