Mommy, Daddy, Who is Santa Claus?

The Christian’s relationship to Santa in America is varied. Some see Santa as a fun trick to play on your children while they are young enough to believe it. Others feel that Santa distracts children from learning about the incarnation of Christ. Some go further, claiming that Santa is a tool of the devil to distract people from focusing on Jesus. Still others view Santa as the embodiment of the Christmas spirit–he is jolly, generous, and loves children. Given the myriad of movies, television shows, products, and advertisements in our country that feature Old St. Nick, one thing is for certain: Santa is impossible to ignore. The Santa question is one that every Christian parent will eventually have to address with their children. With that in mind, we asked some or our writers who have children to share how they have addressed or plan to address that question with their children.

“Emphasizing Jesus Without Demonizing Santa” by Erin Newcomb, writer:
My daughter thinks of Santa Claus the same way she thinks about Winnie the Pooh: as a fun character in a storybook. She typically refers to him as Sinterklaas, because the only time she’s ever seen him was at an Old Dutch festival; based on that experience, she also thinks he rides in a red boat and parades around with giant birds on stilts. Since she’s only two, she has no memory of receiving presents on Christmas Day and no one has told her to expect gifts from Santa.

Our approach is not to demonize Santa (which, in my view, makes him a lot more important than he actually is), but to emphasize Jesus. So we do an advent calendar together every night, counting the days until Christ’s birthday. We’re planning a party where my daughter has requested blue cupcakes and corn. I might make some executive changes to the menu there, but I’m thrilled about her excitement every time she says “Mama, what are we waiting for?” and then answers her own question “Jesus’ birthday!” Sure, she’ll get gifts, a few stocking stuffers of little animals, but the main gift will come from her parents—books that focus on Jesus and his incredible, imminent birthday.

“When Your Children Believe Anyway” by Brad Williams, writer:
My wife and I very much want Christmas to be about the Christ Jesus that we love and not about the imaginary Santa. In general, we tend to be against tricking our children unless it is short-term and for the sake of humor. And, in a way, telling your children that there is a jolly old fat-man dressed in a red suit flitting about the world in a sleigh full of gifts pulled by flying reindeer sounds like a pretty grandiose joke to pull on them. It must be great fun to chortle whilst one’s children fall for that gag.

But since we didn’t want to be curmudgeons and ruin the prank for everyone, our compromise was to frame Santa around St. Nicholas of Myra. We told our children that Saint Nicholas was a real person who loved Jesus and gave away his wealth to those in need.  So Santa was real, but the present incarnations are just people playing pretend.

Yet, our son stubbornly believes in Santa, and his sister has followed suit. We have decided not to out-right crush their misplaced faith in Santa, but rather to logically persuade them of the impossibility. So far, they are resilient in their belief and are as cute as cherubs in their defense of the jolly old elf. One day, they’ll realize the truth, and that we were always honest with them.

“The Disinterested Approach” by Seth Hahne, illustrator:
While I’m certain my wife will have her own say in matters (though I doubt it will differ from my own in anything but trivialities), my current guess as to how we will deal with, speak of, or explain Santa Claus will be wholesale neglect. I’m imagining that it just won’t come up in any real way. When my daughter first encounters Santa, it will doubtlessly be through the lens of Who is this new imaginary character? My easy, disinterested response will sit squarely along the lines of Oh, he’s like Totoro. But he’s a Christmas Totoro. Only, not as cool as Big Totoro.

It’s pretty simple in my imagination and I doubt it will be any more difficult than that. She’s already well aware of the difference between fantasy and reality. She considers Totoro and Howl and Sophie and Ponyo to be her friends, but she knows they only exist in the panel in our living room (i.e., in stories). I don’t imagine her involvement with Santa will be any more robust; especially as our own disinterest in the red, white, and black Xmas superhero becomes apparent. I have never held any particular fondness for the tradition myself and haven’t ever felt any loss associated with never having believed in or cared about the mythical figure. Wondering how to deal with Santa is, for us, as much a non-issue as planning how to explain to our children the political platform of William Henry Harrison.

