The Christmas Dilemma—Santa or No Santa?

At this time of year, one topic of conversation keeps popping up again and again amongst parents. How does your family celebrate Christmas? Elf on the shelf? Advent activities and chocolate? Do you play Santa? The options for how we celebrate Christmas with our children are ever-expanding. As Christmas approaches, social media is full of beautifully decorated trees, elves on shelves and advent displays. As a Christian mother, celebrating the Christmas season is something that is important to me. I want my children to learn about the birth of our Saviour, and I want them to associate the birth of Jesus with a wonderful celebration. The big thing weighing on my mind this year is Santa. In the secular world, to deny your children Santa is to deny them the magical, wondrous Christmas experience they deserve. Some parents like to go all out, fake phone calls from Santa (there’s an app), letters to the North Pole, and mountains of presents.

I want my children to learn about the birth of our Saviour, and I want them to associate the birth of Jesus with a wonderful celebration.

How should we respond as Christian parents? Is Santa a worldly lie and dangerous affront to the gospel that absolutely must be stamped out? Or is it a harmless piece of make-believe that can live alongside the celebration of Jesus birth?

Naughty or Nice?

One element of playing Santa that clearly clashes terribly with the Christian faith is the idea that Santa is always watching. Some stories about Santa elevate Santa to godlike status: he is all-knowing, all-seeing and he will make a list of who is naughty or nice.

NOT ONE of us is good by God’s standards; NOBODY will make the ‘nice list’.

This is not something that Christians can go along with. Only God is all-knowing and all-seeing. Only God will judge. The gospel teaches the exact opposite of Santa. NOT ONE of us is good by God’s standards; NOBODY will make the ‘nice list’. And yet, instead of a lump of coal (or something much worse), God offers us the gift of salvation through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

Perhaps this is enough for you to decide that Santa is out. However, it is quite easy to remove the naughty/nice mythology and still keep the aspects that you like. As an ever-evolving work of fiction, it is really up to us what parts of the Santa story we choose to include. Unlike the gospel, we really can pick and choose the parts we like and discard the rest.

Lies vs Imaginary Play

One argument for outlawing Santa is that we are lying to our children. Proverbs 12:22 tells us that The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” Lying to our children is clearly wrong. But is playing Santa lying?

Most people are rightly comfortable with reading stories and imaginary play when it comes to raising their children. My children love to play crocodiles, and after a game of crocodiles, I don’t need to sit my children down and have a serious talk explaining that I am not a real crocodile. They understand that we are playing, and that there is a difference between imaginary play and reality.

While Santa definitely falls into the realm of imagination and fiction, you might be concerned that your children will be deceived into thinking it’s real. I think this might be less of a danger than we imagine it to be. For example, my four-year-old son loves dragons. We read truckloads of stories about dragons, but he has never asked me if dragons are real. As he grows and develops, he will realise that dragons are not real, and I do not tie myself in knots over whether I have lied to him.

Our intent when it comes to Santa is extremely important.

This is partly because children are capable of determining what is real and what is imaginary and partly because of the way I approach the topic of dragons. When I read my son mountains of books about dragons, my intent is simply to engage his imagination; to show him that reading is fun—and nothing more. I make no effort to persuade him that dragons are real.

Our intent when it comes to Santa is extremely important when determining whether Santa is a lie or a game. Is our intent to hoodwink and wilfully deceive our children into a serious, lifelong delusion about the existence of Santa? Or is our intent to play a fun game for a limited period of time? Some parents feel deeply uncomfortable with the concept that Santa is a game—they feel that it is lying, plain and simple. They may fear that their children will feel betrayed when they discover the truth. Others might conclude that it is a matter of how Santa is handled. If parents take care to keep clear of lies and unhelpful elements, Santa could be included as a fun game and nothing more. There is Christian freedom in both approaches.

Santa vs Jesus?

Leaning into the Christmas season can provide us with many opportunities to share Jesus with our friends and community.

