Monday, December 17, 2007

Down with Santa Claus!

Over the past couple weeks, several people have asked me what I think about children "celebrating" Santa Claus during the Christmas season. Usually the questioner is a parent of a young child with some angst about whether or not they are doing the right thing this time of year.

As is the case with many cultural issues, advocates line up on both sides of the issue. Those who are for the typical Christmas celebrations replete with the big jolly fella and his companions, generally offer the following reasons:

1. "There is nothing wrong with Santa Claus. It's harmless."
2. "Children need myth and story like this to exercise or develop their imaginations."
3. "Children should have fun during the season. They should have something to look forward to."
4. "It's part of our tradition (whether family tradition, cultural tradition, etc.)."

Well, for the almost ten years we have been parents, my wife and I have been on the opposing side of this question. We have endured through years of pressure from our parents--the children's grandparents--to "let them have a Christmas," meaning a tree, Santa Claus, many gifts and the like. Sometimes it was personal--"You had a Christmas! Why can't the baby have a Christmas?" And other times it was solidly defiant. "Well, I don't care what you say. I'm gonna give that baby a Christmas."

Nevertheless, we weathered the grandparent wrath and we have managed to have quiet, reflective Christmas celebrations without ol' Saint Nick. And here is why I think Christmas without Santa is a better way to go for Christians.

1. Imagination. The argument that children need the myths of Christmas in order to fuel their imagination has generally baffled me on two counts. First, they don't seem to need the aid of Father Christmas any other time of the year. Their imaginations are active as they play with dolls, dig in the dirt, imagine themselves to be kings of the realm. For 11 months of the year, the imagination organ works just fine. So, it's curious to me that they should need an aid in the 12th month. But second, and more important, the argument from imagination seems to me to be an admission that Christian parents may have lost the ability to stand in awe of the most wondrous events in all of history. And if the parents have lost that awe, it's little wonder that they don't expect their children to stand amazed at the coming of Christ. I mean Christmas is the time we celebrate the Infinite Creator God, sending His Eternal Son down from eternity into space and time. God entered His creation, indeed, took nine months residence in the womb of a virgin. One fully God and fully man was born, clothed in the likeness of sinful man, lived a perfect life in obedience to the Father, died a scandalous death in love for sinners, and rose from the grave in glory! Imagine that. This is what our children's minds should be fired with. And it's all true! In the end, there is nothing as inspiring as the truth about Jesus!

2. Having Fun. A fair number of parents have, almost in panic, expressed concern that should there be no Santa Claus their children would not have fun at Christmas. And children, they say, need to have fun at Christmas. Generally, the "fun" in mind is the passing pleasure of visiting crowded malls, waiting in long lines to sit on Santa's knees, waiting days and weeks until Christmas morn, and gleefully opening gifts. Only to be bored with it all within a couple days, sometimes hours, after waking to the festival of paper shredding. No doubt Christmas is fun. Even as parents, we get great delight from seeing our children's faces as they rummage through the boxes and gifts. But the implication here is that Christmas without the trappings, Christmas exclusively focused on the birth of the Savior, is boring. The argument implies that there is no anticipation associated with awaiting the celebration of Jesus' incarnation.

But that's surely false where children are instructed in the true meaning of the celebration. My wife and I once had the painful experience of preparing our daughters for "Jesus' birthday." My oldest girl, about four at the time, was greatly looking forward to it. The year before we'd had a small neighborhood gathering for the children where we read the Christmas story, baked a cake, discussed the gospel in celebration of Jesus' birth. She'd had great fun and looked forward to it the following year. The year came around and we decided to spend it with a grandparent, replete with the customary trappings and focus. The day came. So, too, did family and visitors. Presents were opened. Parades paraded. A great dinner eaten. Children played and adults talked. The day came and went. The following morning our daughter asked, "So, when do we celebrate Jesus' birthday? What day is Christmas this year?" The look of deep disappointment--a look that communicated she felt robbed and ashamed--washed over her face as we told her in our most sympathetic voices, "Sweetie, yesterday was Christmas." For our daughter, the day had no fun equal to that of focusing on the Savior and celebrating His birth and mission to save sinners. That was our goal, and we'd abandon it. We felt like wearing bags with "World's Last Spiritual Christian Parents" written on them. Christmas is fun--great fun in the truth--when our children are taught its meaning.

