Santa winking

A treatise on the nature and implications of Santa’s surveillance state as described in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”

17-minute read

When one hears the phrase “surveillance state” one’s mind immediately goes to Russia’s notorious KGB or East Germany’s Stasi secret police.

They’re synonymous with ruthless imposition of order and the means to enforce that order.

Granted, the United States has quite the surveillance state of its own right now, what with the NSA listening in to our phone calls and internet traffic. (Hi, guys!) But that’s the small fry.

In true U.S. fashion we’ve managed to privatize our surveillance state with the likes of Google, Facebook and devices like the Amazon Echo. We’d never allow a government device that was always listening into our homes. But if we can more easily order toilet paper or listen to some pop songstress caterwaul on Spotify, sure, go for it. In fact, we’ll even pay the company spying on us for the privilege of using the device.

All that hard work by the NSA only to have most of America just hand it over freely. Boy are their faces red.

But what of the other surveillance state? The one hiding in plain sight. The one collecting vast amounts of data day and night, year after year after year. The one that knows our deepest secrets. The one we can’t opt out of.

Worse, it focuses on children, making harsh moral judgements that greatly affect their future and social standing, even the kind of socks and underwear they receive as gifts.

We’re talking about Santa Claus who, since first noted in 1934, has run the most pervasive, far-reaching and powerful surveillance state in world history. Put succinctly:

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good

Since the spy network was first made public by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie in the famed investigative Christmas carol Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, the revelations therein remain the canonical take on Santa’s elaborate intelligence network. The movie adaptation of the song chooses to gloss over this in favor of portraying Santa as a Che Guevara-like revolutionary figure, rejected and exiled before finally bringing his vision to the populace at large.

But if the eponymous movie hides the truth, others have not. In the intervening years, like a line of holy scripture, these three sentence have been elaborated on, expanded and speculated over across multiple movies, TV specials and songs for decades. They have all tried dramatize its details and impact in increasingly varied ways.

An entire mythology has grown up around Santa’s surveillance capabilities. Far from being intrusive, Santa and his vast data collection is most often portrayed as a benevolent service for the betterment of humanity – namely through the enforcement of discipline on children.

He carries out his annual labors with dedication and efficiency and without complaint, a few stale cookies and some tepid milk as his only reward.

Because of this, Santa himself is often shown as a selfless, if somewhat harried, servant trapped in obligatory duties. His work is seen as pure altruism, or at the very least innocuous, something for parents to care about when the kids are little but to gradually just stop thinking about once their kids become sullen, inarticulate teens.

Some mix of all these factors means that Santa’s constant, all-seeing surveillance is something we tend to just let slide. It exists to enable Santa’s life of service. No biggie.

After all, who doesn’t like Santa? Other than Philadelphia Eagles fans.

But is this really a fair assessment?

Even if we set aside whether Santa’s actions are justified, are we basing our acceptance of Santa’s actions on our own assumptions and scant evidence rather than a clear picture of what Santa is really up to? Santa’s surveillance net has significantly more nuance – and implications – than is generally assumed. Much is encapsulated in just these 11 words:

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

Let’s just stop for a second and let that first line really sink in.

It’s 2 a.m. You’re snoring loudly, your mouth agape. A silvery line of drool drool puddling on your pillow glints in the moonlight. And there’s Santa, standing over you, in the dark, inches away, his brow furrowed as he studies your face. Perhaps a mittened hand slowly slides under a blanket.

Back at the North Pole, Mrs. Claus once again reaches over to find the cold emptiness beside her in bed. She sighs knowingly. Another night of crying herself to sleep …

Setting aside the creepier aspects for a moment, these lines are clearly presented together to draw a sharp contrast in Santa’s daytime and nighttime surveillance capabilities. He sees you when you’re sleeping but he only knows when you’re awake.

This certainly gives lie to the notion that Santa is some sort of omniscient, all-powerful near-deity observing our daily actions, an all-seeing eye like Sauron, Heimdall or a Freemason.

Were this notion true, Santa could potentially have compiled a vast archive of scenes from our regular daily tasks – ordering coffee, placing the cover sheets on our TPS reports, cooking dinner – as well as our more private, embarrassing moments such as pooping, whacking off in the shower, picking our nose at a stoplight, eating food out of the trash, sinking an oil drum1 containing a dead body into the deep ocean, etc.

Rather, his “sees you when you’re sleeping” methods greatly differ from the popular assumption, enough that we could dismiss the whole thing as Santa is just likes being a creeper. Or maybe Santa only has surveillance cams installed all the world’s bedrooms and hotel rooms.