Christmas is all about Jesus’ birth, so we should consider whether getting rid of Santa is a prime opportunity to reject the worldly and secular elements of Christmas and focus on Jesus. But if Santa is on the chopping block purely for this reason, surely we must also throw out every other worldly tradition too: family gatherings, Christmas trees, gifts, Christmas parties, Christmas concerts. The Christmas season is chock full of worldly traditions that have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. If your conscience is calling you to trim the fat and focus on Jesus, I applaud you. Trim away! But it might still be worth considering that leaning into the Christmas season can provide us with many opportunities to share Jesus with our friends and community. Churches get together to make puddings, gingerbread houses, wreaths—all for an opportunity to share the gospel. We can do the same; we can invite friends over for Christmas parties and show them our nativity scenes and tell them how much we love Jesus. I want my children to love celebrating the birth of Jesus—and Santa can play a small role in making Christmas a celebration, along with gifts, food, family, friends and lights.

Santa vs Jesus Freaks

We are called to be aliens and strangers in the world (1 Pet 2:11); to stand out, to shine like lights in the world (Matt 5:16). Surely giving up Santa and being different from those around us is a good way to shine and be different. But there is no specific call in the Bible to give up Santa. We don’t need to invent opportunities for our children to be different. They will have many, many legitimate opportunities over the years to stand out and be different (and have people dislike them for it). The Bible calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus, but let’s make sure that when we take a stand and choose to be different, it is for Jesus and the gospel, not for the sake of being different.

So Should I Play Santa this Christmas?

Unfortunately, with the exception of the “naughty or nice” aspect, the Santa question does not lend itself to a hard and fast rule. Some will feel that there is enough of a problem to warrant a ban. Others will decide that as long as they handle it wisely, Santa can play a small role in their Christmas. Both can be wise decisions. Christians have the freedom to make their own choices and follow their own consciences, as Paul describes in places like Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10.

As Christians, we have a wonderful freedom with regard to rules and traditions that do not interfere with the gospel. But it also comes with caveats:

Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbour. (1Cor 10:24)

[L]et us not pass judgment on one another any longer … let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. (Rom 14:13,18)

We are completely free to choose whether to include Santa in our Christmas traditions, but our main priority should not be prancing around declaring our freedom nor judging those who think differently from us. Our main goal should be to love others; to consider their good and think about how to help them make their own godly and upright choices. We are free to choose, but is our choice going to cause friction and grief or love and unity?

Stop Worrying about Santa and Play Jesus Instead

Whether or not we choose to include Santa in our celebrations, there is one thing that is not hard to decide. The thing that should consume our minds and our creativity is how to celebrate the birth of Jesus. How can we teach our children about the wonderful birth of our Saviour? How can we create traditions that help us to glorify God as we celebrate the birth of Jesus?

There are many ways that we can help our children capture the wonder of the birth of Jesus. One that is enjoyed by many families is to have a Bible-based advent calendar (there are many available online). Each night leading up to Christmas in our house, we read a bible story leading up to the birth of Jesus, have a little treat, and play hide and seek with our nativity scene characters.

Tips for Those who Choose to Play Santa

If you do choose to include Santa in your celebrations, here are some things to consider:

  • Work harder to celebrate Jesus than Santa. Santa comes with easy built-in traditions, but how are you celebrating the birth of Jesus with your children? Put the most effort into celebrating Jesus’ birth, not Santa.
  • Be good because Santa is watching. Beware of this element of Santa. Be clear and upfront about the fact that Santa can’t see and Santa can’t judge. Santa is not God.
  • Be open about the truth when questioned. If your children are questioning whether Santa is real, consider carefully how you will respond. Make sure you do not stray into the territory of lies and deceit.
  • Be gracious and loving. When other children (maybe from church) tell your children that Santa isn’t real, be gracious and loving. Do not hold a grudge at them for “spoiling Christmas”, forgive and keep playing anyway.

Tips for Those who Choose not to Play Santa

If you choose not to play Santa in your household, here are some things to consider:

  • Love those around you. How can you love those around you who play Santa with their children? Could you explain to your children that others are playing a game and they could play along? How can you respond in a way that shows love?
  • Do not judge your brother—It can be tempting to look down on your Christian brothers and sisters who choose to play Santa as weak, worldly or unwise. It is not our role to judge our brothers and sisters, but to love them spur them onto righteousness.
  • Remember Christian freedom—Be loving and gentle when discussing your views on Santa. Newer Christians, or those with tender hearts, may easily believe that they have sinned when they hear that you do not play Santa. Do you believe they have the freedom to choose?
  • Beware self-righteous pride when choosing not to play Santa, it can be easy to pat ourselves on the back for being wise, godly and hardcore.