Let me tell you about the secret ‘Santa Myth’ hidden inside each and every one of your communities. Even those totally unrelated to Christianity, Christmas or Paganism. Although the details of national traditions are different, there are cross-cultural similarities. Those universal similarities reveal the essence of what makes us human.
If you already know about Sinterklaas you can skip that part by clicking here
The Strangest Part of the Tradition?
The Dutch Tradition of Sinterklaas & Zwartepiet
Each nation, place and family celebrates holidays in their own unique way. But the lessons we learn from them are valuable for all. In countries like the United States, the story of Santa Claus is important during Christmas. However, in the Netherlands the story of Santa Claus is actually not that important. He is generally used more as decoration during Christmas and the Christmas tree seems to be a more powerful symbol of Christmas here.
Saint Nicholas, called ‘Sinterklaas‘ here in the Netherlands, is a key figure in Dutch culture and might even be more important than ‘Santa Claus’ is in other countries. The names are almost similar but they are not the same character.
Just like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas brings presents at night for the good kids and punishes the bad kids. He visits in December and also has helpers. One controversial detail is debated about each year. “Is ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) racist or not.” He has some similarities to the racist caricature ‘Blackface’. However, most Dutch who celebrate the traditions just follow the tradition without any racist intentions. The situation is not black and white.
Cultural traditions and racial discrimination 17.
While the Committee understands that the tradition of Sinterklaas and Black Pete is enjoyed by many persons in Dutch society, the Committee notes with concern that the character of Black Pete is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery, which is injurious to the dignity and self-esteem of children and adults of African descent. The Committee is concerned about the discriminatory effect of such portrayals, which may convey a conception at odds with the Convention. The Committee is furthermore concerned at reports that citizens seeking to peacefully protest against such portrayals have been denied authorization to conduct such protests at a meaningful time and place and have been subjected to violent attacks and other forms of intimidation, which have not been adequately investigated. (arts. 2, 5 and 7).
I am reporting this so you can be aware of this issue, but I won’t discuss the racism issue in more detail here, because I believe there is a much more important part of the tradition we can learn from.
The Strangest Part of the Tradition?
Just like with the Santa Claus tradition in other countries…
All the adults and older children somehow conspire together to lie to the younger kids and try to convince them Sinterklaas is real!
There is actually a national conspiracy of silence to collectively lie to a part of the community. To lie about something everyone knows is not real!
conspiracy (Cambridge dictionary):
a secret plan made by two or more people to do something bad, illegal, or against someone’s wishes.
conspiracy of silence (Cambridge dictionary):
a general agreement to keep silent about a subject for the purpose of keeping it secret.
For someone who grows up with the tradition it seems completely natural. “Everyone does it”. However, if you take a step back and reflect on it, it immediately becomes crystal clear how utterly bizarre it is. Especially a nation like the Dutch who pride themselves on their freedom, reason, individuality and direct attitude. Such a conspiracy of silence directly contradicts all those values.
Why Do People Do This?
The most common answer I heard was “The kids think its fun, (so) we do it for them.” However, this is a weak excuse and not the real reason. Of course if you give kids free toys and lots of candy, they are going to enjoy it. There are many other things they enjoy, but we don’t create national holidays around them which include myths requiring a nationwide conspiracy of silence against kids. When people are really pushed, for example when people try to change the tradition by changing the appearance of Black Pete to make him look less racist, the response is very different. “Black Pete is not racism, it is our culture!” Now it is starting to make more sense. The point is to prevent their own identity from dying. It is not primarily about the kids. It is about “saving” their own childhood memories and constructed identity. It is about being part of some identity that will last forever. But to place your hopes of immortality on any local cultural tradition seems like a really hopeless plan. Local cultures change all the time.
What We Can Learn From This
My point is not to denigrate the Dutch and their Sinterklaas tradition. The lesson is that every culture and society has their Sinterklaas & Black Pete. Something people irrationally cling on to, hoping it will be eternal. So they will last forever. But things change. In the modern world even more swiftly than in the past. I am not suggestion all traditions should be immediately thrown out. I suggest the following:
- Question your own assumptions and beliefs first: Don’t become permanently attached to arbitrary ever changing cultural traditions. But don’t thoughtlessly reject them as well. Some aspects might have value.
- Self-critical adaptation: Take the good and leave the bad
- Anti-Fragile Integrity: continuously develop your identity on eternal values that do not depend on ever-changing external circumstances. Use the trials of life to remove any impurities in yourself, so in the end only the good remains in you.
Wait You Have Not Yet Answered The Question!
Actually that was not the main insight I wanted to show you. It does not yet answer the main observation. The ability of nearly the whole community to conspire against another part of the same community. You might feel this is only something other people and other communities do.
However, if you really reflect upon it, it is something all communities and groups do to their own people. People just pretend it does not happen. Or when it is pointed out, they will instinctively react that it isn’t a big deal.
The Deceptive Nature of Human Communities
The lesson is not merely that adults can and do lie to children. But that:
- all human communities have lies, myths and deception
- it is very easy for people to lie collectively in groups
because group culture usually demands that
- lying is not only directed at people outside the group
but is especially directed at those inside the group
- this lying is not personal nor malicious
but a natural result of human interaction.
- You will usually be told more of the truth if you:
- Ask the right person who cares about telling you the truth and knows it.
- Show the desire to know the truth, by asking persistently.
- Show ability to understand the truth, by listening carefully
and asking insightfully.
- Show integrity by using knowledge with wisdom.
“Strive towards truth, and you will be guided.”
Know that people usually prefer safety, security and comfort over other things. So don’t expect too much.
I will emphasize again that what I described above happens for example in:
- social circles,
- religious communities,
- sport clubs,
- non-profit organizations,
- political parties,
- nations, and
- especially any educational institution.
