Thursday, December 13, 2012

I Hate Santa

What is the point of Santa? I really don’t get it. My husband and I were never much on pushing this idea on our kids. When my son was two, I remember my sister saying something to him about Santa, and I had to reply that he didn’t really know who that was. This didn’t last long. Christmas is inundated with images of the red-suited fellow, and as soon as my son started preschool it was Santa, Santa, everywhere. So we went along with the lie because if your kid ruins it for other people’s children, you will be ostracized. So Santa became a “real” thing and therefore our next child believed in Santa too, although we still never made it much of an issue.

Sure, Santa can be used to enforce the creepy “he’s watching you so be good or you won’t get presents” theme, but I’d just as soon have my child do the right thing because it is the right thing and not because he thinks he’s on some sort of surveillance camera.

I just don’t see the benefit of lying to our kids. When my friends’ kids discovered that Santa was not real, they didn’t take it well. In some cases it even ruined Christmas for them. I remember one of my own friends from grade school sobbing uncontrollably for a full day when she realized that not only was Santa not real, but neither was the Tooth Fairy nor the Easter Bunny.

Again, what’s with all the lies? Is this really more fun for kids? Would the holidays have been less fun had they just celebrated them as they were? I probably have a slanted opinion on this for a few reasons. One reason is that I can’t recall ever believing in Santa. And guess what? I don’t feel the least bit cheated. Yes, that’s right, I didn’t believe in Santa and yet I loved Christmas as much as the next kid. I still got to eat chocolate schaum torte pie and krumkake and marshmallow cornflake wreaths dyed green; I still got to have a party with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins; I still got dressed up in a pretty red velvet dress and shiny black patent shoes and sang carols at Christmas mass; and I still dreamt of the untold wonders that could be in those gaily colored packages under the Christmas tree.

I was not raised without a Santa by design. The way my mom tells the story, I was four years old and sitting in my room talking with my eight-year-old sister Kris. My sister said how one Christmas Eve she woke up and heard bells and then peeked outside and saw a red light in the sky and decided it must be Santa and his sleigh with the reindeer, including Rudolph’s red nose shining through the night. After hearing this story I went to my mother and said, “I know Santa’s not real, but don’t tell Kris, because I think she still believes.”

Another issue I have with Santa is that he sounds a lot like God. He knows what you’re doing when no one else is watching, you can ask him to give you things, and he is a benevolent old man who rewards the good and punishes the bad. Who wouldn’t want someone like that watching over them? Santa is for children, and God is the adult’s Santa Claus. Now if you want your children to believe in God, I wouldn’t push the Santa idea too hard. Because once they realize Santa’s fictional, isn’t it a small step to think the same of God?

I want my kids to know that real money goes into the gifts they get, and that money was earned by real work. I want them to understand that giving gifts is a shared activity; that it’s not just about receiving. It’s a time to donate to those less fortunate than you and to get together with family, sometimes the only time of the year that you see certain people. And, if you are religious, you have your own reason for the season, and there are other religions celebrating their own important events that time of year as well.

Why force your kids to believe a myth? Why knowingly lie to them? Do you really get pleasure out of having to wrap presents in certain paper that they won’t identify and disguise your handwriting so they won’t recognize it? Why let them believe that there are some instances when it’s okay to carry on for years with a lie and keep secrets? In what way whatsoever does the idea of Santa benefit anyone?

It’s not fun, it’s stupid. It’s not beneficial, it’s harmful. And the fact that I have to lie to my kids when they’re young because I’m afraid they’ll “ruin it” for other people’s children is maddening. The first kid who tells the other kids at school that Santa isn’t real is looked at by the parents as being naughty and from some kind of undisciplined household.

No, my kids are not the ones who “spilled the beans”. My daughter was never very taken by the myth, and over the last couple years she said she’d “outgrown Santa,” as if he were a Disney princess or Dora and Boots. I’ll admit I quite like her perspective of the situation.

My son has known for a very long time but has never discussed it for fear of not getting gifts anymore. Though he did say once that he can’t understand why parents buy themselves presents, meaning that nonbelievers shouldn’t get gifts. One parent I know told her kids that “you have to believe to receive.” I’ll be damned if I can see the logic behind that. When they are old enough to know better, why do they still have to act like children? Yes, Santa Claus is a tradition, but one without any worthwhile value.

The anti-Santa attitude isn’t one that I’ve run across much … or ever. I think most people would conclude that I am a fervent Christian who is unhappy with Santa usurping Jesus’s rightful place. But the fact is that I’m not religious. My husband is not religious either. We were both raised as Christians and celebrated Christmas and we continue the tradition with our kids for various reasons, ranging from family expectations to the joy of giving. We keep the traditions that make sense to us and discard the worthless ones. We also believe in freedom of religion, and that includes our children’s decision to one day pick a religion for themselves. Therefore they know the real story of Christmas, just as they know about the eight nights of Hanukkah and the scientific reason for the winter solstice.

