I wrote a term paper on St. Nicholas this semester, in which I set out to determine whether or not there was a genuine tie between the third-/fourth-century saint and Santa Claus as we have come to know him. Though I had always assumed that there was a pretty soundly established connection between the spirit of Santa and that of “the real St. Nicholas,” my conclusion ended up being a resounding “No.” All this actually has very little to do with why I won’t do Santa with my kids, but it’s on my mind and it has contributed a bit to the thought process. For more on the historic Saint Nicholas, ask to read my paper. Or you can check out this blog by my friend and former boss, Dr. Eric Costanzo.
My sentiments against Santa don’t come from a combative “keep Christ in Christmas” stance, in which we stubbornly demand that a world full of people who don’t know Jesus must celebrate his birth. If the world celebrates Christmas as a holiday of consumerism, our job is not to chastise, but to demonstrate an alternative that is radically different and points to the kingdom of God. I think that alternative starts by doing Christmas differently, and I think part of doing Christmas differently means leaving Santa behind.
As a preface, I’m not married and I don’t have kids. And I don’t presume to give parenting advice to those who do. If you have kids and do Santa, you have far more wisdom and experience than me and I defer to your judgment. But I do remember pretty well what it was like to be a kid, and a lot of my reasoning stems from reflecting back on my experiences as a child and an adolescent. A lot of it also stems from more recent observations, as well as experience in ministry and the Christian academic world.
I’ve come to the conclusion that when we talk about Santa Claus, it bears a strange resemblance to talking about God. Santa sees what we do and how we behave; to believe in him requires faith, and he has some serious power to be able to pull off Christmas. So for me, a big part of the Santa question is what we may be simultaneously (and most likely unconsciously) teaching children about Jesus when we tell them about Old St. Nick.
Santa and “Being Naughty or Nice”
The most readily apparent way that I think there’s unintentional overlap between doing Santa and teaching children about Jesus is what I’ll call the “behavior modification heresy.” One of the most basic characteristics of Santa is that he sees you when you’re sleeping, and he knows when you’re awake. Further, he knows if you’ve been bad or good; so be good, for goodness sake. It’s one of the most recognizable lines in all of Christmas tunes, and it’s the basic framework for the Santa Claus myth: Santa brings gifts for children who have been good, and coal for children who have been naughty. This tradition dates back to around the Reformation era, and let me tell you, there’s some weird stuff in old European Saint Nicholas lore. But the purpose was the same then as it is now; Santa’s primary role is behavior modification. Children are bribed into being nice instead of naughty, with the promise that this change in behavior will bring with it great material rewards. We teach our children for the first five or ten years of their lives that there exists an essentially omniscient, god-like figure who keeps track of our rights and wrongs, and doles out rewards or punishments accordingly.
There should be a clear red flag here for those who know Jesus. By embracing this system, it seems pretty straightforward that we teach children to view their behavior according to a system of material reward and punishment. We train them to believe that if they are good, the god-like Santa will bless them, and vice versa. But this notion goes against everything our Lord says about himself and his gospel. The punishment/reward system is how the world functions, but not how the kingdom of God operates. In the kingdom of God, we understand that our good works cannot earn us God’s favor or reward. We have realized that we are hopeless to ever be “good”, and that Jesus has loved us anyway. I don’t believe we can expect children to sort out these two opposing messages when it comes to judging their behavior.
Certainly, there is a need to teach children right and wrong, and to reward and punish them in an appropriate way. But I think there is simply too much convoluted language when it comes to Santa. I don’t think we can expect children to grasp both the Gospel of Grace and the Naughty and Nice List. One will win out, and I think it’s more often than not going to be the wrong one.
Santa and “Faith”
There’s a story in my family that goes back to when I was in kindergarten. It has been told at every family gathering between November and February since 1995, and I couldn’t even venture a guess as to how many times I’ve had to sit through it. I don’t actually remember the event, but I told my mom about it when she picked me up from school on that fateful day, and I’ve not been allowed to forget it since. It seems that the bully of our class decided to tell the rest of us that Santa Claus wasn’t real. As the leader of the opposing camp, it fell to me to defend the rest of our views on the man in the red suit. The good little five-year-old philosopher that I apparently was, I responded: “Look, Brian. We’re not saying Santa is real; we’re saying he could be.” Freaking precious, I know.
