Santa. Ahhhhh. Nothing quite stirs up a controversy among parents this time of year as that jolly old red dude. Do we tell them he’s real (but are we telling a lie?!), or do we tell them he’s not (but are we stealing their innocence and joy?!)
The day I became a parent this was something on my radar. What the heck am I supposed to do about the Santa dilemma?
On one hand, I adore the idea of Santa and how it’s played out. As a child, my parents went to great lengths to keep that Christmas spirit alive. Gifts under the tree were wrapped in paper we had never seen before, the handwriting on packages was written by my mom’s left hand so it looked different to our eyes – “that MUST be from Santa! Mom doesn’t write that messy!” One year, we even found part of Santa’s snowy beard had gotten stuck in the door on his way out and we got to hold a tuft of cottony “hair” as proof Santa really did come.
And as a kid, it was downright magical. It was exciting beyond belief. Just the thought that all the sparkle and excitement was real and was a part of my life, not just something I saw on cartoons made me giddy every Advent. The sleigh bells, songs, decorations, you name it, we lived it.
On the flip side, I also remember having a very hard time focusing on the whole birth of Christ part of it. I loved the silence and sacredness of Christmas Mass. We had an open bible, nativity scene, and other visibly Catholic elements around the home. Yet, with all the hustle and bustle of the Santa show, the spiritual feast happening right before was diminished – it seemed to be more of a concurrent or parallel celebration and we just happened to take part in both celebrations: Jesus and Santa.
When I became a parent, I really wanted to make sure I somehow weaved both together in the right way. I wanted them to know without a doubt the significance and holiness of the season and that it’s all about Christ. But I also wanted them to experience the fun and mystery of the celebrations like I did as a child.
My goal has been to keep alive my children’s capacity for awe and wonder before mystery. That’s something that as adults we have a real problem with – it’s what keeps us from embracing things like the Eucharist, the Communion of Saints, and more. We have trouble shutting off the junk around us that is so “important” and just being the child we are before our Father in heaven.
Imagination, play, excitement, all of these things are the things of childhood and they are inherently good. We are told to inherit the Kingdom we all need to become like children. This isn’t something to take lightly and I think it’s what people sense they are taking away from kids when they don’t want to tell them Santa isn’t real.
So what can we do? We can focus on the right mysteries, the ones that are true and real, and then let the other stuff be a catalyst to enhance that sense of mystery.
We haven’t stopped reading Narnia to kids, afraid they might believe lions can actually talk. We read Narnia because we know it’s a fantastic analogy to teach about choosing good over evil and the power of Christ. It stirs a desire in the listener to want something like Narnia some day – a land of beauty, a land of promise, a land where the dark is finally banished and we are free. The story is filled with the impossible, yet it stirs in our hearts a deep desire for what is actually real – the land we will call home someday, heaven.
If we aren’t afraid of Aslan, why do we inordinately worry about the legend of Santa? Why do we worry about the tales and stories of a jolly old man just seeking to bring a little light and cheer to those around him? Why do we find it hard to mesh together the story of the real Saint Nicholas and the legend stemming from his story meant to point to the ultimate gift, Jesus Christ?
My best guess is because as a culture we’ve strayed far from any good analogy or legend about Santa that can easily be used as a catalyst to teach.
Instead, Christmas with Santa conjures up images of parents literally stealing from each other in sale lines to get a Black Friday deal just because the kid wrote to Santa and asked for it (“if I don’t get it, he’ll think Santa isn’t real!”). We have empty and confusing filler material taking up our time like Elf on the Shelf, rather than Advent calendars and Jesse Trees. We have essentially stripped Santa of every element that makes it a great tool to enhance awe and wonder in children so that they are more conditioned to experience the real life giving mystery of God become man.
To do “Santa” well, the very centrality of Christ has to be the focus. Whatever stories and traditions are held, need to be at the service of teaching the deeper reality that the ultimate gift is God sending His only Son. Christ can’t be a foot note or asterisk to the Christmas experience for our children. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Santa can’t be part of the event.
So, I don’t really think the question is if we are lying to our kids or not. I think the problem is that we aren’t focusing on filling the souls of our children with things that will ultimately lead them to Christ.
One very important aspect of any good teaching on the faith is the phrase “method serves the content.” Whatever manner we choose to teach has to always serve the content of the Gospel. Part of the method may be Santa, but it must serve the truth of Christmas. If your Santa breeds selfishness and greed, you’ve got the wrong method.
When we do Santa, it can be done well if it serves the content: the truth that Christmas is celebrating the coming of Christ into the world. That we are doing everything around us because something way bigger than us happened over 2000 years ago, literally changing the course of history and our eternity.
Santa can play a very valuable role in this story. We can share the story of a real man that lived so counter culturally people still talk about his good deeds and seek to imitate him. We can pretend to be Santa for one another to share the joy of giving and drive home the message that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We can nod our head and simply smile when our child believes in Santa, knowing that the Santa he believes in will one day lead him to understand the value of being a gift to others as Christ gives His all for us.
There’s so much good we are missing because we are too focused on the options in front of us. There is a third option. Take back Christmas and Advent in your family. Create traditions centered on Christ. Allow analogies and stories and all the good things that build a solid imagination so long as they teach the lessons that build strong Christian character. Work on the virtues. Discard the materialistic view of Santa and the holidays. Bring Christ into your everyday conversation. Pray together as a family more than you shop or decorate. Work on your own heart and conversion. Seek to be saints together on a journey to meet the King of kings. And if Santa serves that purpose, enjoy it.