My wife and I play a game with our two year old son. It involves catching a fish. You never know if it’s gonna be a little, tiny fish – or a great, big whale of a fish. You can play this game on the bed, on the floor, pretty much anywhere.
To begin, you have to look very carefully all around you to try and find a fish just under the surface of the water. Once you spot one, you try to snatch it out of the water with your bare hands! But you have to be quick – because fish are very quick.
Once you’ve caught a fish, it’s a bit of a juggling act. The fish is usually squirming and flopping around – as a fish out of water does. So it’s usually quite a struggle and a workout to keep the fish from getting away, especially if it’s a big one! The fish is very hard to hold on to – as fish are very slippery. Once you start getting tired of trying to hold on to this jumping, squirming fish, you pass him off to another person so they can wrestle with it for awhile. Eventually, the fish gets away and you start over again. It’s hilarious, just ask my son!
Now, is the existence of the fish in this goofy game a part of an elaborate lie? Of course not. We were just using our imagination and teaching our son to do the same. We also showed him how using our imagination lets us have a lot of fun with very little. More importantly, we used our imagination to learn about something that is very, very real. Just because we imagine something doesn’t mean it’s not real. We imagine real things all the time.
Does my two year old fully understand the difference between our fishing game and real fishing yet? Not quite. But one day he will. And in the process he’s learning a lot of real things about real fish…even if we exaggerate and have some fun with it in the process. (Note: this is not supposed to be an analogy for Santa, it’s to point out that what is “real” in the mind of a child is established in a very abstract way over years of their life…and that the distinction of precisely which parts and in which ways those parts are “real” or “not real” is, first, not a simple black and white answer and, second, something clarified over time…and that’s okay. Our insistence on immediately and forcefully classifying every thing neatly as either factually true or a lie is “an impoverished understanding of the nature of language, of thought, and of truth.”)
So what about Santa Claus?
We live in a culture that has taken Christ out of Christmas. Our appetite for material goods is insatiable. Our religion, a cult of consumerism. Our dogma, the marketing maxims of slick sales execs that have redefined for us what it means to be “prepared” for Christmas. Rather than prayer, fasting and repentance, we prepare by just buying lots of stuff. And they’ve made Santa Claus the spokesperson.
So it’s no surprise that, as a reaction to all that, some have been tempted to throw Santa Claus right out and get back to the “reason for the season.” And besides, why do we tell such “lies” to our kids about some imaginary man in a sleigh anyway?
Well, I’ll tell you.
First, the story of Santa Claus is a Christian story. Hello! When told properly, it points to and emphasizes Jesus Christ. So, it’s actually one of the (fun) ways to “get back to the reason for the season.” And kids like fun.
Second, therefore, Santa Claus is not the problem. The commercialization of Christmas has victimized him as much as any of us. In fact, I’m pretty sure the real Santa Claus isn’t taking all of this too lightly, either.
Which brings me to my next point, Santa Claus is a real person. So it’s not a lie to say that Santa Claus is real. He has died, yes. But he’s not really dead. He’s alive in heaven, which means he’s more fully alive than any of us.
Santa Claus = Sinter Klaas = Sint Nikolaas = Saint Nicholas. Make it a lesson in linguistics for your kids. Santa means Saint. A Saint is someone who has lived a life of heroic virtue. A life worth mimicking. A life worth observing. A life worth learning from. A life that points to Christ.
Saint Nicholas was a 4th century bishop in the Church. And his spirit of giving and serving the poor is worth remembering by re-enacting (and imagining) his life and then learning from it. More importantly, the reason he served the poor and gave of himself so much is because he served Christ at the center of his life. And he did so with heroic enough virtue that we remember it thousands of years later. We are all called to live lives like that. That’s the radical call of being a Christian (not necessarily to dramatically cast out all the fun in our lives!).
The point is that Santa can’t just be somebody we get stuff from.
He’s a kind of model for our life – just like every “Saint.” He’s somebody we can teach our kids to look at and say, “do you see how generous and giving he is? That’s what God calls us to be every day, and especially during this important religious season when we celebrate the greatest gift mankind has ever received, Jesus.”
The giving must be emphasized, not the receiving. But you can’t have one without the other! So the question for our family is, simply, which are we focused on? and therefore, what are our kids learning is most important? The giving…or the receiving?
And it’s okay if your 4 year old gets more excited about Santa than she does about baby Jesus. That probably means you have a healthy 4-year-old who can’t grasp the magnitude and deep theological significance of redemption, eternal salvation and God becoming a man. Even most adults struggle with it. Let’s not strip the fun out of our kids’ lives because they realize a jolly fat man in a red suit who flies around in a sleigh with magical reindeer giving gifts is more exciting than a baby in a manger. Any religion that wants to last longer than a single generation must acknowledge this simple childhood truth.