“The Importance of Gratitude” by Ben Bartlett, writer and associate editor:
Santa is pretty straightforward in my mind. He’s pretend. He encourages being good simply to get stuff.  And he steals credit from generous family members.

Perhaps someday I’ll tell the story of St. Nicholas, and why there are good connections between his generosity, the giving of gifts, and the greatest gift of all. But thanks to the confusion created by a secular world in love with possessions, the distinction is too difficult for my three-year-old to parse.

So, my son and I had this conversation when Isaiah saw some Santa toys.

Isaiah: Daddy, who is that?

Me: That’s Santa Clause.

Isaiah: Oh. What does he do?

Me: Well, he’s pretend. People like to say he comes down their chimneys and leaves them presents.

Isaiah: Why?

Ben: I have no idea.

There’s one other reason Santa is ignored at our house. Parenting is full of uncertainty and constant worry about missed opportunities, making clear chances to teach gratitude valuable. So when my kids receive presents this year, they will be expected to say, “Thank you,” to the giver in each and every circumstance. To put it bluntly, there’s just no room for untrue stories about Santa.

“Admit it! Santa is Kinda Creepy” by Drew Dixon, editor
My wife and I took our 5.5 month old daughter to the lodge at the local State Park to have pictures made with Santa. To be honest, it wasn’t our idea–we were invited by another couple in our church who recently had their first child as well. We love these friends dearly and jumped at the opportunity to spend time with them. Evelyn stared at Santa, grabbed his beard, and stuck her fingers in his mouth. It was adorable.

My wife and I had already discussed how we would approach Santa and we thought that we would simply tell Evelyn that he was a man from Turkey who loved Jesus and graciously gave away his wealth to help others in need. However, as “Santa” awkwardly nibbled at my daughter’s fingers, I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s possible to avoid having to deal with the more troubling aspects of Santa lore. We don’t want to be the family that ruins everyone else’s fun by telling the truth about Santa and yet there are certain aspects about him that I feel will necessitate correction if my daughter were to professes faith in them.

Admit it–the idea that Santa sees children when they are sleeping and knows whether they have been bad or good is creepy. These are things that only God knows and sees–I cannot see how attributing such qualities to Santa would aid my daughter in understanding God. Further, the gospel tells us that God gives us good gifts because he loves us not because our works merit them. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to teach that to my daughter. I will give her gifts but it will be clear that they are from her earthly father in hopes that doing so will point her to her heavenly one.

About CAPC Writers
  • Melissa D

    This was a tough one for me. Years ago now, when my oldest was just three years old, I struggled with this “Santa” question. As a new parent I was unsure what to do. I knew without a doubt I wanted to always be truthful with my kids; I didn’t want them to look back and say, “Mom, you lied to us about Santa, how can I believe you about God?” So, in my young parent’s stress to do everything correctly from day one, I chose to break the news to my dear daughter about Santa. Did I mention she was only three? Did I mention her little brother, then two years old overheard and was old enough to understand and remember it forever after? Did I mention I didn’t discuss this first with my husband? Did I mention it was just a few weeks before Christmas? How about the ridicule I faced when my family found what I’d done?

    Yup, this was NOT one of my shining moments in parenting. I cringe at the memory. I spent the next few Christmas’s juggling their memory of what I’d said and their childlike faith that Santa was real. I don’t think I’ll ever shake feeling like a heel.

    But the whole thing was rooted in my intense desire to be real with my kids in everything. And as parents how we often feel the desperation to protect our kids from everything that could possibly lead them astray as adults. Only through wisdom gained by more years of parenting did I learn that belief in Santa alone isn’t going to determine if my children walk with the Lord or not.

