A minor civil war is brewing at Angela’s house, and the battle lines are drawn around Santa Claus. Her kids, Lily and Hunter, fall into one of two camps: those that believe in St. Nick, and those that don’t.
Ten-year-old Hunter doesn’t exactly remember when he realized Santa wasn’t real, but he’s on a crusade to blow the lid off the deception. “Why do I have to play along?” he said. “Lily will find out eventually, anyway.”
“If you spoil it for her, I won’t buy you those Beats headphones for Christmas,” Angela shot back.
“This is just so lame,” he said. He’d rather play video games or watch football than act along, but the threat was powerful enough to keep his lips sealed. So when Lily asks him how Santa figures out the naughty from the nice, and which type of cookies he prefers, Hunter just rolls his eyes.
But Lily may be onto the ruse. The other day, after Angela read a bedtime story, Lily asked if Santa was real. Suddenly, Angela was confronted with the question of telling her the truth, or prolonging her fantasy a bit longer. When she decided to keep Lily’s wide-eyed innocence alive, the next day, she sent her friends an e-mail, asking, “How do I create the reality that Santa exists?”
Some of us took it as a joke. “Buy her Google Glass and flash ‘Santa is real’ on the screen,” one said. “Isn’t it about time she grew up and faced the harsh reality?” another replied. Some even suggested elaborate play-acting, like leaving evidence of Santa’s visit around the house, as if he were a clumsy house burglar, or making Hunter dress up as an elf as punishment.
But others took the question at face value: how does one create a reality?
The idea of reality, of course, is both a philosophical debate and a practical quandary, even for something as simple and innocent as Santa. While we can’t detail the nature of reality here — great philosophers, after all, have built entire canons of work to debate the notion of what we regard as real — it is defined as “the state of things as they actually exist, not as imagined or believed,” or sometimes more broadly as, “everything that was, is or ever will be.” And for Lily, Santa must fit somewhere in there.
Some quibble that the idea of reality can be “created” at all. To bastardize hundreds of years of philosophical tradition, there are the garden-variety materialists, who believe all things — even our thoughts and emotions — have their origin in physical matter. Example: we fall in love because of hormones.
And then, there are the idealists, who believe that reality begins in the mind — that what we think of as real is actually a product of our ideas and experiences. The reality of a Sudanese civil war refugee, for example, is vastly different from the life of a little girl who lives a prosperous, stable existence in the suburb of Chicago.
For modern-day idealists, the experiences that create our reality often come from media, and particularly the Internet, as it evolves to seep into even the smallest corners of our lives.
I fall into the idealist camp, so I told Angela about a German film, called “Goodbye, Lenin,” which cleverly examines ways to use media to manufacture a false sense of reality. In the story, Alex lives in East Germany, and finds that his mother has fallen into a coma shortly before the Berlin Wall falls, transforming his society into capitalism.
When she awakens, eight months later, doctors warn him that any shock might push her back into unconsciousness, so he decides to recreate a still-existing communist reality, going to elaborate lengths to redecorate their flat to resemble the drab decor of the socialist days. He even feeds her foods, repackaged in old Eastern jars. Most important, he enlists the help of a filmmaker friend, who creates fake television reports from old tapes of East German broadcasts. The ruse works, and she believes communism is intact and all is well in her world.
Closer to home, in Hollywood, “The Truman Show,” tells a story of a man who discovers his whole existence is fodder for a TV show. When producers conceive of the idea follow the life of a one man, they use media to not only to create a faux reality, but manipulate him with constant reports of the dangers of travel, and keep him from leaving it.
If all our senses tell us an illusion is real, does it make it real?
I tell Angela all this, and that if she wants to create a reality of Santa, she needs take a page from the Lenin/Truman playbook, and use the power of media to create his existence. Lucky for her, kids these days spend more time in front of an iPad than a TV, so she won’t need to create fake television programs. Instead, plenty of apps are already devoted to keeping the illusion that Santa is real, alive and kicking with the missus and a bunch of elves in the North Pole.
For example, Santa Spy Cam, allows parents to superimpose prerecorded footage of St. Nick atop any home video. Adam Wilson, who developed the app, casted actors, built key props, like a sleigh, and even brought in two reindeer to digitally clone into an entire pack. The same idea is used in Hollywood special effects, where actors shot in front of green screens are later superimposed on computer-generated backdrops. While Santa Spy Cam lacks a certain James Cameron-level of precision, it easily convinces kids that Santa ate cookies in their kitchen.
But the oldest, and perhaps best, “Believe in Santa” tool is the famed “Santa Tracker” site. Maintained by NORAD, or North American Aerospace Defense Command, it lets children follow Santa’s precise location, along with live updates, on his big journey.
Santa Tracker was the result of a colossal mistake when, in 1955, a newspaper printed a department store advertisement telling children they could call Santa to let him know what they wanted for Christmas. The only problem? It printed the wrong number.
That line, in fact, connected to the predecessor of NORAD, then called the Continental Air Defense Command, where a stern colonel, expecting to hear from a superior officer, picked up on Christmas Eve. According to the Atlantic, instead of hanging up on the little girl, he decided to play along, and say he was one of the elves.
More calls rolled in that night, so the colonel enlisted others to answer the phones, ordering them to play along. And as everyone began to get into the Christmas spirit, they began to give reports of Santa’s whereabouts across the globe. A tradition was born, one that the agency keeps to this day. According to NORAD, last year, over 22 million people visited its Santa Tracker website, including over 70,000 calls and 12,000 e-mails from children.
Santa Tracker is exceptional at convincing children of Santa’s existence, but recently, Boston-based “Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood,” a children’s advocacy group, criticized NORAD’s service, saying its fast-paced, movie-like trailer, which shows brief footage of fighter jets escorting Santa’s sleigh, was too militaristic.
While Lily glossed over the five-second fighter jet footage, eager for Santa’s arrival on the 25th, advocates have a point. If the information we take in through our screens reinforces our biases and interests — like Netflix- and Amazon-like algorithms that recommend things tailored to our habits — how easy is it to use the Internet to reinforce versions of reality?
Regardless, whether we follow Santa’s footsteps on TV or the Web, we can recreate his magic and wonder. From what I hear, the Great Santa Reality is working, and Lily believes in the Big Man in Red, again. She’s especially fascinated with Santa Tracker, and something about the “real-time” aspect of the site, along with the seal of approval from the government, gives it clout in her young, pliable mind.
Angela even has a plan for Hunter, and throws out clues that he won’t get his much desired Beats headphones — an easy enough idea to believe, since wherever they go, they’re sold out in stores. Secretly, though, she already has a pair stashed away, which she’ll place under the tree after midnight on Christmas Eve, with a tag that reads, “From Santa.”
While some traditions are an illusion, the spirit of generosity that underlies our holiday seems to be very much alive. ♦