He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness’ sake.
For some time now, these lyrics have confused me. “He knows if you’ve been bad or good” – that’s a declarative statement of fact, either true or false. Next we have “so,” a word that indicates that we are concluding something (which comes right after the “so”) from the previous one (called in logic a “premise”). This conclusion is, “be good.” This, as far as consistency goes, is fairly straightforward. The song is asserting the logical connection that, given the premise “he sees . . . bad or good,” one arrives at the conclusion, “be good.” To whatever degree it is true or fictional or a noble lie or just a fairy tale we can leave aside for now; I’m not interested so much as to the mere existence of the Santa Claus story so much as its frequent tone.
The rest of the line complicates things. “So be good, for goodness’ sake.” Maybe “for goodness’ sake” is a single unit of thought representing the sort of exasperated attitude that the phrase often carries. Maybe the phrase was never meant to be broken down into its component parts any more than are “wonderful” or “anybody,” which plainly refer to more than a plenitude of awe or some given mortal coil. This is one possibility. The phrase may also be considered in a more literal way. “For goodness’ sake” may be interpreted as giving a reason for why one must “be good,” namely, for the sake of goodness.
An Allowance for Man’s Weak Nature
Strictly speaking, this is not allowed. It doesn’t make sense; one should be good because Santa Clause knows if you are; one should be good for goodness’ sake, both at the same time. Yet the phrase doesn’t seem haphazard; I suspect that “for crying out loud” and other contenders were rejected not just because they didn’t fit the meter and because they would have killed the holiday mood. If that’s the case, “for goodness’ sake” raises a question about Santa Claus with its presence; it suggests an alternative reason to be good. Goodness has a sake just as Santa Claus’ knowledge does; how do they compare?
Santa Claus – or any similar material incentive for doing good – is, I believe, an allowance from parents, educators, or whomever, for man’s weak nature. Man cannot be governed by abstract principles of goodness indefinitely, and this is especially the case with children. Rewarding good is acceptable, and may be done proportionally as the subject is immature, untaught, and unreasonable. A significant aspect of virtue, after all, is that of habit. Habit has been considered necessary for normal living by thinkers from Aristotle to William James, and developing good habits early, even when the reasons for them are above the children’s imaginations, is important and good.
The problem with Santa Claus is that Christmas is an ideal season for teaching children why, in fact, they should be good. It is a season for remembering (in theory) the descent to earth of Immanuel. The Infinite Being was circumscribed in Bethlehem at night; the supreme Good took on flesh. Nigh is the time for making tangible to children the personal reason for the abstract necessity of being good. People ought to be good regardless of any material benefits they might get from it; they “must,” a notion that can’t be denoted in physical terms.
Santa Claus inverts this relationship. The opportunity for raising a child to a deeper and higher understanding of goodness is squandered, and goodness becomes not a matter of a relationship with God or an expression of gratitude but a factor in a Quid Pro Quo equation. Instead of the season’s raising children nearer full goodness, it is a regress, its doctrines a diabolical parody of the truth.
The habit that this mindset cultivates is one of self-serving exchanges. Goodness becomes one’s tool for acquiring material objects and not a master to which one should subject oneself. The self is centric in pursuit of transient possessions, and good becomes subject to the metric of how useful it was in attaining an end. Goodness has no more intrinsic sake. This is a dangerous design plan for a child’s soul. Good acts in this life, once one is beyond the pale of one’s parents, are not only variable in terms of gaining material but are promised to bring the practitioner trouble – “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33 ESV). Establishing material benefits as the determining factor for whether a human acts well or not is a doomed project.
Finally, God’s offer of sonship to us is itself a gift. If our mind is set in a cast of quid pro quo thinking, such a concept becomes inconceivable. Can it be but that we would then try to buy salvation from God? This is a wrong-headed plan, and dangerous. As I read somewhere the other day, God’s is a gift of grace. You make deals with the devil.