We just have to make sure that as kids get older they continue to learn the depth of the Santa story as they are able. And how that jolly fat man who gives presents is not there to give us presents, but to show us how to give. And he’s not doing so because you’ve been good, he’s doing so because giving is what life is all about. And the most radical way that old Saint Nick lived this out was not with the gift of presents, but with the giving of his entire life to Jesus Christ and the way he lived it in service to Him.
Personally, I think we should tell the Santa story to our children the same way we tell any great story. Let them pretend along with you. Let them learn in time what is true about the story and what isn’t. What is important about the story and what isn’t. And more importantly, help them learn the deeper (and very real) truths contained within it. And along with that, of course, use it to help them understand the infinitely more significant and completely true story of Jesus.
Does that mean your kids might not buy the whole story – hook, line and sinker? Maybe. Let them question. But also let them wonder. A child’s wonder should be kindled to flame, not stamped out with the cold hard facts as quickly as possible.
Let them wonder.
But to be clear, it is not the goal here at all to deceive our kids, it’s to tell the great story. Too many parents get this backwards. They get too caught up on trying to make their kids literally believe every bit of it. That’s not the point. And, for me, that can easily become lying, which is never good. Be honest with them, but don’t let the wrong details distract them.
Just look at the book of Genesis. If you read the story of creation and get caught up on whether everything was made in 6 literal days or not, you’re missing the whole point of the story. The writer didn’t feel the need to clarify certain obvious questions of *fact* when telling that story. Does that mean they were intending to deceive? Not at all. They were telling a better story and teaching a more important truth in the process.
I get it.
It’s a legitimate criticism that the story of Santa too often overshadows the story of Jesus. It’s so true. And that must be corrected. Yes, the feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 should be the main time we celebrate Saint Nick. But the fact is that a feature of our culture, whether we like it or not, is that Santa helps us celebrate Christmas. We can co-opt and run with that, or we can opt out and waste a big opportunity. I think the former is what the Church has done repeatedly throughout history with much success.
Let the malls and the advertisements and the chatter and pictures of Santa be like the pages of a great story book come to life and we’re all characters! I think we’ll have more success reminding people of the reason for the season if we join in the drama rather than opt out.
Do we need more Jesus inserted into the mix? Absolutely. At every turn. And He must remain central to the overall narrative we teach our children during this time of year. But don’t bail on Santa. If you look close enough, his jolly red suit is a giant red arrow pointing straight to Jesus. We just have to make sure and follow the arrow when it shows up.
We’ve become boring story tellers.
Our modern scientific minds have turned us into impotent story tellers. Telling stories is an art performance, not a repeating of scientifically verifiable facts. There are lots of ways to tell this story without lying to our kids. If your conscience is bothering you about it, then it probably means you should be telling the story a little differently.
I like to think of it this way. When we read a good bed time story, we read it like it’s real because it’s more fun and impactful that way. You learn more and it exercises the imagination. But at the end when your kid asks, “is that really real, Daddy?” the answer is rarely as simple as a yes or no.
Do princesses and castles exist? Yes, honey. Does princess Jasmine? well, no. Or maybe she did exist, but this story is only partially true about her. Or maybe she never existed, but the situations in the story are real. Maybe the scene is made up but the lesson is not. Does magic exist? No, not really. But do some moments in life feel magical? Absolutely. Are super heroes real? Yes, although they may look differently than you think. Dad, does anyone really have special powers? Yes, but not like you are thinking…better ones, that you’ll only think are better when you’re older and wiser.
You have to be the judge on how much you answer now or allow to be answered in time. When your child asks “Is Santa really real?” a simple yes or no is not sufficient. If they are ready, maybe you tell them which parts are real and which aren’t and explain right then at a level they can understand. Or, maybe you ask them what they think and you let them think about it for awhile. Maybe you let them think about it for years. But it’s still a story worth telling.
A child’s mind is such a dynamic place – and forming it doesn’t happen in a single moment. With Santa, instead of finding out the full story immediately in one sentence, maybe they find it in good time as they are ready (like every good story you’ll ever tell them).
It makes for a fun story when we let Santa eat the cookies and deliver the presents. But kids soon learn that Santa had a few partners along the way to get the job done.
Good myths are the ones we grow in to – not out of.
And if that’s not enough, read why G.K. Chesterton still believes in Santaand this now-classic wondrous response to Virginia.