Christmas brings with it a number of ethical questions: how should Christians engage in what certainly can be a holiday of excess, pride, selfishness and greed? How can we make sure our children realize the far greater importance of Easter and the resurrection when culture has made Christmas so much more important? These are important questions, but one small but niggling question is asked of me every year by parents who are members of the Kingdom of God and want to know the opinion of a pastor and professor. The question is, Should we tell our children that Santa is “real?”
Let me begin by letting everyone off the hook by stating that I don’t believe there is a universal answer, and families need to make their own decisions as they are led by the Spirit. The question of what is even meant by “real” will be left for late night philosophical discussions among college sophomores. With that as a given, here are the two sides to the argument.
Avoiding the fantasy
I well remember a particularly stern Sunday School teacher who told our sixth grade class that Santa was only one letter away from Satan. Even then, though I couldn’t have stated it clearly, I felt the foolishness of the argument. I didn’t mention to the teacher that her own son’s name (Stan) only needed one more letter to turn him into the evil one. That kind of over-hyped fundamentalism really does not help anyone.
As for me, I never believed in Santa and my parents never engaged in the “myth” (this may have been because, as the last of six children, my father was fifty and my mother forty at the time of my birth, and they were just too tired to fool with it). Having grown up like that, I had no problem telling my children that Santa was a fictional character who was based on a historical being. I let them know that the gifts didn’t come from Santa and that big guy at the mall was a person in costume.
My basis for this was that I wanted my children to trust me. I didn’t want them to go through an existential crisis at six or seven years old, wondering what else I had said that wasn’t “exactly the truth.” I didn’t want them to wonder if Christ, who also comes with the greatest gift of all, was another one of these “characters.”
It does not take much to see the similarities between Santa and Christ. Both bring gifts; we celebrate them at Christmas; they punish the wicked and benefit the good; and they are all-seeing (I have never been comfortable with anyone who “sees me when I am sleeping”). With those similarities in mind, I chose to follow my parents in not engaging in the Santa mythos. I have been told by many that this was an overreaction and asked if I always made sure to tell my children that Snoopy wasn’t a real dog or that Mickey doesn’t really live in the Magic Kingdom. My friends point out that there are lots of myths that children believe because they are still too young to distinguish fantasy from reality.
I must say that my position was not without its problems. When my son, Josiah, was in kindergarten and told the entire class that Santa was not real, the outcry could be heard all over Chicago. The parents were not happy and treated me as if I were some sort of low-grade monster.
A Christmas tradition
On the other hand I have known many parents who engaged in “Santa is real” talk and behavior whose offspring have grown up to be fine, well-adjusted adults. When the time came, they told their children that believing in the elf was a part of a Christmas tradition, and it helped to add to the magic of the time.
This helped them segue into a discussion of the invisible, yet real, world that is owned and controlled by Christ, whose birth was being celebrated. They explained that they were not lying, but simply “telling stories” that helped everyone enjoy the spirit of Christmas by not taking credit for their own generosity.
At the end of the day, I don’t believe that anyone rejects Christianity because of being told about Santa. On the other hand, if the Spirit convicts you about this issue, then certainly do not engage in the stories of a man with eight reindeer.
What’s really important
The more important issue is that parents should take this time to tell their children about the miracle of the incarnation. That God took on the form of a slave and became a child so that we could participate in redemption. Santa seems to be a nice man who gives away toys that eventually break. Jesus is a real man who gives salvation that will never fade away. Worship Jesus and do what you will with Santa.
Dr. Samuel Lamerson is president of Knox Theological Seminary and a professor of New Testament studies. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.