Travel: Santa Claus, Arizona

The Mojave desert, with its blisteringly hot summer sun, Joshua trees and bizarre rock formations, would not generally be the place one would choose to honor a man whose traditional home is the North Pole. Yet standing in the desert is the ghost remnants of Santa Claus, Arizona.

Nina Talbot and her husband arrived in nearby Kingman, Arizona, in the early 1930s. Calling herself “the biggest real estate agent in California,” the name originated from Talbot’s girth (over 300 pounds) rather than her business acumen. Nonetheless, she clearly had a flair for public relations.

The Talbot’s founded Santa Claus, Arizona, in 1937 as an attempt to attract buyers to the desert location. It featured several Christmas-themed buildings and visiting children could meet Santa Claus at any day of the year. The town’s post office became very popular in December as children and parents could receive mail postmarked with the town’s name.

The town did in fact become a popular tourist destination, however no one ever bought land there, and the only people living there were the ones working in the town. Failing to see how she would make her real estate profits, and with the town in decline, Talbot sold Santa Claus in 1949, having failed in her attempt to convince people to move to the desert.

One of the places in town that was genuinely successful was its local restaurant, the Santa Claus Inn (later renamed the Christmas Tree Inn). Critic Duncan Hines, who would later become famous for the brand of food products that bears his name, described it as being of the best in the region. In 1950 science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a short story about a sumptuous gourmet meal served there by Mrs. Claus. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes star Jane Russell even threw a dinner there in 1954. But even this was not enough to save the town and by the 1970s, it had already begun to fall into disrepair.

When writer Mark Winegardner visited the area in 1988 for his new book, it had become a sad shadow of its former self with “Styrofoam silver bells, strands of burned-out Christmas lights, and faded plastic likenesses of Old Saint Nick. A lopsided, artificial twenty-foot tree whistled in the wind beside a broken Coke machine and an empty ice freezer. Two of the three buildings were padlocked; through their windows, encrusted with layers of sand and decade-old aerosol snow, Jim and I saw dusty, overturned fiberglass statuettes of elves and reindeer.”

The last gift shops and amusements went out of business in 1995, leaving little recognizable, except for a few vandalized buildings, a wishing well, and the “Old 1225,” a derailed, pink children’s train covered with graffiti.

As of 2015 little remains of Santa Land, its just two boarded up graffitied buildings, the train is gone, there’s very little nothing special left, someone even stole the face of Santa off the front sign.

Why Do Kids Believe in Santa Claus?

The holiday season is upon us, and so are its attendant myths, most prominent of which is the Santa Claus story. This is the time that many children are told about a man who lives forever, resides at the North Pole, knows what every child in the world desires, drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer and enters one’s house through a chimney, which most children don’t even have.

Given the many absurdities and contradictions in this story, it’s surprising that even young children would believe it. Yet research from my lab shows that 83 percent of five-year-olds think that Santa Claus is real.

Why?

At the root of this paradox is a very basic question regarding the nature of the young child as an inherently credulous being – that is, believing everything he or she is told – versus a rational one.

The noted author and ethologist Richard Dawkins, in a 1995 essay, proposed that children are inherently credulous, and prone to believing in just about anything. He even suggested that it was an evolutionary advantage for children to believe.

He illustrated that quite convincingly with an example of a young child living near an alligator-infested swamp. His point was that the child who is skeptical, and prone to critically evaluating his parents’ advice not to go swimming in that swamp, has much less chance of surviving than does the child who unthinkingly heeds his parents’ advice.

This view of young children who believe easily is shared by many, including 18th-century philosopher Thomas Reid, and developmental psychologists, who argue that children are strongly biased to trust what people tell them.

Yet research from my lab shows that children actually are rational, thoughtful consumers of information. In fact, they use many of the same tools as adults to decide what to believe.

So, what are some of the tools that adults use to decide what to believe, and what evidence is there that children possess them?

