Founding and Managing Partner
The Arbinger Institute
Somewhere inside us resides an impulse to do good without being noticed, to give without drawing attention to ourselves, to help without needing thanks. How else can one explain the world’s outsourcing of attention for giving to an extroverted hermit from the North?
These noble desires compete with another impulse within humankind: the desire to be noticed, appreciated, even adored. Here, too, Santa plays a role in the story. In a way, Santa is mankind’s collective ego clothed in a red suit. He is an attention seeker (even in the way he claims that he’s not), a publicity hound, a diva of faux goodness. He is that part of us that others wish would diminish.
The persona of Santa reminds me of a piece from an early airing of the Colbert Report. “This show isn’t about me,” Stephen Colbert said, looking straight through the camera and into the faces of his commercial audience. “It’s about you.” He continued: “And who are you? The people who watch my show.”
Every year the world watches the show that is put on in Santa’s name. His gift-giving brand has become so enormous that children are mesmerized by it. They have become grateful to him for everything. Parents and others are left to give in obscurity with no opportunity for personal credit. The Santa ego leaves our egos nothing to seek after. All that is left is to give. Purely. Selflessly. And perhaps if we can learn it, joyfully.
In this way, Santa is more of a gift to the parents and grownups of the world than he is to the children. If there were no Santa, parents would take care of their kids anyway; little would change for them.
But consider what would change for the parents: joy that is available only to those who seek it not for themselves would be put at risk. The attention-seeking, gratitude-demanding, self-centered red-suited pieces of ourselves may just show up to spoil an otherwise self-forgetful and therefore wonderful celebration.
No, the children don’t need Santa Claus. But the rest of us might. Until there is no more sleigh-driven ego in us that wants to get the credit.