Tis the season…to ask for your pastor’s thoughts on Santa Claus. Answering the Santa question has become a part of my holiday routine, so this year I thought I would put my thoughts down in writing.
Not surprisingly, it seems that Christians feel they only have two options here: indulgence or abstinence. Either choose to uncritically join the Santa narrative of our culture, or choose to withdraw from it altogether. Honestly I see advantages and disadvantages to both choices, and I’m certainly not going to condemn parents who choose either, but I would like to offer another way.
What if we engaged the Santa debate like good ol’ reformed Presbyterians, not with indulgence or abstinence, but with redemption? What would it look like to redeem Santa?
I’ll answer that in practical terms, but first I think it would be helpful to step back from the Santa discussion and speak to the larger question of how Christians should engage the whole idea of myths and fairytales. Here I am unapologetically in favor of parents cultivating a child’s imagination and letting them get lost in the world of fantasy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that parents who withhold myths from their children are unwittingly training them in the ways of secularism.
The lie that will be told to our children, both overtly and covertly, is that the physical world and natural order is the exclusive reality; that we exist within a closed system and there is nothing beyond it; that this is all that there is. So what can we do to contest these uncontested assumptions of our secular age? There are many answers, but one of the most effective is to let your children get lost in a world that is not secular, whether it’s Narnia or Hogwarts.
That is what converted C.S. Lewis from his staunch atheism. His fellow Oxford professor, J.R.R. Tolkien, asked him to consider that fairytales were only partly wrong. Tolkien claimed that fantasy is indeed untrue but not completely untrue. These stories we tell ourselves—stories of supernatural battles, of good triumphing over evil, of escaping death and living forever, of tragedy giving way to victory—are not merely a way of coping with our depressing reality but instead speak to a far greater reality that we are all a part of. In other words, our fairytales are of course untrue, but they point to something that is absolutely true. Tolkien convinced Lewis this was the case, and that the story of Jesus was not just one of many myths, but the one true myth to which all others myths point. That’s what led C.S. Lewis to Christ and why he thought stories were just as important as classic apologetics.
Allowing our children to encounter and even believe (children don’t cognitively believe like we believe. They have an ability to get lost in fantasy without detaching from reality. Maybe that’s what Jesus means when He said, “Unless you become like a child you cannot enter the Kingdom…”) in fantasy is one of the greatest ways to prepare them to believe in the true and better story to which all other stories point. To deprive them of fantasy is to reinforce the lie of our secular age that there is no fantasy.
Now back to Santa. Of course Santa doesn’t exist, and if your kids get into adolescence believing in Santa you have a problem on your hands. But what if your child’s desire for Santa to exist is pointing to something very fundamental within your child, something that was placed there by God and needs to be indulged and cultivated by parents?
I’ll quote Eric Metaxas who sounds a lot like Tolkien:
“What if we could accept that our childhood love of Santa Claus was indeed fantasy but not merely fantasy? What if children who believed in Santa were only half-wrong, because their desire to believe pointed to something that was true? And what if those who knew Santa Claus didn’t really exist were themselves only half-wrong, because their rejection of that kind of sloppy, childish belief pointed to a desire to only believe in what was real, what was really real and not just a myth or a childhood story? What if the half-truth of the desire for something beyond us could meet up with the half-truth of the desire for only what is really real and true? What if those two halves could touch and become the one true truth we were both looking for?”
In Jesus this has happened. The two half-truths have become one; fantasy has become reality. And a little indulgence on the story of Santa Clause is preparing your child to rightly indulge the true and better story of Jesus Christ.
So on a principle level, that’s my answer to the Santa question.
But back to the idea of redeeming Santa. Practically speaking, what would it look like for Christian parents to do the Santa myth well? I don’t know if we are necessarily the best example, but I’ll try to answer the practical question by sharing how this takes shape in our family.
First and foremost, we talk a lot about the origins of the myth by telling them the story of Saint Nicholas of Myra. St. Nicholas was a bishop of the Church in the late 3rd and early 4th century. He came from a wealthy family, and his parents both died early, leaving him a great inheritance. Rather than indulging in his riches, he gave away nearly all he had to the poor. Particularly he had a heart for the impoverished children of his community and was known for secretly giving them gifts. It was this anonymous charity and kindness toward children (along with other folklore) that eventually morphed into the mythical tradition of Santa Claus.
But St. Nicholas was known for more than gift giving. He was also a radical defender of orthodoxy. He was a participant in the Council of Nicaea, which was convened to settle the Arian controversy. Arius argued that the Son was created by the Father and therefore not coexistent with the Father and not equal in supremacy. St. Nicholas argued fiercely for the divinity and supremacy of Christ, and legend has it that he got so zealous for the defense of Christ that he actually punched Arius during the debate (my boys love that part of the story).
St. Nicholas was instrumental in the formation of the Nicene Creed, which is the oldest and most definitive statement on the divinity of Christ “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”
So that’s jolly Ol’ Saint Nicholas—tender lover of the poor and courageous defender of Christology. There are many lessons children can learn from his life.
Now this is the parenting move we make with our children that some may disagree with. We don’t just tell them the story of St. Nicholas; we also tell them that it’s fun to pretend he comes to our house on Christmas Eve to leave presents for us. Usually that’s all it takes for a child. This is the first year that my oldest son asked me the dreaded question, “Daddy, is Santa Claus real?” My answer was really simple and honest, “No (which is true) but it’s fun to pretend that he is (which is also true).” We have found that kids are able to handle that and then enjoy the myth rightly. In fact, just yesterday my son randomly said to me, “Daddy I’ve been thinking a lot, and I know Santa can’t be real because how could someone travel all around the world in one night, but I’m going to pretend that he is.”
And so we indulge the folklore a bit with them by baking cookies to leave out for Santa, having some presents come to them from Santa, getting excited with them when we see Santa in the mall, and so forth. But Christ and His advent are disproportionately the focus of Christmas in our house.
So that’s my answer to the Santa question from both a principle and practical vantage point. Admittedly there are some who would disagree with me, and they have good reasons why. Either way, I hope parents know that what you do with Santa Claus will in no way make or break your children.
Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!