Yes this includes the precious technology faculties and scientific research communities.
However, nothing nefarious is going on. It is all very natural. It is related to the following point.
The Intrinsic Nature of Human Knowledge
Imagine all your knowledge represented by an Island. The unexplored ocean being the vast unknown. The shores at the edge of the island represent the limit of your knowledge, your ignorance. The Island constantly changes its size and shape. Growing where you learn more and shrinking where you forget or where the knowledge becomes outdated. In the best case, your island of knowledge just keeps on growing forever in all directions.
From Marcelo Gleiser’s ‘The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning’ Prologue page xxii
“Naively, we would expect that the more we know of the world, the closer we come to some sort of final destination, which some call a Theory of Everything and others the ultimate nature of reality. However, holding on to our metaphor, we see that as the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance — the boundary between the known and the unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination – whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyway – but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.”
The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know.
For many people the process will be similar to this.
On the primary and secondary levels of most public education systems, the students are taught to blindly accept and swallow all the information given to them. However, when they enter the University level their world is turned upside down and now they are shown that everything they learned before was false or at best grossly oversimplified. Instead of blindly copy-pasting and memorize everything, they are taught to critically present their case and question and prove all their assumptions. This is another “Santa doesn’t exist” moment for these students. The students will realize that the previous levels have been lying to them this whole time.
Then they graduate, confident they will be able to use their theories, models and logic to improve the institutions and companies they will be working for. However, they will soon find out that all the nonsense about “properly applying the scientific method” and that stuff goes out the window very quickly. Why? Simply because in “the real world”, people are not persuaded by sterile facts and blind logic. Furthermore, although knowing the truth is important, it is not the primary success factor in the real world. Not in the business, nor the non-profit sector. The key is to be able to make great decisions and apply them! Doing research for “the perfect truth” will be prohibitively expensive. You need knowledge that is cheap, but good enough to make excellent decisions, which includes actually taking action on those decisions. And you must present it in a way that is persuasive enough to really convince people. People who can actually make an impact for you. They could be your colleagues, boss, or customers. And in your personal life they are your spouse, children, family and friends. Starting their first job, people will experience how useless their technical skills often are if they don’t have any social skills. And they will see completely unqualified people working in positions they should not be because they have great social skills. This will be another “Santa doesn’t exist” moment for them.
Following only what people say,
is the guaranteed way to disaster.
Don’t just listen to what people say.
Observe what they do!
This is just an example of the never ending layers of the Santa Myth regarding education. But this process also will occur in all the areas of your life, including politics, social life, and even romantic relationships. This process will be never ending.
All people will be stuck at various levels of “the Santa Myth” in different aspects of their life. This doesn’t make them idiots. We need to prepare and learn a lot. But we don’t need to know everything in the universe. What is impossible can never be necessary. For each moment of our lives we only need to understand enough to:
- have the right intentions
- make the right decisions,
- say the right words, and
- do the right things.
The important thing is to both realize your potential and know your limits.
To improve ourselves and prosper we must continuously see through the never-ending layers of Santa Claus illusions in all our organizations, communities and relationships.
Those who blindly accept everything,
will never truly learn anything.
No one will ever learn everything
and find complete truth.
But at least be on the journey towards it.
Different Reactions To The Same Santa Myth Betrayal
All relationships are built on trust. When people deceive you, they damage that trust. When you discover that Santa Myth, in your own community, family and perhaps even in your own marriage you might feel severely betrayed…
if you lack insight.
But parents don’t lie to their kids about Santa because they hate their kids. They may lie for many reasons. Mainly to preserve their identity, create a bond by having their kids go through the same experiences they did, or simply just peer pressure and lack of critical thinking. Even if what they did was wrong, at least they want the experience to be as joyful as possible. They want to see their kids be happy.
Likewise, you must see through the lies and see the truth. That even if what your loved ones did was wrong, most of them are in the end good people and they do really love you. Even if they sometimes make wrong decisions.
When people in communities do this to each other, they are just trapped in the culture of the community. It is usually nothing personal. It is very hard to change a culture implicitly endorsed by thousands or millions of people just by yourself. Many will actually fight you for trying to change it, so it might not be worth it. It is infinitely more profitable to play along and sell people something they already want to buy. So that is what most people do. Playing along will make you survive, but it will not make you feel alive.
Remain polite towards those who wish to play.
Sell to those who want to buy.
But live with those who want to live.
Some asleep may be revived.
Share with those who are alive.
The Great Benefit of The Santa Claus Myth
What makes the Santa Claus Myth so valuable, is that it is a clear expression of human behavior. It is not just an untested hypothesis or small-scale social experiment. It is a yearly recurring nationwide social phenomenon. A lesson made even more memorable if you have personally experienced it. Even if your parents did not lie to you, to see the rest of society including all authority figures like teachers conspire against you, must have made an impact on most of you. After which you may think it is completely normal.
Know that just as everyone lives inside many communities, we all live inside many forms of the Santa Claus Myth. So when you find yourself in a strange situation with a part of the group conspiring against the other part, don’t be surprised. Adjust your worldview and remember the Santa Claus Myth. The one we are all trapped in. You are not alone.
What was your biggest Santa Claus Myth?
- 1 The Dutch Tradition of Sinterklaas & Zwartepiet
- 2 The Strangest Part of the Tradition?
- 3 Why Do People Do This?
- 4 What We Can Learn From This
- 5 Wait You Have Not Yet Answered The Question!
- 6 The Deceptive Nature of Human Communities
- 7 The Intrinsic Nature of Human Knowledge
- 8 Different Reactions To The Same Santa Myth Betrayal
- 9 The Great Benefit of The Santa Claus Myth