Santa and the Search Engine - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Santa and the Search Engine

Santa and the Search Engine

By Sean Braswell


Because in this digital age, it’s not just “that kid” at school you have to worry about ruining Santa for everyone.

By Sean Braswell

Spoiler alert: This article contains suggestions that Santa is not as real as many would like, but that he may be more real than he’s ever been. 

One of the occupational hazards of being an omnipresent corporation with a “Don’t Be Evil” motto and the goal of organizing the world’s information is that sometimes the knowledge that you are trafficking in is going to get somebody into trouble. In such cases, should you side with the censors when it comes to sensitive search terms and queries, or expose reality in all its chaotic glory?

Yes, I’m talking about Google, but not the search giant’s tricky relationship with China. I’m talking about its clash with another commercial behemoth, one whose factories put even Shenzhen to shame this time of year. I’m talking Santa Claus.

If you ask parents what they consider to be the biggest threat to the magic of Christmas today, it’s not the Grinch. It’s the Google. Suddenly that three-word search query you’ve been handling for years with the guile of a seasoned KGB agent gets subjected to a labyrinthine algorithm and a Wal-Mart-sized data server.

Suddenly “Is Santa real?” has an answer. But is it the right one?

I Saw Tommy Googling Santa Claus

Enter the dreaded search query into Google — as hundreds of thousands do every month, even when it’s not the Christmas season — and the roughly 750 million results you get in a quarter of a second leave very little to the imagination. Most of the top results direct curious readers to sites advising parents on how to face up to the question and tell their kids “the truth.” The same holds true of other search engines, and the Santa entry on Wikipedia. If you query Siri on your iPhone, she answers with the characteristically cryptic, “He’s as real as I am.”

But with inquisitive children becoming increasingly tech savvy, and a wealth of electronic devices lying about that are eager to instantaneously dispel all manner of myth, it feels like a digital minefield to many parents. As one distraught mother told USA Today, “The beauty of Santa is the not knowing. Technology is all about knowing, and knowing this instant. I swear, Google is the nemesis of the North Pole.”

Parents are used to handling Santa skeptics. The 7-year-old Carl Bernstein in your daughter’s class who’s hell-bent on exposing the awful truth can be thoroughly discredited by the authority of the Office of the Parent, at least for a while. And although many of us had that Watergate moment in our childhood — when our parents’ great cover-up was unmasked and the betrayal laid bare — more often than not, it came with a sense of intrigue, sometimes after weeks of cross-examination and detective work. Now the truth’s right there, in black and white, as instantly accessible as “Angry Birds.”

Of course, even an information juggernaut like Google is not responsible for the Internet, but when it comes to fostering a belief in St. Nick, the company is far from agnostic. In recent years, the company has provided the mother of all Santa trackers, allowing children to track Santa’s global progress in 3-D with a Google Earth plug-in and, as the company blog puts it, “see him deliver presents everywhere from the mountain villages of the Swiss Alps to the white sand beaches of Hawaii.” It’s a nice gesture, not to mention pretty damn cool. But for some parents, it’s like being handed a free GPS system by a guy who just got finished slashing your tires.

Like many things at Google, the Santa tracker started as a “bit of fun” and then took on a life of its own.

Google is unsurprisingly reluctant to comment on the record about Santa’s existence or the company’s complicated relationship with him, other than to say that, as one company spokesperson states, “Santa’s Google engineers are eager to spread holiday cheer around the globe.” But as one former engineering manager and “lead elf” at Google (yes, that’s what they call themselves), Bruno Bowden, tells OZY, like many things at Google, the Santa tracker started as a “bit of fun” and then took on a life of its own. And, although Google promotes the tracker on its home page, it has not attempted to modify its fairly sacrosanct search results to thwart inquiring minds. With such a modification, it becomes “technically and morally and legally … a lot more complicated to figure out what’s the right answer. So we just provided something fun,” says Bowden, now an equity partner at Data Collective Venture Capital.