I’ll focus on three: One is attention to the context in which new information is embedded. A second is the tendency to measure new information against one’s existing knowledge base. And the third is the ability to evaluate the expertise of other people.

Let’s look first at context.

Imagine reading an article about a new species of fish – let’s call them “surnits.” Then imagine you’re reading this article in two very different contexts – one in which your doctor is late and you’re in the waiting room reading the article in a copy of National Geographic, the official magazine of a scientific society.

In another context, you encounter a report of this discovery while waiting in line at the grocery store and perusing the National Enquirer, an American supermarket tabloid. My guess is that the context surrounding your introduction to this new information would guide your judgment about the reality status of this new fish.

We essentially did this with children. We told them about animals they’d never heard of, like surnits. Some children heard about them in a fantastical context, in which they were told that dragons or ghosts collect them. Other children learned about surnits in a scientific context, in which they were told that doctors or scientists use them.

Children as young as four were more likely to claim that surnits really existed when they heard about them in the scientific context versus in the fantastical context.

One of the primary ways we, as adults, learn about new things is by hearing about them from others. Imagine hearing about a new kind of fish from a marine biologist versus from your next-door neighbor who often regales you with reports of his alien abductions. Your evaluation of the expertise and trustworthiness of these sources presumably will guide your beliefs about the true existence of this fish.

In another research project, we presented young children with novel animals that were either possible (e.g., a fish that lives in the ocean), impossible (e.g., a fish that lives on the moon) or improbable (e.g., a fish as big as a car). Then we gave them the choice to figure out on their own whether the entity really existed or to ask someone. They also heard reports from either a zookeeper (an expert) or a chef (a nonexpert).

We found that children believed in the possible entities and rejected the impossible ones. Children made these decisions by comparing the new information to their existing knowledge. For the improbable animals – ones that could possibly exist but were rare or odd – children were significantly more likely to believe in them when the zookeeper claimed they were real than when the chef did.

In other words, children use expertise, just as adults do.

If children are so smart, why do they believe in Santa?

The reason is simple: Parents and others go to great lengths to support the Santa myth. In a recent study we found that 84 percent of parents reported taking their child to visit more than two Santa impersonators during the Christmas season.

The Elf on the Shelf, originally a children’s picture book about elves who inform Santa about children’s behavior around Christmastime, is now a multi-million-dollar franchise. And the United States Postal Service now promotes a “Letters from Santa” program in which it provides personal replies to children’s letters to Santa.

Why do we feel compelled to go to such great lengths? Why does Uncle Jack insist on climbing onto the roof on Christmas Eve to stomp around and shake jingle bells?

The answer is simply this: Children are not unthinkingly credulous and do not believe everything we tell them. So, we adults must overwhelm them with evidence – the bells on the roof, the live Santas at the mall, the half-eaten carrot on Christmas morning.

Given this effort, it essentially would be irrational for children not to believe. In believing in Santa Claus, children, in fact, exercise their scientific thinking skills.

First, they evaluate sources of information. As ongoing research in my lab indicates, they’re more likely to believe an adult than a child about what’s real.

Second, they use evidence (e.g., the empty glass of milk and half-eaten cookies on Christmas morning) to come to a conclusion about existence. Other research from my lab shows that children use similar evidence to guide their beliefs about a fantastical being, the Candy Witch, who visits children on Halloween night and leaves new toys in exchange for candy.

Third, research shows that, as children’s understanding becomes more sophisticated, they tend to engage more with the absurdities in the Santa Claus myth, like how a fat man can fit through a small chimney, or how animals could possibly fly.

Some parents wonder whether they are harming their children by engaging in the Santa myth. Philosophers and bloggers alike have mounted arguments against perpetuating the “Santa-lie,” some even claiming that it could lead to permanent distrust of parents and other authorities.

So, what should parents do?

There is no evidence that belief, and eventual disbelief in Santa, affects parental trust in any significant way. Furthermore, not only do children have the tools to ferret out the truth; but engaging with the Santa story may give them a chance to exercise these abilities.

