Community Carols, December 2013. It’s that moment when Santa comes out at the end of the show: local guy dressed in a red felt suit, cotton-wool beard scratching his chin, sweating in the Australian heat. He walks up to the microphone, places his hands on his pillowed paunch, and utters the required “Ho, ho, ho” in a voice that’s meant to be deep and rumbling.
“So, who’s been a good boy or girl this year?”, he bellows. “Meeeeeee!!”, scream all the kids, raising their hands in the air. As a bit of a joke, he adds, “And who’s been a naughty boy or girl?” To his surprise, the kids all raise their hands again, and scream, “Meeeeee!!”.
Santa is clearly at a loss for words. After a moment’s silence, he says awkwardly, “Oh well … I guess you’ve tried to be good.”
And there it is: the Christmas message according to Santa.
The Christmas message according to Santa: Pure moralism, but with very low expectations. God has us all down on two lists called ‘Naughty’ and ‘Nice’, but everyone is pretty much ‘good enough’.
In the audience is Simon Camilleri, who chuckles at how perfectly this sums up Santa’s message. Pure moralism, but with very low expectations. It occurs to him that it’s also a pretty good summary of how most people think about the Christian message: God has us all down on two lists called “Naughty” and “Nice”, but everyone is pretty much “good enough”.
When I ask Simon how he got the idea for his children’s book When Santa Learned the Gospel, he tells me this story and explains, “The message many adults teach our kids about Santa is pretty similar to the message many adults believe about God. I thought, instead of simply ignoring Santa or tearing him down as a heretic, why not invent a story where he is both challenged and changed by the truth of the gospel?”
Camilleri, founder of Elephant Room and the Bible storytelling company The Backyard Bard, and writer for The Gospel Coalition Australia, loves to tell the gospel in creative ways, through scripts, songs, poems, board games, magic tricks, blogs, posters, videos, and stories. And so it’s no surprise that his book isn’t a simple retelling of the Christmas story, but an imaginative tale that engages readers with the familiar character of Santa, and explains the gospel to both adults and children.
The main characters of When Santa Learned the Gospel are a reflective Santa and a diminutive elf. The elf receives a child’s request for “a Bible book” for Christmas, reads the story about Jesus, summons up her courage, and awkwardly tells Santa the gospel. There’s a beautiful illustration of Santa staring up at the sky, dwarfed by the Northern Lights, as he considers the difference between this gospel and his. He realises that no one is really “good enough” to go on his “nice” list—including him!—and how we need the love and forgiveness of Jesus.
When Santa Learned the Gospel is saved from preachiness by Camilleri’s gentle humour, the strength of the two main characters, and the playful, unforced rhymes. The message of Santa turns out to be a brilliant way to explain the goodness gospel, and the true gospel is described with clarity. While the illustrations, by professional artist, designer and animator Matthew Boutros, aren’t yet finished (the book will be published, God willing, in July 2017) it’s clear that they are going to be stunning.
But the true test of a children’s book is its impact on children, and so I watch the video of Camilleri reading the book (see below) with a child I know. His attention is held throughout. He giggles when Santa prays the prayer, he admires the illustrations—and quickly grasps the message: that Santa thinks you have to be good, but Jesus just says you need to ask for forgiveness.
Simon Camilleri’s When Santa Learned the Gospel is a wonderful antidote to the message of Santa that kids absorb every Christmas through school, in the media, and at shopping malls. I wish it had been available when my children were younger, to read together after all those school Christmas concerts, where we always had to listen to Santa Claus is Coming to Town, a song that Simon engages with in his book.
This book will be greatly appreciated by parents who want their kids to grasp the difference between Santa’s message and the gospel. I can imagine it becoming a family favourite that’s read every year, as well as a widely used evangelistic and teaching resource for Sunday Schools, kids’ clubs, and Scripture classes. One church in regional Victoria is already using it as the basis for their Christmas Carols event this year.
The message that good comes to the undeserving in the birth of our Saviour Jesus, is such a wonderful message! Anything that prevents it from being obscured or clouded is to be welcomed. (Neil Chambers)
Neil Chambers, a Founding Council Member of The Gospel Coalition Australia, puts it well: “The message that good comes to the undeserving in the birth of our Saviour Jesus, is such a wonderful message! Anything that prevents it from being obscured or clouded by ideas that good just comes to the good, is to be welcomed. Simon’s book makes it very clear that Christmas is good news for those that don’t deserve it.”
While When Santa Learned the Gospel is not yet available for purchase, you can pre-order it, or check out the project and join its team of supporters, at www.Kickstarter.SantaGospel.com; or you can wait and buy it in July 2017 at www.SantaGospel.com. In the meantime, why not listen to the story here: