Thursday, December 10, 2009

Archives: Down with Santa

It's the Christmas season. Time for all that tinsel and joy, lights and carols, and... yes, scrooge. It's that time of year where so many wonder "where is Jesus?" and others see Him in every tradition or celebration. It can be difficult to craft good traditions as a new family, or to salvage other customs in a Christ-honoring way. There's precept and there's preference. And everybody, I trust, wants to honor Christ in a meaningful way.

Thinking about some of these things recently prompted me to dig out a post from December 2007. Thought I'd re-post it for those with any interest. Merry Christmas!

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 clichés. 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.


Josh R said...

John Piper's argument - that Santa is antithetical to the gospel carries quite a bit of weight with me. I think he is right:

Bethany said...

A friend and I together with our husabnds, parents of toddlers and infants (7 kids, 4 and under), have been talking over this point for a while. For us, the advantage is clear for avoiding Santa and celebrating Jesus and helping our children treasure His birth during this season. The challenge for us is how to teach our young children to respond to and interact with the all-so-common questions toward them (in kindness) about Santa. Strangers in the stores, some relatives, etc asking "What are you asking Santa for this year?" or "What did Santa bring you?" and so on. The obvious intent is kindess and friendliness toward us and our children. What are clear and practical ways we can teach our children to respond to people in grace and kindess without asking them to shade the truth or correct a stranger? Is it grace to reply, "Well, I'm asking for...." (and leave out Santa) or does it miss an opportunity to talk about Jesus? Is something along the lines of "We celebrate Jesus instead of Santa" an opportunity to open a gospel door - it often leads to akward silence and embarrasment from the stranger who was being kind and conversational. I would love to see blog posts or comments discussing those aspects!

D'Arcey said...

Do I understand correctly that you would ellide decorated trees, gifts, and feasts as part of the "Santa" phenomenon?

Anonymous said...

My wife and I are expecting, and we've had the conversation on Christmas and the traditions and customs we want to impart on our litle one, where I emphatically said "I will not erect any one except Jesus Christ in my home during this time of year or any other time for that matter". To which she was in total agreement to. I agree 100%.

Amen and Amen!!!

Soli deo Gloria!!!


FellowElder said...

Hi D'Arcey,
Yeah, we skip the trees and gifts as a family. We prefer a nativity scene to trees and lights. We do eat/feast though! But I don't understand that eating has much to do with Santa :-)

chuck said...

I was going to ask about feasting considering there is a plethora in Scripture so thanks for answering that.

What about giving gifts to friends/family outside of your children? Do you teach them to give gifts to those who give to them, yet not to each other and yourself?

What if you're visiting extended family? Do all of their cousins tear into presents on Christmas morning while they twiddle their thumbs?

I like your article. I'm just envisioning "holier than thou" problems with others as Bethany pointed out in an attempt to be Biblical about Christmas celebration.

Anonymous said...

interesting blog

Anonymous said...

This whole Santa vs. Jesus thing is bizarre to me.

It's not a lie, it's a story. Kids may dress up as Peter Pan/Cinderella without being in peril of slipping into idolatry or losing their focus on Jesus. Sure, it's possible to lose the focus on Jesus and put it into the wrong place (i.e. anywhere else). But that's not Santa's fault.

And the pro-Santa rationalisations you present in order to beat down are clearly straw men.

Usama Al-Taher said...

Amen brother,

I had this talk with my wife a year after I became a Christian and for 4 years the children ages 11 and 9 know the reason for the season.

It caught on this year even better as my wife came up with the idea of exchanging gifts not on the 24th or 25th but before and letting the recognized days just be about the Christ.

Justin said...

I am newly married (a year this coming January) and I have had this discussion with my wife.

Have we ever thought about the impact of these "harmless" myths of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc. Take Santa for instance. He watches you to see if you are bad or good. He brings you gifts when you are good and no gifts when you are bad. Yet you never see him but you are told he exists.

Then we teach them about God who watches over us, can bless or discipline us, but we cannot see him yet he is there. If we lie to them about Santa will they not also think that God is another "harmless" myth?

FellowElder said...

Dear Anonymous ("strawmen"),

Thanks for dropping by and commenting. It's good to hear a contrarian opinion. If you think the pro-Santa arguments are strawmen (they weren't intended to be), would you like provide some more substantive grist for the meal? Happy to have them in the comment thread or to make them a guest post. Let me know.


James Prevatt said...

What a timely repost of this well written article. My wife and I have a 13 month old son so he is too young to even care / notice Santa but by next year he will and this give us a year to discuss how we are going to handle things. I can't say that I am fully in agreement with everything you have written but it certainly has given us a starting point to think about it. Thanks!

Han said...

Hi! I followed a link from the girltalk blog.

When I was growing up, my parents never taught my brothers and sisters and I to believe in Santa. We all knew he was just pretend. But he was a fun thing to pretend, and we enjoyed the games we got out of that. Being Dutch, we also had traditions surrounding Sinterklaas day, December 6th. We also knew Sinterklaas wasn't really putting presents in our wooden shoes, but we did know that the story of Sinterklaas was based on stories that were probably true. We read many biographies of St. Nicholas and had a lot of opportunities to learn about this godly man. When we were small, we knew Santa and Sinterklaas were just games we played, and as we grew up, we learned more about the real man on whom these characters are based.

We were also told that other children do believe in Santa, and it was not our job, but their parents', to change that. So we practiced a policy of keeping our mouths shut about Santa outside of our home.

I don't think kids have a hard time making a distinction between a real God, whom we worship and talk about the entire year; and a made-up character we only bring up in December. Santa was just a fun part of celebrating Christmas... Christ's love overflows into everything, and there truly is nothing wrong with Santa if treated in a Christ-honoring way. We spent so much more time on Christ and God; Santa was an insignificant game.