3. "There's nothing wrong with Santa Claus, etc. It's part of our tradition." Sometimes I hear this and think, "My, you doth protest too much." There's a palpable admission in the strenuous way this defense is offered. When I've had this conversation with folks who've taken this defense, it sometimes seems they are troubled by what is perhaps missing in their celebration, but they're perhaps seeking to comfort themselves. And the statement is sometimes more about the parent's desires than it is about the needs of children.

But is there anything "wrong" with a Santa-inspired Christmas? There are possibly three things wrong. When we lived in the Washington, D.C. area, there was a lawsuit over Christmas/holiday decorations filed against a local city council. The filers of the suit specifically targeted the town's use of Santa Claus in the city parade and in other decorations as religious symbolism that violated church and state. The folks filing the suit won. What's wrong with that picture?

What's wrong with that picture is that the non-Christians in the suit, and probably many others, thought Santa Claus was somehow connected with the Christian faith. Christ Jesus and the Christian gospel were shrouded in mythology. What may be wrong with Christian participation in holiday myth is that the Truth is lost beneath pagan ideas or light clich├ęs. It's hard to know "He's the reason for the season" if the folks who purportedly follow Him don't publicly and joyously celebrate Him during the season. So, the first possible wrong is that we may miss gospel opportunities with our neighbors and friends.

The second possible wrong is we may indeed be cultural syncretists, blending our faith in the Lord with the celebration of myth and the material festivals of our day. We may raise children who come to find both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ incredulous. For after all, children "grow up." And if "growing up" involves the putting away of childish things, and we've somehow lumped Christ in with childish things, then it's not surprising that some become "too grown up" or "too intelligent" or "too scientific" to really consider the Lord of glory. Turning the hearts of our children to a myth when the glorious Lord is available to them may be to eventually turn their hearts to worldliness in its 1,000 flavors. That's what is wrong with good ol' St. Nick.

A third thing that may be wrong, in many ways associated with the issue above. Is it right and what effects might we expect from raising our children to participate long-term in a lie? I've been calling Santa Claus a "myth." But the other word we could use is "lie" or "deception." We sometimes put this in the "little white lie" category, the harmless tall tale. But, it seems to me that there people are sometimes so commitment to this "myth" or "lie" that it's anything but the little white variety. And though children may grow up beyond such fibs (though not without first experiencing the mild trauma and pain of finding out he is not real), what do we teach them about the nature of truth, commitment to and pursuit of it, and ethical behavior with Santa Claus? Is the not so subtle message, "It's okay to believe a lie when it favors or advantages you in some way." Or, "It's okay to tell a lie if we think it will make someone happy." If our children grow up and apply that reasoning to dating, the workplace, marriages, or most any other area of life the results will be painful and sometimes disastrous. If we do the Santa Claus thing with our children, do we take the time to "back fill" their understanding of the nature of truth and morality? Do we honestly think our children at four, five, etc. are able to comprehend moral nuance? Any parent who has told their child to do one thing, only later to be called on the carpet by that child's black-and-white observation of the parent's own failure in that area, knows that nuance is not something children do well. The thing is black or white, true or false. And that should be used to parenting advantage when it comes to raising our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

Our children have grown up to have a wonderful, imagination-engaging, fun Christmas without Santa Claus. And scores of children whose parents make Santa Claus a part of their Christmas celebration have also grown up to have wonderful memories of Christmas and to serve the Lord faithfully. And there are tons of children in both camps that have not had great celebrations.

I'm not arguing a dogmatic causality here. I'm simply asking the question, "Why include Santa Claus at all?" Is the imagined upside of following the culture here worth what we think it's worth? And are our justifications helping us to point our children to Christ or masking the reality that we may be pointing our children away from Him? Personally, I doubt Santa Claus is worth it, and pointing our kids away from Jesus at Christmas may be the worst form of child neglect I can imagine.

27 comments:

Laura said...

We had an interesting discussion about this on our church message boards a few weeks ago. Most parents included Santa in their celebrations as a side-note, a game that their kids were "in on" -- not as deception, but as a fun fantasy. These parents are careful to avoid the "be nice and Santa will bring you presents" manipulation.

One man told a story that brought us all up short -- his parents (unbelievers) had insisted that Santa was real all through his childhood, and when he finally found out that they had been perpetuating a lie, he was very disillusioned and angry with them. It affected his relationship with his folks for years.

Veggie said...