As a highly logical child, I knew that Brian had a pretty good point. I had thought about it before too–it was hard to fathom one person going to every house in the world in a single night, and from what I understood, the North Pole wouldn’t be a great place to live. But I really wanted to believe in Santa, and the idea that he didn’t exist was just depressing. So when I was confronted with a convincing argument against what I had always been told and what I wanted to believe in, the only thing I could do was to go on believing in spite of the evidence. The only thing I could do was to acknowledge the difficulty of my position, but respond by saying “You can’t prove he isn’t real, so I’m going to go on believing in magic because I want to.” After all, that seems to be the spirit of most Christmas movies. From Miracle on 34th Street to The Santa Clause, the theme of nearly all Santa films is about believing in him despite the evidence. Just take little Susan Walker’s line from Miracle on 34th:
That is what the world (particularly the modern and postmodern Western world) calls “faith”–believing in things that you want to be real, even if it doesn’t make any sense. This is relevant to Santa, because we tell children for the first four to ten years of their lives about something that is utterly unbelievable. And if they start to doubt, we tell them that the trick is just to believe– “Of course Santa is real, if only you believe in him.” But then they reach an age at which they realize that this is not how the world works, and the rug is pulled out from under them. They have been told their whole lives to simply close their eyes and believe harder, but when the fantasy finally ends, they feel how silly it was for them to have believed in something so outlandish. They realize they had no good reason to believe aside from the fact that they were told to, and they are right to feel that they should not operate this way anymore.
Fast-forward eight or ten years in a child’s life, to the point at which they begin to explore what they should believe about the world and the nature of things. I don’t know about you, but when I reached this point, I had an experience that was eerily similar to realizing that Santa wasn’t real: I realized that I had quite literally no reason to believe in God, except for the fact that I had always been told he was there. It occurred to me that I didn’t actually have any evidence for any of what I believed. It was a terrifying realization; the rug of my whole existence was pulled out from under me. For a time, my only reaction was to acknowledge the difficulty of my position, but respond by telling myself, “You can’t prove he isn’t real, so I’m going to go on believing in God because I want to.” It was only after several years of intense doubt, during which I ran about as fast as I could in the opposite direction, that I was brought back into faith by reason and experience. And I’ve found that this is a startlingly common experience for people in my field.
I’m not nearly naive or reductionist enough to say that as adolescents we all have the conscious thought, “By George, this whole God thing is just like Santa Claus! I’m not going to believe it anymore!” But I do think that the way we are told to “believe” in Santa Claus has an impact on how we are told to “have faith” in God. With Santa, we are taught from the earliest years of life that to “have faith” means to “believe in spite of the evidence,” and this carries over into how we approach the bigger questions of life–is it any wonder that so many kids leave church as soon as they leave home? Yet this is decidedly not the kind of faith that Christ calls us to, nor the faith that we are expected to have. We are never told to bury our heads in the sand and “just believe harder” when doubts come. Paul tells us to use discernment, and to be as wise as serpents. When we are told to step out in faith, we are invited to follow Jesus and allow him to prove that he will catch us. Faith in a properly Christian sense isn’t blind acceptance of doctrine or authority. Rather, as C.S. Lewis penned, it is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”
Belief in Santa is blind faith based on the authority of others in spite of the evidence, and this kind of faith leads nearly inevitably to disillusionment and frustration. We must be careful not to train our children to think that belief in Jesus is the same thing, and when it comes to doing Santa, I doubt very seriously that we can have our cookies (and milk) and eat them too.
If you do Santa with your kids, I’m not calling you a bad parent. If your parents did Santa for you like mine did, I’m not saying that your family is wrong. Maybe your family does Santa in a way that you consider fruitful, and that’s entirely okay. But what I am saying is that we must not mindlessly go about doing things as the world does them, without examining how it may reflect on our Lord.