But before we dismiss it all like we do so often when Santa is involved, recall that this limitation hasn’t hampered his ability to “know” with certainty who’s been “bad or good” or to “find out who’s naughty or nice,” as the song reiterates.

Perhaps the truth is that he doesn’t actually need to watch our everyday actions and interactions. Not seeing, only knowing, when we are awake might not be a limitation at all. What happens when we’re asleep might be the only part of our lives that’s relevant to Santa’s interests.

The text certainly supports this. “Sees” is a word with many shaded meanings. One could assume the meaning here is “sees” in the literal sense “to view with one’s eyes.” The use of “know” – as in “he knows when you’re awake” and “he knows if you’ve been bad or good” – elsewhere in the song suggests a more esoteric, shaded meaning of “see” in the vein of “to understand intellectually or spiritually; have insight.”

Santa truly sees us when we are sleeping. He peers deep into our soul, past our daily pretenses, the actions we take to be socially acceptable, our boasts and facades, the lies and delusions we create to justify our actions. Our conscious mind is pulled aside like a magician’s drop cloth revealing the truth beneath. Nothing we do gets past Santa.

Nighttime surveillance finds us at our most vulnerable, our most nakedly open. Our subconscious is allowed to leave its things in the streets and run wild, our true natures and deepest feelings and wishes are unleashed into the world like monsters from the id.

In this light, the bold claim that Santa is “gonna find out who’s naughty or nice” takes on an added dimension, an inevitability of sorts. Conceal all you want, but the truth will out as he hovers over our dreams absorbing our essence like a red-suited incubus.

He sees.

If the nature of Santa’s surveillance is less “spy camera on the street corner” and more “deep understanding of our spiritual and emotional life,” who makes it onto his list and who does not takes on an added urgency.

As the song makes abundantly clear, He knows if you’ve been bad or good. While crying and pouting are the only actions specifically forbidden, the lyrics place a special emphasis on the far-more ill-defined “bad” and “good.”

The “sees you when your sleeping” line may be the most unsettling, but the “bad or good” line is the most problematic.

The entire claim centers on the notion that Santa “knows.” There’s a certitude. He doesn’t just investigate claims. He doesn’t process reports handed to him. There’s no adjudication. Certainly no appeal.

Santa just knows. End of story.

Given his reach and influence, this puts Santa among the world’s foremost moral arbiters. He wields power that rivals such as the pope can only dream about.

But the power he wields is based on … no one knows. What, exactly, does Santa believe?

Humanity has struggled for millennia to understand the true nature of good and evil. It has been a key question considered by philosophers, theologians, jurists and kings.

It’s the subject of profound works. The Book of Job contains the Bible’s deepest philosophical musings into this question, arriving that it’s perhaps simply unknowable. Likewise Aristotle expressed his thinking with the Golden Mean, a way to find a balance between excesses. It’s a theme written across history.

Good and evil is of such wide interpretation and shifting definition that the importance of Santa’s moral philosophy is thrown into sharp relief. At an extreme end, a bigoted, inflexible Santa might withhold toys from homosexual children because he considers it to be a violation of the natural order. That would certainly be in line with certain moral codes.

Or an overly indulgent Santa might simply spread toys with nary a thought to the end result of such promiscuity. Again, certain moral codes would endorse such behavior.

But at a deeper philosophical level, a Utilitarian Santa would have a starkly different view of good and evil than, say, an Objectivist Santa or an Existentialist Santa or a Nihilist Santa2. It really depends on whose philosophy book is sitting on Santa’s toilet tank.

While Utilitarian Santa might see dropping a dollar in a homeless person’s cup as an act of kindness and charity, as the good it brings to that individual’s immediate need outweighs the possible perpetuation of the recipient’s plight. Objectivist Santa might view such an act as futility and investing that dollar in improving oneself brings about the most overall good for society.

Existentialist Santa might dole out toys as randomly as possible to teach children about the inherent unfairness of the world, whereas Nihilist Santa would withhold toys, not out of spite, but because his real gift to the world would be despair.

Santa, due to his affiliation with a religious holiday, might even take a more theological view. Thomas Aquinas argued that virtue springs naturally from reason, but that many things not first seen as virtuous, “have been found by men to be conductive to well living.”

If virtue is discoverable by reason, this casts doubt on Santa’s ability to keep up with ever-shifting virtue, no matter how wise and all-knowing.

Social mores often lag behind accepted personal and private behavior. In other words, the way we are supposed to behave and the way we behave are often the difference between the map and the territory.

The sad fact is that, like the study of good and evil itself, we are left with more questions than answers.