I enjoyed and sympathized with this article. I agree that Christmas is supposed to be about Christ and not Santa. I think there is a way to incorporate the spirit of giving as well as the spiritual meaning of the Christmas Season. I grew up Catholic but I was fortunate enough to have parents who knew how to place enough importance on the Christianity elements of the Sacred Holiday Season as well as make magical Christmas mornings for me and my brother. I think a balance is the key. Certainly, the holiday is truly all about spending time together as a family and with loved ones and family and friends. A great way to spend quality time with your kids, and impart the spiritual meaning of the season is to watch the old classics with them. The tales like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town are what I remember growing up with and watching with my family. There are also 4 other movies included and a bonus music CD as well. One of the best classics in my opinion is The Little Drummer Boy. It is the best depiction of what the season truly is about and how gifts came about. It’s timeless and still spiritual to this day for all ages. These classics are easy to obtain at the website http://www.christmasclassics.tv The Limited Keepsake Edition of the Original Christmas Classics also include a bonus music CD. You can purchase this box set wherever DVD’s are sold or you can use the convenience of online shopping. This great gift is sure to delight everyone at your Holiday gathering and be sure to buy extras as emergency gifts to households with kids that you may have forgotten on your list. I work for them and I personally can’t wait to buy my own copy and wax nostalgia with my honey and a hot of cup cocoa. Enjoy your Seasonal festivities with the gift of warm fond Christmas memories with your family today.

GUNNY said...

My wife and I were always in agreement that we would never lie to our kids (mythos of Santa) and I don't think we have any Santas around the house.

We do have a tree, but Christ is preeminent with regard to the season.

We do, however, teach the children about Saint Nicholas and the story that developed a life of his own, but make it very clear that Nicholas was not the type that would have wanted to eclipse the Lord Jesus.

Of course, I feel Mary would assert the same thing with regard to the celebrity she receives, often overshadowing the child she bore.

paul said...

I agree: Down with Santa!!

There is so much frenzy with all the cultural (pagan) trappings of Christmas that I think that unless a family is intentionally and radically different, they will be swept up in the current, no matter how often they repeat the mantra, "Jesus is the reason for the season."

MentalVelocity said...

Well, now you've gone and done it! :)

Seriously, this is giving me some good food to ponder. My wife and I do the Santa thing on the side, and our kids definitely know that it's "on the side." And yet, maybe it's time to consider going from "a little Santa on the side" to "sorry, we're all out of Santa this year." I'm definitely printing this one out and discussing with my wife for next year's plans!

justin said...

I'm with you brother.

So, here is the million dollar question:
How do you teach your kids to respond when people ask, "Are you ready for Santa to come?" Or, "What did Santa bring you this year?"

Stephen Ley said...

Thanks for that provocative (in a good way) post. My wife & I haven't been blessed with children yet, but when the time comes you've given us some serious food for thought about how we handle the "Santa question". Incidentally, we were on your beautiful island a few weeks ago..as tourists. I gave our tour bus driver John Piper's little booklet "For Your Joy". So if you run into a tour bus operator named Errol, ask him if he read the little red book. Have a blessed Advent!

FellowElder said...

Justin wrote:

So, here is the million dollar question:
How do you teach your kids to respond when people ask, "Are you ready for Santa to come?" Or, "What did Santa bring you this year?"


Some of the funniest holiday moments for me have been witnessing the unsuspecting stranger in the grocery store or the relative ask the kids something like, "What did Santa bring you?" Or, "Was Santa Claus nice to you this year?"

And watching my oldest girl in particular, with no animosity and a kind of "you're big enough to know better" sympathy, politely say, "We don't believe in Santa Claus. We celebrate Jesus' birth at Christmas."

There's that awkward silence, fumbling for words. The adult is programmed to follow the child's response with, "oh, that's so nice. Santa was really kind to you this year."

But now they have to think about Jesus and why the holiday exists. And there aren't any pat answers at their disposal. It's a great time to insert into the silence a word of gospel.

So, we encourage them to just tell the truth. Nothing fancy; no great defenses. And when they say this to an adult, and an adult seems a bit overbearing, we happily try to model charity in presenting the gospel as explanation for our practice. And in their own little ways, the kids are growing as witnesses for the gospel.

It's been awesome to see them remain focused on Christ during the holidays and eschew any pressure to get caught up in the materialistic aspects of the holiday. One blessing your question brings to mind is I think the girls have developed some skill at resisting peer pressure and the tendency to follow the crowds. That's something we talk about quite a bit with them, and I think there is some fruit by God's grace at times like Christmas and others.

Anonymous said...

My questions is this. . . if you aren't into the whole Santa at Christmas then why would a family exchange presents if they are celebrating Jesus' birth instead of the worldly Christmas?

FellowElder said...

