Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Santa Claus: To believe or not to believe?

It’s seems odd how troubling Santa Claus has become. Among religious and non-religious alike there are those who second guess, for various reasons (e.g., secularism, commercialism, honesty), whether Santa should be “invited” over for Christmas in the 21st century.

I can remember my two childhood confrontations with faith in Santa in the 1970s (before you could Google any doubts). I can’t remember the precise age but I can recall pushing my bed to a window overlooking another house. I tried to stay up until I saw him and his sleigh land on their roof. Without ready access to caffeine I failed. The next Christmas I set out a pen, paper, and inkpad with the milk and cookies and requested Santa’s autograph and a stamp of Rudolph’s hoof. It was my first real try at data collection. My handwriting analysis was inconclusive but I did know, even at that age, the difference between a beagle’s paw print and a reindeer’s hoof. But maybe Santa was in a hurry and my dog was nearby? (Others have had more success at collecting evidence).

Santa is certainly no St. Nicholas and whether one is Christian or not there was a time not long ago when most American children believed in him. Eighty six percent of Americans in the most recent survey asking such a question (…that I can analyze) said they believed in Santa as a child. This is highest among Catholics at 94%. Even most non-Christians and the currently unaffiliated (…”Nones” who may have been religious earlier in life) say they believed in their youth.

If you’re a parent you may be asking yourself does my child believe or are they just pretending to believe? If kids today are anything like we were in our youth they will likely begin to have doubts around age 10—the most frequently noted age for this. Nearly half of adult Catholics (48%) who believed in Santa say they stopped believing in the jolly old man before age 9. Overall, for American adults of all faiths, only about 2% of those raised to believe in Santa continue to believe in him as an adult (...comparatively speaking not a good “retention” rate). 

Even as very few believe as adults, six in ten Catholics (61 percent) say Santa Claus is still “somewhat” or “very” important to their holiday celebrations now as adults—more so than any other affiliation group. Minorities of Evangelical and Mainline Protestants say Santa is at least “somewhat” important to them this time of year. Some may find it surprising then that majorities of those who are of other religions or who have no affiliation say Santa is
somewhat” or “very” important to them. 

Is there an Evangelical Protestant “war” on Santa that I have been unaware of? A majority of Evangelical Protestants (55%) also agreed that the Santa Claus tradition detracts from the religious significance of the Christmas holiday. Fewer Catholics (47%) and Mainline Protestants (43%) agreed that this is the case. 

The Associated Press replicated the childhood belief in Santa question in December 2011. Data are not yet available for public analysis but the topline results are essentially the same at 84%. The earliest poll I can find that asked this question was conducted by ABC News in 1993. Here childhood belief stood at 86%. So belief in Santa seems quite stable. You still need to bake the cookies and put out the milk (or hot buttered rum). You never know…

Photo above courtesy of Bart Fields from Flickr Commons.

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