Our oldest daughter, at just-under-3, is still at the age where she's a believer in just about anything. Santa? Check. Minga Madinga, her Elf on the Shelf? Absolutely. The inherent awesomeness of her parents? Most of the time. Well, sometimes. If we're not denying her a toy, making her use the potty, turning off the TV/computer/iPod, trying to get her to eat, or generally engaging her when she's cranky (which, at almost-3, seems to be much of the time).
But anyway: belief. She's got it in spades. She sort of had some idea about Santa Claus last year, as being something more than just the terrifying overlord of the mall, sitting on his throne with minions taking pictures. This year, she pretty well gets it: Santa's the guy bringing toys (also, less positively, the guy who's going to take away her pacifiers and give them to younger children).
The thing I've realized as I watch her watching Christmas movies is how many of them deal actively with the subject of belief and--noticeably--disbelief. From animated Disney movies to live-action features, there's often a character saying "Santa Claus isn't real" or "There's no such thing as elves," or whatever. And, of course, like doubting Thomas, the characters on the screen get incredibly tangible proof to back up the reality of the pro-magical-Christmas crowd's claims.
I have to wonder, though: what about the kids (which is to say, pretty much all of them) who don't get to meet a talking dog who's Santa's best friend, or see a magical elf, or receive a visit from Santa himself? In other words, what I'm asking is: what's my daughter seeing in these movies? Do the disbelievers' assertions make any dent, in what is otherwise completely unchallenged belief?
Turning 90 degrees from there, I wonder if there's a sense in which Santa Claus is actually great preparation for atheism? Think about it. Most of us growing up with Santa Claus have first-hand experience with believing in a mythical being, which other people tell us is real, and then face the inevitable moment of disillusionment. We all get practice at what it's like to become an atheist, as we become an atheist with regard to Santa Claus. And the Tooth Fairy. And the Easter Bunny.
I suppose, as with any good whopper, we can always find ways to believe if we want to. "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus..." As long as you can be as equivocal about the meaning of "is" as Bill Clinton was, then yes, there "is" a Santa Claus.