Hi Anonymous,
Good question. Actually, in my immediate family we don't exchange gifts. In my larger extended family, we draw names and set a limit of $20 on the gift.

But I suppose that there are a lot of reasons to exchange gifts at Christmas. It's one way of expressing love, thankfulness, and generosity.

Perhaps a case could be made that in remembrance of the Father giving His Son for sinners at Christmas, we could/should serve others at Christmas. So, many families engage in various service opportunities at the holidays. That's a good thing.

But you ask a good question.
T-

ammcf said...

Very good post! I've writtn on the whole "santa game" too. I appreciate your stand for the glory of God and the integrity of His people! You go!

Anonymous said...

If we leave out Santa because it is a tradition of the world what about the Christmas tree and decorations?

FellowElder said...

Anonymous #2,

I can't speak for others, but we don't trees either. Until this very year, our decorations have consisted of a nativity scene and hanging Christmas cards we received on the frig or wall.

This year, we went all out. On our porch, we twisted some green wreath-stuff on the rails. That's about it, and this is the first time we've ever done that.

So, personally, I like things fairly Spartan and driven by events from the Scripture.

T-

Lance Roberts said...

A lot of kids find out they can't trust their parents when they find out that Santa Claus doesn't really exist. Seems like trust should be a priority over fitting in with culture's activities.

Lionel Woods said...

Santa isn't real? I have been lied to for 30 years! LOL. Good post Pastor T, my wife and I are debating about this issue now. Funny you presented it this way. We have a yearly ritual (I subject myself to it, in the name of peace) where we drink hot chocolate, put up all the Christmas decorations, and finally put our tree together (the one that never dies and goes in the attic). It is always two days after Thanksgiving. I will read this post to her and she what she thinks (I hope you have a spare bedroom for a brother).

Kyle said...

It's amazing how we mar the image of Christ when we bring Santa into the picture. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this matter. As you said, oftentimes we just categorise it as a "little white lie" and think nothing of it. Thanks for showing me that in this one action we are not only removing the Christ from Christmas but we are also obliterating the child's view of morality. Yes while we may bring temporary joy to the faces of our children, we must look at the long-term effects of this "small" infraction in their positive spiritual development.

Tampa Thoughts said...

Very well written post, but I must disagree. Your reasoning is sound and cogent but I think the "risks" are infinitesmally small. Most of us grew up with no belief tension between the discovery of Santa as myth and the true miracle of the incarnation.

For children, the excitement and thrill of a Santa Christmas is an awesome time, and I would add, very short-lived; by 10 most kids are on to the Santa "deception"...if not earlier.

I don't bother with those who "oppose" Santa...that's a great conviction, but I do struggle with any hint of judgement regarding a clean, family-oriented tradition. Then again, I don't have a beef with Halloween which many Christians see as one step from endorsing demons.

Anyhow, I love your blog, am thoroughly enjoying "The Decline" and I am greatly encouraged by your ministry! I just don't see much benefit in targeting a cultural icon that has influence only on Americans aged 4 to 8.

:-)

Heather said...

We don't do Santa--we do decorate and give gifts remembering Christ's birthday and the gifts of the magi. My family was devastated when they found out but have realized that the kids enjoy it anyway. This year was eye opening when I asked my oldest two how they felt about Santa and how they would have felt if we had told them he was real. Both of them responded that it would have made them doubt the truth about Christ and that they loved that we told them the truth and they can trust us--they are almost 10 and 8.

This year I have noticed many atheist cartoonist pointing out this very phenomena and I had the own period of doubt when I found out at age 12 that he wasn't real (my parents perpetuated the myth as long as they could.)

Anonymous said...

Thabiti,

Your doing a good job. I suspect also that coming from a Muslim construct, as would be the case for many who would come from other relgious context, which do not succumb to an american culturized Christianity, that this allowed your assessment of the Santa, and Rudolph issue to be objective and scriptural.

The fact is , that for those that start in on this pagan/Christian practice, they have a hard time breaking away from what they know is not Christ exalting.

We never did it. All eight of my children 24-7, and we never missed a wonderful time of fellowship that day.

No holier than thou thing; just liberty to not be driven by a fad.


The adult children now are free not to do it, since the pattern is there for them.

They love Christ, exalt His free Grace, and worship passionately, at His throne.

I suffered a lot of flack for years. But it's worth it to see the fruit.

The other comments are excellent as well.

Beams of Light Ministries said...

Good post. More people really need to remember the true reason for the season. Santa is a distraction.

Adelheid said...

