Santa Claus occupies a strange place in Christian belief. On the one hand, only children seem to really believe he exists; on the other, he gets a great deal more attention than many other purported supernatural beings, such as angels or Satan.
Does Santa Claus count as a god of the Christian religion? (From an anthropological point of view, many different kinds of supernatural beings can be classified as “gods.”) Christians are likely to say no, in part because Christianity styles itself as a monotheistic religion. I say “styles itself,” because there are several ways in which it looks quite polytheistic. For example, though there are plenty of Christians who believe only in the one capital-G God, there are also many who also believe in angels, saints, demons, and even ghosts—and this is ignoring the complicating example of the Trinity.
But although Santa would indeed count as a supernatural being if people believed in him, in fact not many people older than 7½ actually do. However, the nature of the Santa Claus myth bears some striking similarities to the gods of many religions.
The most obvious similarity is that Santa is believed to have magical powers, such as being able to fly around the world and visit innumerable houses in very little time. He also has other supernatural beings in his service, including elves and flying reindeer. Like all god beliefs, he comes with an explanation for why we don’t actually see him: He comes at night while everyone is asleep (the department store “Santa” being an interesting exception to this tendency).
But the most interesting similarity to other gods is that Santa has special access to knowledge about the moral behavior of people. This is known in psychology as “strategic knowledge.” Even gods believed to be all knowing are believed to pay more attention to people’s moral behavior than to, say, the average number of kibbles your dog eats every week and a half. Like many other gods privy to strategic knowledge, Santa is associated with specific rituals. These rituals include the hanging of stockings and even offerings: cookies and milk. Gods that have strategic knowledge also tend to use it in some way, either to punish or reward people. The Santa myth supports this as well, in that Santa brings deserved surprises to his young believers: toys for the nice and coal for the naughty.
Strategic knowledge is also the kind of information that people are more likely to gossip about. Both gossip and religion have been theorized to function as a way to keep people treating each other well. Many adults help maintain the illusion that Santa exists, in part because they think it will inspire their children to behave well. Similarly, psychologists such as Jesse Bering and Jonathan Haidt suggest that religion evolved (either culturally or genetically) to encourage people to not cheat each other when no actual human being is around to see it.
But the fact that there is no cult of Santa Claus and that he doesn’t have a substantial community of true believers might disqualify him from being a true god, as suggested by Justin L. Barrett, who studies the cognitive psychology of religion.
Still, if Santa is not a god, there is no mistaking the similarities:
He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
so be good for goodness’ sake.
Jim Davies is the author or Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe. He teaches cognitive science at Carleton University.