I guess don't understand why parents get tied up in knots about this, whether they want to keep Santa or not. Believing Santa is real isn't the part that makes Santa fun for most kids, is it? Maybe I just had a weird childhood.

Elaine said...

Han, my childhood was much like yours. However, our “knowledge” of Santa was more by God's intervention than by my parent's deliberate decision. As a five year old, I heard the song describing that Santa “sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good….” I asked my mom if Santa was God because he knew so much. She was shocked! But she took that teachable moment to explain Santa is just pretend.

My family accepted Santa was part of the culture, so my siblings often “played” that he was real, knowing he wasn’t. My parents—even when we were teens—told us our filled stockings were from Santa and all other gifts were from them. Nevertheless, Christ was still the center of the celebration. We had an annual birthday party for Jesus with other families from our church, read the story of His birth before opening presents on Christmas morning, etc.

Now as a married adult, my husband and I are discussing what kind of traditions we will promote with our future children. We do not want them to believe in Santa. But we have similar questions to Bethany and Chuck. How do we relate to the culture without denying Christ? And, moreover, how does a believer do that without seeming self-righteous and condescending to family and friends?

nickilynn said...

Though we do Santa, Christmas trees, and give gifts to our children and others, Christ remains the focus. On Christmas morning we start out with a birthday party for Jesus and read the Christmas Story while the kids eat cake. Once we have done that, then we do the Santa thing. We don't have extravagant gifts, and we don't play him up. In fact, I don't speak about Santa much at all.
I think it is important to give gifts. Jesus was given gifts when He was born and God gives us gifts. We are His children and He loves us. There's no reason not to give gifts - just don't over do it. We clean out our children's rooms before a birthday or Christmas and give to those less fortunate. We are a giving family that gives throughout the year and at Christmas.
The Christmas tree is also a way to point to Christ. See the following links:

I understand not wanting to be in the world, but we have to be careful that we don't ruin our testimony by being so set apart that we are seen as Pharisees.

Anonymous said...

In thinking through this issue, I've wrestled with the following:

1)One thing that I think is often overlooked in this discussion is the fact that Christmas is not a biblical holiday. In fact, I don't see anywhere in Scripture where we are specifically called to rountinely commemorate Christ's birth (His death, yes, but not His birth). This is not to say that it is wrong to focus on the glorious truths of the incarnation during this time of year, but I think we make this a more "spiritual" issue than it really is. From my research, Christmas actually originated as an attempt to merge pagan religion with Christianity. Maybe we should start this discussion there...(Is He really "the reason for the season"?)

2) Has the exchange of gifts, decorating of trees, etc. become a "cultural thing", not unlike celebrating the 4th of July or giving out heart-shaped cookies on Valentines Day?

This seems like a textbook "liberty issue" to me. Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Santa has EVERYTHING to do with Jesus!!! St. Nick was a REAL person (St. Nicholas)who followed the teachings of Jesus by selling what he owned and giving to the poor. See My mother, a Christian educator, did a WONDERFUL job of educating us about Santa. She taught us about the REAL Santa and taught us that we give gifts out of love and care for others less fortunate, out of Christian love. We were taught that we could "play" Santa by giving gifts with the Spirit of Christian love that St.Nicholas had. So, we did hang stockings in anticipation of "Santa" coming and we always gave to those less fortunate as well. On Christmas morning, we ate breakfast together, had our Christmas Advent service (lighting the Christmas candle in honor of Jesus' birth and all that he taught) and only after that worship celebration did we go see whether "Santa" had come. There was NEVER any doubt that Christmas was all about Christ and that Santa was a follower of Christ as well. I believe in the "Spirit" of St. Nicholas as he was following Jesus' teachings. I have a huge collection of various Santas AND creches. They are not mutually exclusive; rather Santa exists because of Jesus'teachings. Also, I agree that the commercialism of Christmas is nauseating. One can teach their children the true meaning and have fun with it. Also, see

Anonymous said...

What about just discussing things with children? In our family, we don't "do Santa" but we don't throw out Santa toys and Santa stuffed bears either. We sing "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" and we read, "The Night Before Christmas."

We explain over and over to our children, that Christmas was originally the winter solstace and that the Roman Church adopted a celebration of Christ's birth about that time, to change the Pagan holiday to a Christian one.

To that end, we explain to our children, that anything we do can be made about Christ. We do a month-long Jesse tree and advent Scripture readings. When we give, we talk about how Christ gave his life for us. When we put up the tree, we talk about the tree that Christ died on for our sins. When we get presents, we point out the Wise Men. The Nativity Scene is the center of our decorations, but we also have Nutcrackers.

I would never lie to my children about anything, and I think that is a real sin- when parents lie to their kids for years and years. Instead, we tell our children, that people sing about Santa seeing them, because their hearts desire a God who can see them and love them like that.

I think you can just be totally honest with your kids and choose to make Christmas about Christ, just like you choose to make anything you do about Christ.

Unknown said...

When I was growing up my parents never encouraged or discouraged Santa. Children are smarter than we believe them to be sometimes. As a kid I remember asking my mom about Santa. Her response was "What do you think about it?" At that point I explained my concerns about my doubt of Santa Claus. She never once lied to me, but answered my questions truthfully. She let me have my imagination, and let me come to my own thinking and reasoning.

I think this is a picture of what God does to us as well. We have all the truth about Him before us, but all of us at one point have had a doubt about His promises. Before we as Christians made that decision to follow Christ we were doubters, questioners, and debaters...

I do not think we should push the issue of Santa Claus with our children. My position is to be as Christ would and let the truth be evident through actions rather than explanation.