So Be Good for Goodness' Sake

A member of the church sent me this article as a response to some of the themes we've been discussing in our Advent Conspiracy study. I was especially interested in this 1984 experiment:

The children were asked to tell stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or their pets. They were then given nine pieces of gum and “encouraged to donate any amount of their gum to handicapped children.”

The kindergartners, who were clearly not yet into sharing, tended to hold onto their gum. But the first-graders were far more generous, and those who had been discussing Santa were the most giving of all. They gave up an average of 3.63 pieces of gum, compared to 1.3 pieces for those who talked about the Easter Bunny and 1.63 for those who discussed their pets.

The study's authors surmise that the "Santa kids" display the most generous behavior because “children perceive Santa Claus — but not the Easter Bunny — as a contingent gift-giver, assessing the quality of a child’s behavior before determining the nature of gifts... Alternately, children may see Santa Claus as more generally vigilant than the Easter Bunny.”

That seems very likely, especially since many parents use Santa Claus as a carrot and a stick at Christmastime. I suspect this was even more true in the 1980s than now.

However, it is also possible that the story of Santa's giving inspires giving. I'd like to think that is a factor; in fact, I have read studies that strongly suggest this. People learn and exhibit empathy when they are intentionally exposed to people in need and to stories of extravagant generosity. To be frank, this idea is pretty foundational for me as a Christian minister---that the epic story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection effects a transformation in the lives and hearts of its listeners, such that they are moved to "go and do likewise."

But if that were the case---that stories of generosity inspire generosity---how do we understand the discrepancy between the "Santa children" and the "Easter Bunny children"? There are all sorts of possible reasons:

  • The quality of the stories. The Santa story is much more deeply resonant with children than the Easter Bunny.
  • Along those same lines, the Santa myth is grounded in a historical person, Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. And I think the myth carries the weight of that historicity, even when the listeners don't know the source material. Stories are powerful and mysterious that way.
  • The Easter Bunny is an animal, giving the story much less of an aspirational quality. What, I'm supposed to emulate a rabbit?
  • Generally speaking, Santa displays an abundance of generosity (toys, candy and stocking stuffers) that the Easter Bunny does not (a basket of candy).

What do you think?

By the way, I never realized until I typed the title how contradictory that verse of the song. "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good." Then comes the line in the title.

But wait---is it contradictory? I think it all comes down to the punctuation. When viewed like this:

So be good, for goodness sake!

It's totally in keeping with the song. It's a threat---be good, or else. (And how many folks do we know who still cling to that view of God?)

But when viewed like this, it's totally different:

So be good for goodness' sake.

Be good... for the sake of goodness. Not because you get anything in return. It's like a little glimmer of good news and a faithful bit of ethics right in the middle of "Boogeyman gonna get ya" theology. I'll take the glimmers and bits where I can get them.