  • Matt Delos Santos

    Never have I seen Santa compared with Totoro, but great comparison nonetheless. I agree that St. Nicholas is way more interesting than the Western Santa Claus. Tradition states that St. Nick actually slapped Arius on the face during the first Council of Nicaea. Though not the most flattering display of Christian charity, it is strictly boss and epic, respectively. I can rest well knowing that St. Nick defended Christian orthodoxy, albeit too physically.

  • Daryl Messina

    I have a cousin who was eight years old when she learned that there was no Santa Claus. Her response was literally the epitome of the fears of all parents who want to raise their children in the Lord (though her mother and father thought it was more humorous than anything…).

    She reponded by saying (quote):

    “What! All this time you’ve been telling me a lie? What else are you lying about? Is God a lie? There is no God, is there? There is no God, there is only science.”

    Though this was an almost absurd reaction for an 8 year old to have, I took note.

    Not a fan of Santa.

  • Steven Sukkau

    But in the world of pop culture, isn’t Santa Claus an interesting picture of a loving God? My wife and I don’t have kids yet, but I’d like to think we wouldn’t demonize Santa, and nor would we try and squelch their faith.
    It’s a child-like faith that Jesus wanted for his disciples, so I think the better question is, what can Christian adults learn from their children’s belief in Santa Claus?

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Steven, you presume belief in Santa in children but that faith will never come to exist unless it is encouraged into existence. There just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of reason to do so—especially not for something as already ubiquitous as a picture of a loving God.

  • David Kennedy

    I am of the mindset that Santa is a “tool of the devil,” but I don’t go around accusing people of sinning if they choose to participate in that aspect of tradition. It’s not just that Santa distracts people from the true meaning of Christmas, but that the whole idea of Santa is fundamentally opposed to the Gospel. If my job as a parent is to point my kids toward Christ, then the last thing I’m going to tell them leading up to Christmas is, “You’d better be good or you won’t get any presents!” Instead, the reverse is true: we give our kids gifts because they DON’T deserve it. We give them gifts because we love them, just as God gave us the greatest gift in spite of our sinfulness.

  • Steven Sukkau

    Hmm, you got a good point there Seth. But I wonder if unless parents take a pro-active role in explaining away the myth of Santa, popular culture will cultivate a faith in ol’ Saint Nick pretty quickly. I just watched the original Santa Clause with Tim Allen and in some ways it’s hard not to fall in love with this “parable” of father God. I guess I would find it much harder to explain to a child about God’s love without some sort of parable. I find Santa Claus fits the bill nicely.
    @David, if you watch the Santa Clause 2 (haha, like i recently did as well) you find that nice/naughty list is more of an encouragement to be a good person, rather than a hard and fast rule. In fact, “fake Santa” takes the rule literally and finds that everyone deserves coal in their stocking. Another neat parable “teaching moment”.

  • David Kennedy

    @Steven, I take issue with most Santa movies because they not only encourage real faith in an imaginary being, but because they usually lay the guilt heavily on kids and parents for not believing. For instance, in the “Santa Clause” with Tim Allen, all the grown ups that don’t believe in Santa are the bad guys in the movie. Similarly, in “Elf” with Will Farrell, Santa is almost prevented from delivering toys because of the peoples’ unbelief. I don’t mean to be hyper legalistic, but to my 3 year old’s mind, that sends a strong message that her unbelief could be wreaking havoc on actual people.

  • David Kennedy

    I wanted to point out something else along the same lines as Ben’s comment above:

    when my kids receive presents this year, they will be expected to say, “Thank you,” to the giver in each and every circumstance.

    There’s another opportunity that is missed when Santa gets credit for the gifts we receive, and that is the opportunity to teach our kids God’s generosity and provision for us. My son asked me a few times this Christmas why we bought him presents. My response was usually something like, “Because God gave us everything we have. He gave me a job so I could buy things for our family, and he gave us the greatest gift of all when he gave us his Son and his forgiveness. We bought you presents because we love you and because we can.”