And so Santa continues to live on the edge of exposure, his true identity the subject of the grandest witness protection program devised by man. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

The North Pole’s Ever-Looming Existential Threat

Santa is “the dominant fictional character in our world,” writes Gerry Bowler in Santa: A Biography. “Neither Mickey Mouse nor Sherlock Holmes, Ronald McDonald nor Harry Potter wields a fraction of the influence that Santa does.” And the Big Guy has earned that kind of influence.

Google’s indomitable search algorithm is hardly the greatest existential threat Santa Claus has encountered in his illustrious history. Bolsheviks, Catholics, Protestants, psychiatrists, education reformers — a number of groups have had Santa in their sights, and each time the soot-stained peddler has risen from the ashes to shimmy down another chimney. As Bowler documents, during the Reformation in Europe, when saints days were eliminated, so too was the St. Nicholas gift-giving tradition in many places. But Santa rose again. After the October Revolution in 1917, Russian socialists banned the celebration of Christmas, replacing it later with New Year’s “tree festivals” featuring readings of Josef Stalin, which, needless to say, did not enjoy St. Nick’s lasting appeal.

Over in America, a 1949 editorial in the Catholic Review, republished in The Washington Post, called him “Santa the Sugar Daddy” and an “unholy fraud.” Not to be outdone, the famed psychiatrist and first director general of the World Health Organization, Brock Chisholm, ignited his own firestorm in the 1940s when he claimed that “a child who believes in Santa Claus … has had his thinking ability permanently impaired if not destroyed.”

Chisholm’s assertion is belied by most modern research on the subject. Child psychiatrists now argue that a belief in Santa can play a positive role in children’s normal cognitive development, honing their ability to rationally and scientifically approach the world. According to Bowler, surveys, including one of Nebraska children dating back to 1896, suggest that most kids are not that gutted by the revelation. If anything, they relish the maturity conferred upon them by the knowledge, not to mention the opportunity to participate in the conspiracy with younger siblings and peers.

So it’s not really children, whose probing minds, eager fantasies or search queries, make or break Santa. “It is parents who are the true and necessary believers,” argues Bowler, and they are the ones who most feel the sting of disappointment when Santa’s sleigh ride comes to an end. As such, the future of Santa in a digital age may not hinge so much on what children believe, or what companies like Google do, but on the actions of those who have always (and exuberantly) borne the weight of Santa’s sack. 

The Years of Magical Thinking

It was not until the late 19th century that Santa became a firmly established figurehead of the Christmas mythology. And even then, legions of education reformers and psychiatrists encouraged parents not to propagate the fiction. But, as today, parents just couldn’t resist, going to great lengths to damp down the fire in the hearth and leave an ashy trail of Santa-size footprints — one Pennsylvania man in 1893 got stuck in his chimney pretending to be St. Nick. Time and again, parents proved they could deflect whatever obstacles life threw in Santa’s path. During the U.S. Civil War, parents in besieged Confederate states cunningly attributed Santa’s neglect of the South’s children to Yankee blockades erected to cut off Christmas.

If children are ready to make the inquiry, aren’t they just about old enough to know?

Which should suggest that in the big picture, the threat of a 7-year-old’s search query seems relatively minor. And if children are ready to make the inquiry, aren’t they just about old enough to know — even if their parents may not be? “I think that by the time you have a kid that is really skeptical about it,” says ex-elf Bowden, “they’ll figure it out anyway, whether you hide it or not.”

But that hasn’t stopped places like Google from making the ride a bit more enjoyable. Every Christmas Eve, says Bowden, the search engine fields tens of millions of searches for its Santa tracker, with a remarkable 1 to 2 percent of Web users worldwide visiting the site. Santa’s not only alive and well on the Internet, he’s a regular Kardashian.

And there’s more good news for parents, and children. This December, Google has expanded its Santa tracking to include a number of new features to divert young ones in the lead-up to Christmas. Another interesting footnote: Despite how tech savvy today’s children have become, there’s nothing to suggest that they are discovering the truth about Santa Claus any sooner than their predecessors. The consensus among researchers is that most children have learned what’s what by age 7. The average age that children in Nebraska unearthed the truth 118 years ago: 6.35 years.

How do I know? I Googled it.

This story has been updated as of December 20, 2014.

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