What the Santa issue comes down to for me, ultimately, is that I have to lie to my kids because you lie to your kids. I think that’s bullshit. It’s not like I treat my kids like little adults and let them watch horrible news stories or fill their vocabulary with curse words. But the blatant lying to our children for no useful reason is completely ridiculous to me.

Do I expect anyone to agree with me? No. Do I expect anyone to start acting differently? No. Am I just venting? Pretty much.

If I ever write my own fictional Christmas story, it will go something like this: “’Twas the night before Christmas , the date children like best, when kind old Santa stopped and clutched at his chest. He dropped to his knees, his skin paler than snow, and knew that at last it was his time to go….”

I’m still working on it.
RIP Santa

Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Close Encounter of the UFO Kind

As a science writer and hardened skeptic, I don’t take much stock in UFO stories. (Although I am apparently folksy enough to use the phrase “don’t take much stock”.) As an adult I find stories of “paranormal” events to be humorous and entertaining. But I was not so amused back in 1985 on the side of a dark country road as a UFO hovered overhead.

I was 12 years old and despite this being the only “close encounter” of my life, I cannot remember seeing the Unidentified Flying Object at all. I was in the backseat of the car coming back from seeing a movie with my parents and their friends. It was summertime and already dark but not yet 10 p.m.

We were well into the countryside when someone mentioned a strange light moving above us. We turned off the highway onto a deserted country road. My parents and their friends were growing excited now, and they pulled over onto the gravel shoulder to get out and take a better look.

What I remember of the event was the adults standing on the road, filled with agitation and excitement, chattering and pointing upward. And I remember myself, huddling in the far corner of the car, terrified. I felt like I was under a spotlight, beckoning the aliens to me, because the only light for miles on this country road was the one coming from the dome in the car. My parents had left their doors open and a dinging noise kept repeating this fact, drawing more attention to me in my bright cocoon. The car, parked on the side of the road, leaned toward the ditch and I allowed gravity to pull me as far from the open doors as possible, hoping that I would not be visible to any beings that were joyriding above us.

Eventually my parents returned to the car where they saw me squished into the crack between the seat and door. My mother burst out laughing.

Twenty years later I would stumble across a report of this UFO sighting, which allowed me to fill in some of the blanks.

In 2005, I bought a book called The W-Files: True Reports of Wisconsin’s Unexplained Phenomena by Jay Rath. At the time I was researching any and all minutiae about Wisconsin for a trivia and puzzle book I was writing (Badger Brain Twisters) and not even thinking of my own close encounter when I came upon the following.

The entry for August 2, 1985, begins, “Around 9:45 p.m., 10 people, in a region that spreads from Cross Plains to Blue Mounds, saw a UFO moving slowly eastward. It was white, brighter than a star and ... projected a beam of light that ‘moved back and forth like a searchlight.’”

One of the witnesses was Rogers Keene. Keene, a teacher at Wisconsin Heights Junior High School, was walking his dog around his rural home, five miles north of Black Earth. The car in which I was “hiding” during this time would have been parked on the shoulder of the road a mere two miles east of Keene.

I don’t know what subject Keene taught at Wisconsin Heights Junior High, but he analyzed the situation like an astronomer, noting that the object was about 75 degrees above the horizon and appeared to be the size of his thumb when his arm was stretched away from his body. He watched it for two minutes as it swept a beam of light across the ground. It then hovered and zig-zagged slowly downward until it was only 20 degrees above the horizon. The light then shrank until it disappeared.

Madison’s airport and NWS radar did not detect this object. And, even more strangely, on the same night, at the same time, witnesses in six other Midwestern states reported similar sightings.

So was it a UFO? Sure, in that no one has explained it. It remains unidentified. But was it an alien spacecraft? I think it’s fair to say that’s highly unlikely.

Yes, there are scientists who study “aliens”. However, they are not out tracking UFOs. They are working on projects such as SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and analyzing the statistical possibility of extraterrestrial life with mathematical tools such as the Drake Equation.

One of my favorite stories concerns the physicist Enrico Fermi. One day he was having lunch with colleagues and they were discussing that if Earth is typical for a planet and the sun is a typical star, then life should also be a commonplace occurrence in the Universe. This is when Fermi famously blurted out, “Where are they?” Meaning, if extraterrestrial life is so abundant, shouldn’t we know of their existence? Many scientists and authors have tried to answer this question, and Stephen Webb did a great job of it in his book If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … Where Is Everybody? But Fermi’s Paradox remains unanswered.

I have my own answer to the question, which plays a small part in a novel I wrote that is on my next-to-be-edited list. Perhaps someday soon I will finally finish editing my apocalyptic young adult book and it will find a home at some publishing company. In the meantime, I continue to write my astronomy articles, columns, and blogs for various media, occasionally explaining bright or flickering lights and helping to make more of the night sky identifiable to all.
Nothing "unidentified" here. The moon with Venus, Jupiter, and the Hyades Cluster in Taurus.