About the Santa being a lie thing, I agree and disagree with you there.

The only way I feel that Santa can be a lie is if you convince a child that Santa is a real human being that really does live at the North Pole (and has a slew of magical powers, blah blah woof woof).

I feel that the only truth about Santa is that he's the spirit of giving. Though, as you've pointed out before (and it honestly hadn't occurred to me earlier), Santa tends to steal this representation from God/Jesus.

Anonymous said...

The reason why Christmas has become so commercialized is the fact that Christmas is not a Biblical holiday, but a pagan holiday "Christianized". Since I became a Bible-believing and following Christian, I have never celebrated Christmas, or Easter for that matter, because these holidays are pagan days that were "sanitized" for Christian consumption.

The fact is the holidays that we are supposed to commemorate are in the Old Testament and if you read your New Testament correctly you can see that the Apostles celebrated those holidays, primarily, the Passover as dictated by the Messiah and the so-called Jewish feast days. If you notice, these holidays: Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Weeks, etc are not commercialized and clearly point to the Savior.

Trying to "redeem" Christmas is an exercise in futility. Santa-worship is just a symptom of the larger problem of pagan elements infiltrating Christianity. People are quick to say that the Old Testament holy-days are "nailed to the cross," but what we have replaced with these days with --Christmas and Easter--is a counterfeit, easily corruptible.

Liz said...

Thank you for your post. My husband and I have two girls (4 yrs and 16 mos) and do not do Santa or a tree. We have a nativity scene for "the house" under which we place our gifts (to remind us of where gifts come from) and a small set suitable for playing. This year we also had a "winter scene" of snowmen-related items in another location.

Along with the reasons you listed, we found that Noel Piper's book, Treasuring God in Our Traditions, made an excellent point about Santa. His attributes: omniscent (all-seeing), omnipresent (at least one night a year), "old man in the sky" who gives good gifts based on your performance. These are similar to God the Father with one glaring difference - God gives gifts based on Christ's performance (which was adequate and accepted) therefore ours is of no value. This is the most compelling argument for us. Why add another way to confuse our children on the great truth of the Gospel?

We've fought a number of battles (and still I had to unwrap and squirrel away pointless ornaments) so my question is: how do you stop the grandparents and relatives from giving too much (our current struggle). We refuse to teach greed into our children (at least we refuse to encourage it in their sinful hearts) and some are more able to scale back then others. We have some good traditions for Jesus' birthday and giving Him a gift (this year a blanket through World Vision picked by our 4-year-old). I'm sure it can be very relationship-specific, but do you have any thoughts or phrases that worked well (or were less insulting) to communicate with the folks around us? Thanks.

HM said...

"So, here is the million dollar question:
How do you teach your kids to respond when people ask, "Are you ready for Santa to come?" Or, "What did Santa bring you this year?""
Simple- my son came up with it himeself. "We don't do Santa" We've NEVER done Santa as parents. I didn't want to lie to my son about anything let alone something as silly as a make believe character

The only problem I have had with not doing Santa is trying to keep my son from disillusioning all of the kids in our circle of family and friends that do do Santa. As much as I don't like the whole Santa thing it's not my place to talk to someone else's kids about what's real or not.

Last issue was with a little boy I babysit. My son is 6, and he's 7. He came running up to me one day telling me to tell my son that Santa really was real. I was at a bit of a loss. I finally said that some people believe in Santa and others don't and he should talk to his mother about it.

Yikes!

Anonymous said...

The real chritsmas is to celebrate the sun god. Ask Constantine I. He's the one that deemed December 25th as the celebration of Christ b-day only after he converted because the cross helped him kill his enemies. So since that must be the true god, he painted over the celebration of the sun god with the birth of christ. Where is the bible does it state december 25th? Why don't Jehovah Witnesses celebrate on that day? Think about it. Oh wait you never di dbecause god forbid you question your faith. Oh wait that's right it FAITH, what's the difference with Santa and Jesus? You're taking someone's word for it.

nohawkrob said...

Why not use Santa to spread the word?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-2jbFGiLmI

Anonymous said...

I know Christmas has become very commercialised + that some non Christians even join in. However, there are millions upon millions who celebrate this day in thanksgiving + joy for the comming of the Saviour of humankind as a tiny helpless babe. Fundamentalist Christians are always looking for something sinister behind EVERYTHING. They are the first to grab a stone + hurl it with all their might. They must stop pointing fingers. If one does not wish to remember the holy days set aside during the church year, so be it! It's their choice. Let others also have a choice!