I still remember a crazy moment back in 2014 on Channel 10’s “The Project”. Comedian Kitty Flanagan got into hot water for saying:
How else do you explain intelligent, educated folks studying Santa, a man that doesn’t even exist. Aw, sorry, spoiler alert! If you have kids in the room you should probably have covered their ears and gone la la la. My point is that if you want to study a Christmassy man that doesn’t exist, surely Jesus comes in at number one.
As you can expect, parents were outraged, and the next day The Project made a grovelling public apology. Of course, they didn’t apologise for falsely claiming that Jesus didn’t exist. No, they apologised for telling the truth about the non-existence of Santa. On Twitter they stated definitively, “Don’t listen to Kitty kids. Her researchers must have failed her. Clearly there’s a Santa.” and just to cover all bases, in their next episode, they even crossed to the North Pole to interview Santa himself to set the record straight.
Of course, they didn’t apologise for falsely claiming that Jesus didn’t exist. No, they apologised for telling the truth about the non-existence of Santa.
In Australia (and I suspect in several other Western countries) the public pressure to maintain the myth of Santa is huge. One of the worst social sins you can commit is to tell a child that Santa isn’t real, and if you have been so cruel as to raise your child that way, they better not spoil the fun for any of their classmates.
So, with all this pressure, what do you teach your kids about Santa?
My Weird Relationship With Santa
Personally, I have been thinking about how I should relate to the character of Santa for many years now. As a child, I was taught that Santa was real. I believed that he lived in the North Pole and on Christmas Eve he somehow entered our house (we had no chimney) and gave me presents if I had been a good boy. I would even leave him cookies and a glass of milk, and the proof of his existence was the fact that these had been consumed by Christmas morning. I can’t recall the moment that I came to discover that these things were not true, but I do remember one year spotting my dad secretly constructing a plastic slide in the backyard. This slide then appeared on Christmas morning as my younger brother’s present from Santa and with that, the illusion of Santa was well and truly burst.
After becoming a Christian in my teens, I became pretty anti-Santa. I didn’t want Christmas wrapping paper with Santa on it; I wouldn’t sing carols that weren’t “biblical”, and most importantly, I knew that when I had kids one day, I wouldn’t have Santa as part of our Christmas traditions. I remember expressing this to my family and one of my brothers said at the time “I can’t believe you would rob your kids of the magic of Christmas!” I recall thinking then, as I still think, that Christmas has an epic amount of “magic” and wonder and mystery and joy without needing a man who can zoom around the world in one night with flying reindeer. God himself came to earth in the man Jesus in order to reconcile the world to its creator, and his arrival is marked with miraculous births, mysterious stars, the appearance of armies of angels and the fulfilment of ancient prophecies. Leaving Santa in the decorations box doesn’t rob anyone of the magic of Christmas at all.
Leaving Santa in the decorations box doesn’t rob anyone of the magic of Christmas at all.
As I got older, my issues with Santa evolved. Not only did I think of the character as a distraction from Jesus, but I began to observe that his commonly understood message was actually the opposite to the gospel. If you are good you will be on the “Nice List” and get presents, and if you are bad you will be on the “Naughty List” and get either nothing or a lump of coal. It’s not hard to see how this pretty neatly translates into how many people wrongly think about God. Many people think that we get on God’s “Nice List” by being good enough and that the gift of Heaven is given to good people. Tragically, many adults even think that this is what Christianity teaches!
The truth is, of course, that no one is good enough for Heaven. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) We all need forgiveness. We are all on the Naughty List. The good news of the gospel is not that good people get presents, but that bad people do. As Paul beautifully writes in Romans 5:6-8:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
These reflections on Santa came to a head for me in 2013 when I wrote a children’s book called When Santa Learned the Gospel. This book for me was an expression of the conflict between the message of Santa and the gospel. It also was very generous to Santa, making him the friendly protagonist who we journey with as he grapples with these realities and ultimately (spoiler alert) finds redemption in embracing the gospel.
