Santa Claus is coming to town, likely to a local shopping mall near you. Santa appears a lot this time of year, and in a lot of listener emails too — two hundred mentions of him in the inbox to date. But it’s been a few years since we last addressed him here on the Ask Pastor John podcast. And to do so, Pastor John joins me today on the phone.
Now, of course, there’s a fourth-century Greek historical figure named Saint Nicholas. But all of those two hundred references to Santa are speaking of the mythical, white-bearded, red-suited, reindeer-flying Santa Claus. One of the most recent emails came from a podcast listener named Jill.
“Dear Pastor John, I’m a stay-at-home mother of three small children (5, 4, 2). My husband and I grew up as children believing Santa Claus to be real, and while it was truly magical for those nine years, when I found out that it wasn’t true, I remember burying my head and sobbing. I was not angry at my parents; I knew they wanted to surprise me and make Christmas special. However, I was truly disappointed.
“Now as a mother, I feel torn between Scriptures — like ‘Do not lie to one another’ (Colossians 3:9) — and yet still desiring to create something mythical and special and magical for my children around Christmas. I fear more emphasis is placed on the bearded man in a suit than on Jesus, our Savior! My question is, What if my husband feels differently, and actually wants to keep the Santa myth alive for our children? What, Pastor John, should I do?”
Well, I see three different issues in what Jill is asking, at least if I hear her correctly. Let me say a word about each one of these, and I’m going to end on the very question about dealing with her husband. But I think there are two other issues besides that one that probably need to be addressed.
Do Not Lie
First, the primary crisis in her own mind seems to be whether you can preserve the myth and magic of Santa Claus without disobeying biblical commands like “Do not lie to one another” (Colossians 3:9). I think the answer to that is really quite simple and straightforward: no, you can’t.
That is, you can’t teach your children that Santa Claus is real if your intention is to teach them the truth. By real, I mean real the way children think of real, not the way sophisticated intellectuals would call a myth real, and not the way that imagination is real. I get that; it’s just not the point.
The point is, Are we misleading the children in telling them this story as a simple statement of facts?
- Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.
- Santa Claus flies with reindeer.
- Santa Claus leaves gifts under the tree.
- Santa Claus is served by elves.
To present this myth as fact is not truthful to our children.
What About Narnia?
I’m trying to get inside other people’s heads when they listen to this and ask questions. I’m responding here, then, to imaginary questions that I want ask myself. How is this different, for example, from reading fiction to your children?
Somebody might say, “Well, it’s not wrong to have fiction in your kids’ lives, like the Chronicles of Narnia or Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” Those are presented not as real the way breakfast is real and backyards are real. They’re made up, just like Jesus made up parables.
The children should know that they’re made up, and they should know why parents tell children made-up stories. It’s a good thing, I think, to tell children made-up stories. There’s a reason why Jesus told parables. You have these kinds of things in the Bible.
Hiding the Full Truth
Here’s another response to another possible objection. Not being truthful about Santa Claus, or being untruthful about Santa Claus, is different from keeping from small children many difficult issues in married life.
I can imagine somebody saying, “Well, we don’t tell our children all the truth about what’s going on.” It’s not lying when we don’t burden our younger children with financial hardships or marital squabbles or difficulties with the in-laws. The older they get, the more they should know, but when they’re very young, not capable of dealing with any of those things, we just withhold them.
But foisting on our children an entire fabricated framework for understanding Christmas, which is not true, but which they take to be true, is totally different from helping our children handle as much truth as they can in an age-appropriate way.
Santa Claus is not a withholding of painful truth until the children are old enough to handle it. Santa Claus is the obscuring of thrilling truth because we think the real truth can’t compete with Santa Claus in the hearts of our children, which leads now to the second issue.
Bored with the Greatest Story
The first issue was “Can the Santa Claus myth and magic be presented and preserved for our children without lying?” That’s not the issue; that’s just not the real issue.
The main issue is, Why would a Christian who has found in Jesus Christ the greatest treasure in the world trade it for anything else? Why would they — who see in the incarnation and life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus the most amazing story in the world — tell another story?
For those who know that in this real, historical event all the truth of myth and magic became reality — why would such a Christian ever dream of replacing, or obscuring, or supplementing this true story? Why would they replace it with such a non-gospel, pathetic myth like Santa Claus, whose message is “You better be good, and you better not cry”? I just can’t imagine it.
I regard the effort of Christian parents to lay the Santa Claus story over the Jesus story as a failure to be thrilled with the greatest story in the world, and a failure of imagination for how to speak about the real story and show the real story in a way that helps children share our amazement.
It’s a failure. It’s a syncretistic compromise with culture: “Poor Jesus. He’s invisible. Santa Claus is not. You can see him at the mall. Poor Jesus doesn’t make any rounds on a sled in the sky, leaving toys under the tree.”
Instead, they could be searching the Scriptures for why it is a great thing for Jesus to be invisible and not to be here. As he says in John 16:7, it is a great thing that he’s not here. Why is it a great thing that he left the earth and sent his Spirit instead of staying here or riding on a sled? Why is his slowness to come back again at the end of the age, and the great second coming, a huge mercy that the children ought to understand (2 Peter 3:9)? In dealing with the invisibility of Jesus, why is it not amazing to parents that we are his representatives on earth? That’s a glorious view of human life (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Instead of finding these stupendous answers to questions that children may have — finding answers in the Bible — we replace the most important questions in the world with an easy distraction. That’s the real issue. Why would we do that?
Stranger than Myth
Now, the last issue that Jill wants to know is, What if she does want to focus on the glories of the truth of Christ, but her husband is still stuck in the superiority of the Santa substitute? Here are my three suggestions to her.
First, talk this through with him in August, not December. I say that now, knowing it’s too late. This is a principle to conflict that Noël and I have found very helpful over the years: separate principle-issue discussions from pressured emotional crises in the moment of application.
Second, spell out the gains, not the losses. Dropping Santa is gain, or Christianity is a lie. If Christ cannot compete with Santa in the hearts of our kids, we don’t know the real Christ or there is no real Christ.
Third, give your husband concrete ideas for ways of celebrating Christ’s coming that are just as exciting as the charade of Santa Claus. If you need help, my wife wrote a book called Treasuring God in Our Traditions that describes some of the things we did over the years for our little kids when we didn’t have Santa Claus, didn’t have stockings, and didn’t have a tree. You are probably saying, “How can you not have a tree?” Well, there are alternative, exciting things to do.
Bottom line: truth is stranger than fiction — stranger, more amazing, more thrilling, more durable, more heart-transforming, more Christ-honoring, more soul-satisfying.
Your children have Christ-shaped empty spaces in their hearts. They don’t know this. You must show them, but it can’t be done with Santa Claus, only Christ.