So, if you think it would be fun for you and your family to invite Santa Claus into your home at Christmas time, you should do so. Your children will be fine. And they might even learn something.

How To Track Santa This Christmas

Santa Claus is coming to town. But when, and where is he now?

Everyone knows that Santa will eventually end up on our doorsteps this year, but sometimes the anticipation of exactly when that might occur is too much to bear.

Need to know precisely where Santa is on Christmas Eve? Excited kids all over the world have a number of high-tech options for keeping tabs on jolly old St. Nick this year. For more than 50 years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has been helping kids track Santa via a hotline (1-877-HI-NORAD) and now also on on its website, on Facebook and on Twitter. Kids with smartphone access can also track Santa via Google Maps or the Santa Tracker app.

The tradition started by accident

So how did this Santa tracking get started? It all started in 1955, when a Sears Roebuck & Co. ad in a Colorado newspaper printed a phone number that kids could call to connect with Santa — only the number was off by a digit and instead directed them to NORAD’s emergency hotline. NORAD’s director of operations at the time, Col. Harry Shoup, didn’t want to disappoint the kids, so he ordered his staff to check the radar and let the kids know where Santa might be. And thus Santa tracking was born.

Since that time, NORAD volunteers have staffed the phones on Christmas Eve to keep kids posted on Santa’s whereabouts. First lady Michelle Obama even surprised kids last year by personally answering Santa tracker calls.

How does NORAD know how track Santa? According to the website, NORAD uses four high-tech systems to track Santa: radar, satellites, Santa cams and fighter jets. “Amazingly, Rudolph’s bright red nose gives off an infrared signature, which allows our satellites to detect Rudolph and Santa,” it says.

Happy tracking!

’Tis The Season: We Want Photos Of Your Kid’s Mall Santa Claus Nightmare

It’s that time of year again, when parents inform their offspring that they’re being taken to meet a mystical bearded stranger who, if they’ve been good, has the potential to make all their dreams come true. Instead, these children find themselves face-to-face with a red-suited nightmare from which they want desperately to escape.

And when the often hilarious result is caught on camera, we want to give you the opportunity to share those moments with the world.

• Do your folks have great pics of that time you tried to rip the Big Guy’s beard off during a screaming fit?

• Did your child try to flee the premises immediately upon seeing jolly old St. Nick?

To send us your photos:

1. Send the pic as an email attachment to 727mag@gmail.com with the subject line SCARY SANTA 2016.
2. Include your child’s first name & age in the email. If it’s an old photo, tell us the age at the time the pic was taken. You must be the parent or guardian of the child in the photo (or it must be a photo of you as a child).
3. Be sure to include any fun anecdotes about the experience.

It’s That Time Of Year Again: We Want Photos Of Your Mall Visit To Meet Santa Claus

‘Tis the season when parents pack their kids into the car, drive to the mall and deposit their offspring on the laps of mall Santas all around this great nation, which means it’s the right time for another of our favorite holiday traditions: seeing our readers’ photos of kids reacting hilariously to the bearded stranger their parents have forced them to hang out with.

Yes, we want to see photographic evidence of children freaking out with costumed mall characters, and we want you to send them to us to share with the world. Do your parents have great pics of that time you tried to rip the Big Guy’s beard off during a screaming fit? Did your child burst into instant tears when faced with that red, velvety expanse of lap?

To send in your photos (the larger the better!), here’s how you go about it:
1. Attach it in email with the subject line 727 SANTA 2015
2. Include your child’s name and age in the body of the email (or if it was you way back when, your name, age at the time, and the year the photo was taken) along with any fun anecdotes about the experience.
3. Send it to social@727magazine.com for us to enjoy, watermark and share on the site on Christmas Day.

Please note, you need to be the child’s parent or the subject of the photo for your photo submission to be published, or we’ll have to get permission directly from the parents if you’re someone’s uncle or aunt. Gotta prove that stuff.