To my surprise, this little book has ironically become very popular amongst Christian Professional Santas in the US. These are Christians who play Santa for Christmas events, who also love the gospel and want to ensure that Jesus is front and centre.
Three Simple Words
As you can see, my relationship with Santa has evolved over the years. I started out an unquestioning believer, became a passionate anti-Santa protester and ended up teaming up with Santas across the globe to point people to the gospel! Along the way I have met many people who respond to Santa in a variety of ways. Some try to avoid it all quite strictly both in and outside of their homes. Some teach their kids about how the modern myth of Santa Claus developed from the Dutch traditions around Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas). Some are fine with a bit of Santa but just refer to him as a fun imaginary character that represents giving and generosity and can point us to the gift of Jesus. Still others, go all the way and tell their children that the whole modern Santa mythology is 100% true.
I have a very basic philosophy about what to tell your kids about Santa, whether you are a Christian or not. It boils down to three simple words: Just … Don’t … Lie.
That’s it. No matter what you think about Santa and his purpose (good or bad) in Christmas celebrations, share with your kids what you think. If you don’t mind a bit of Santa decorations and can’t help humming along when “He’s makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice” starts playing at the supermarket, don’t feel guilty. Just don’t lie. Don’t tell your kids things about Santa that you know aren’t true.
My daughter is now seven and we have always simply told her the truth—Santa is a character. Like Spiderman, or Willy Wonka. A character that was inspired by a lovely Christian guy called Nicholas who cared for the poor and died many years ago. A character that people like to dress up as. A character that some of her friends (especially her non-Christian school friends) are told by their parents really exists. But he doesn’t. And that’s ok. Christmas is about Jesus and Jesus is awesome.
My daughter has never really had a problem with this. Sure, she has grappled with the social dynamic of friends at school believing that Santa is real, and we encourage her to not worry too much about it. She doesn’t have to go on a crusade to make sure the other kids know the truth. We encourage her, if she’s going to talk about Christmas with her friends, it’s more important that they know the truth about Jesus, more than Santa. But if her friends ever asked her point blank what she thinks about Santa, I expect she will follow our three word advice. Just don’t lie.
I definitely don’t subscribe to the idea that everyone has to play along with the Santa myth. Sorry parents. If that’s a game you’ve chosen to play, then that’s on you. I didn’t sign up for it and you can’t expect that I (or my child) will back up your lie to keep your game afloat. I’m not going to be a jerk about it. Ephesians 4:15 says that we must speak “the truth in love” and it does take wisdom to know what is the most loving thing to say and when or if to say anything at all. But at the very least, if you speak, it must be truthful. Whatever you say, just don’t lie.
I guarantee, a commitment to honesty in your family will build trust over decades in the hearts of your kids.
My dad has always expressed his sadness that I have not continued the “Santa” tradition that he did with me as a child. He likes to give a gift “from Santa” to his grandchildren, which is fine, but they will know that it’s from him. I can understand why that’s hard. I’m not only refusing to play the game, I’m sort of ruining the game for him. He once tried to convince me by telling me that, for him, “Santa is the Spirit of Giving.” I responded by saying:
That’s beautiful dad. So tell her that. Tell her that, to you, Santa is the Spirit of Giving. But if you don’t actually believe that Santa lives in the North Pole and will physically come into her house on Christmas Eve, then don’t tell her something you know isn’t true. Tell her what you actually believe about Santa. That’s fine. Just don’t lie.
I encourage you, not only to tell your kids the truth about Santa, but most importantly, to tell them—and everyone else—the truth about Jesus. So much more could and should be said about how to celebrate Christ at Christmas, but for this article I just wanted to encourage especially those first-time parents, trying to tackle the topic of Santa with their children.
If Jesus is your focus and “truth in love” is your principle, you will never have to worry about the facade being exposed or that your kids will find out what’s really going on from an older sibling. By all means, have lots of creative and silly fun with your kids at Christmas. Just don’t lie. I guarantee, a commitment to honesty in your family will build trust over decades in the hearts of your kids. And then, as you tell them the truths about Jesus and his gospel message, they will know they can believe what they hear.