    I think there’s a lot more to learn from others’ generosity than simply being thankful to the gift giver. We want to teach our kids to be thankful to God in everything.

  • StevenSukkau

    But think of the great parable at work in the story of Elf, as you said, “but to my 3 year old’s mind, that sends a strong message that her unbelief could be wreaking havoc on actual people.”

    If we use this as a teaching moment, how does our unbelief as Christians wreak havoc on in our lives and the people around us? What does our unbelief effect our daily lives, let’s say ignoring the holy spirit’s nudging to hug someone at the grocery store? Our unbelief, or rather our not acting in faith truly does wreak havoc on actual people.

  • David Kennedy

    Granted, most people probably don’t want random hugs, I see your point. The movie, while theologically way off, provides an opportunity to talk about the Gospel.

    … I still think Santa is the devil.

  • David Kennedy

    I should elaborate. The message that we traditionally associate with Santa is anti-Gospel, or works-based righteousness. Since this is the default mode of the human heart, I don’t think my kids need any encouragement in that regard. Instead, what my kids need and what I am required to do is give them the Gospel. At their ages (five and three), their minds are like sponges. I can remember watching the “Santa Clause” as a kid and feeling guilty afterwards for not believing in Santa. As parents of very young children, it’s important to be discerning with what they consume because they are so easily influenced. If we’re not discerning, then our voices will be drowned out by whatever else they are hearing.

  • Steven Sukkau

    If Santa wasnt conceived in the mind if Satan, he has definitely been used by the enemy. Discernment is so key here, I would never want to leave a kid to understand Santa based entirely on movies, advertising etc. But there s no sheltering them from it. I think demonizing Santa, down playing his importance or creating a Christ parable are all superior alternatives. But I tend towards finding, as Tolkien would call it, the True Myth within the story. While the “be good for goodness sake” theme leaves out grace and focuses on works, I think thats all you can teach a screaming toddler lol, when they get a bit older it’s crucial for parents to begin expanding their children s concept of grace and redemption.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Steven,

    I think it’s fine to teach the Santa parable (as you refer to it) to your children so long as they understand that it is a parable–i.e. it is a make-believe story (like Seth’s explanation). But when you tell them that story as if it is true, then one day they are going to discover the truth and I am not sure I want to say to my daughter–”yeah I am sorry, I tricked you.”

    I can’t even convince myself that doing so would be good for her–doing so seems like it’s more for me–to get the enjoyment of playing Santa.

    I don’t take the track of saying that Santa is a tool of the devil (that isn’t for me to determine), but I have a hard time understanding why I would tell my daughter that Totoro is a pretend character but Santa is real. I can tell her Santa isn’t real and still help her learn from the pretend story of Santa etc., but to lead her on to believe he is real just seems a little odd to me.

  • Steven Sukkau

    I wonder if the real tragedy doesn’t surround Santa and whether he’s real or not, but rather, the loss of our child-like faith. And as adults, we long to return to that purity of faith. I know Santa isn’t real. Deceiving children wears away their trust in their parents, but I wonder if as a parent I would hesitate to crush that innocence.
    That scene at the end of Elf, when the practical adults living in the “real world” have to sing Christmas carols to make Santa’s sleigh fly is, on the surface, a silly conclusion to a silly movie. But underneath, it’s a tale of adults giving up more and more of their child-like faith to thrive in the cold, hard world of business. But it’s these children, who readily believe in an impossible feat of toy-delivery, and a big guy in a red suit, that rekindle their parents capacity to believe. About children Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Luke 18:16) If that’s the case, I want to be more like a child. So how do we remain honest with our children, while maintaining a child-like faith ourselves? Because I don’t think i can lie and tell kids that Santa exists, knowing as Drew says, there is a conversation coming that goes along the lines of “I’m sorry I tricked you.”


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