Even if we were able to pin down a definition of Santa’s philosophical underpinnings, his role is not just moral philosopher, but moral enforcer.

From the understanding of virtue springs the law. But that doesn’t mean that Santa’s moral code directly translates into virtue among those he oversees.

Great lawgivers, Moses with his Ten Commandments, Hammurabi with his Code – have used law as means to impose civic virtue. While law is freighted with certain notions of right and wrong, mere conformity with the law does not bring one personal virtue.

For example, certain strains of Christian theology consider “sinning in one’s heart” to be the same as committing the sin itself. It’s not enough to forego stealing because the store’s cameras might catch you. One must internalize that the act of stealing is itself to be wrong.

Likewise, U.S. common law and justice is centered on intent. Causing a death, while always terrible, is considered a lesser offense if it is done through negligence rather than premeditation. This is an important distinction from blood-for-blood justice extant in pre-enlightenment civilizations.

Additionally, the law itself might be as flawed as the lawgivers themselves, and therefore virtue requires the law be defied3. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham jail:

“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

Without the knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of Santa’s enforced moral code, can we even know that his code is just? This lack of transparency extends to other areas.

  • How exactly is our naughty / nice ratio calculated?
  • When was his equipment last calibrated?
  • What biases have crept into his calculations?

If Santa’s adjudications themselves are inherently unjust, the only just act would be to resist them. Santa is unlikely to suffer such insubordination. Yet with Santa as a sole arbiter, we are simply in a moral quandary with no solution.

This is as much a symptom of the centralization of power as it is with Santa himself.

Take a moment to consider the statement that “Santa Claus is coming to town.”

It’s a simple phrase, really, made ominous by being surrounded by overt threats and pleadings. Unlike the “thou shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments, these rules are leavened with the passive aggression of “you’d better not” and a warning that we’d “better watch out.” They’re capped with the near-desperate entreaty to “be good for goodness sake.”

The vagary of what Santa will do once he gets to town leaves the threat entirely in the mind of those it is leveled toward. It reads as an “oh you’re gonna get it now” threat along the lines of “just wait until your mother / father gets home!” Taken to its extreme you get Robot Santa from Futurama.

Yet the song is sung with joyous gusto at grade school holiday pageants, likely because it’s cute to see a bunch of carpet demons in their holiday best sing condemnations of behaviors they regularly indulge in. Being forced to sing lyrics that they don’t truly understand the implications of has a certain air of a North Korean children’s choir singing praises to Kim Jong-un.

As is now abundantly clear, Santa’s impending approach to town as part of his annual rounds is not the selfless act of charity that he would have us believe.

The greatest virtue can be found in only pure acts of self-sacrifice and charity that offer no chance for gain and from which one can derive no pleasure or acclaim. For instance, anonymously saving a child from a burning building or going on a date with me.

But Santa has much to gain from his work. He controls access to toys, and the price of getting them is to conform to a moral code – his moral code.

But even that is not his end goal. It’s a distraction, like a magician’s act of misdirection. We’re so turned inward in pursuit of our own morality to please some distant fat man that we don’t even notice what’s really going on.

The movie Elf, despite being filled end-to-end with embarrassing pro-Santa propaganda and hagiography, hit on an important truth. Santa’s power is not inherent; it derives entirely from our belief in his power.

Santa’s network is in truth not an enabler of his “good” works but merely a means that allows him to accumulate power. That makes him not any different from dictators who worked toward arbitrary “perfection” of their own societies. Likewise, the KGB or the Stasi justified their crimes as excusable in pursuit of the goal of International Socialism.

“If you want an omelet you have to break a few eggs”-type thinking.

Santa uses his jolly persona to hide that he has established a self-enforcing cycle of dependence and fear of reprisal to remain in power based on perpetuation of the false idea that societal good flows from him like the crystal steams that flow in heaven. Like all great politicians, he has convinced vast numbers that helping him achieve his goal is the best way to help them achieve theirs.

We may believe he’s working for us, but at the end of the day, he’s the one who gets to sit on the Candy Cane throne at the North Pole, and he’s the one who gets to hear Hail to the Elf play when he walks into the room and he’s the one who gets his portrait in all the Coca-Cola ads.

Us? We’re remain the nobodies just trying to scrape by.

  1. Be sure to poke holes in it first. You don’t want your dark secrets to come floating back the surface.
  2. Nihilists! I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.
  3. The lyrics of the song specifically forbid pouting and crying, but what if the child is doing this as the result of parental unfairness? Would this not qualify as Martin Luther King’s virtuous disobedience to an unjust law? Does the child not have an obligation to pout and cry as a righteous protest?