The Santa Issue…

A reader writes:

One of your long-time readers here. I know that the Santa Controversy has cropped up on the blog every so often, but so far I haven’t paid it much attention. Now that I’m approaching my first Christmas season with an almost-three-year-old, however, it’s a much less academic issue! It’s also complicated by the fact that, since my wife is German, the full range of potential players are not only Santa Claus, but also St. Nicholas, the Weihnachtsmann, and the Christkind. We definitely want to include at least some of this for the Christmas season, but at the same time, want to be mindful of some of the potential problems. The “theory” of all this is pretty well settled for me, but how to actually go about it (e.g. what exactly do I tell my daughter?) Is not very clear. So, what I’d really appreciate hearing from you is what your family has done regarding Santa through the years. Did you refer everything back to St. Nicholas, make it just a game, or…?

We basically handled it by telling our kids about the real Saint Nicholas, who as a “secret giver” taught us to be secret givers too. So when they got secret gifts, we could have fun with it, but not delude them into thinking Santa Claus was real, only to have them realize they’d been lied to (with all the attendant “Then how much of the rest of this is a fraud too?” baggage). In addition, this allows us to take the child into your own conspiratorial plans to be a secret giver to others, so they get to be St. Nicholas’ helper, which makes them feel very (tee hee!) gleeful.

That’s what we did. Your mileage may vary and ultimately it’s up to you how to handle it, of course. Our basic rule of thumb was that lying to our kids was not going to be conducive to engendering trust, so we skipped the whole “making them believe something false” part of the Christmas tradition and tried to focus on giving them the truth while keeping it fun. FWIW, it seems to have worked.

  • Steve

    My wife and I have argued about this more than once. Our solution was very similar – to celebrate the real Saint Nicholas of Myra instead of trying to convince our boy that the jolly corporate consumerism mascot is real.

  • freddy

    So, for all y’all this year: from the excellent Fr. John Hardon’s wonderful “The Catholic Catechism” Doubleday, 1975, paperback, page 402: “Thus what may verbally be contrary to fact, like telling children about Santa Claus, is not lying.”

    • freddy

      That said, I do want to point out a couple of things. First, it is laudable to want to escape the mad consumerism of our culture. To that end and to honor our heritage, St. Nicholas visits our family on December 6th. Second, while it is true that some children may have unpleasant experiences when they realize that their parents or loved ones are channeling the spirit of St. Nick, most children do just fine, and it is a red herring to use that possibility to instill fear into other parents. (Sort of like the lady I met who explained that her family left the Church because a priest was mean to her mom, therefore Catholicism was untrue, therefore I should leave as well.)
      .
      As with all private celebrations: do what works best for your family!

      • Dave G.

        Yep. Most Protestants won’t have the Dec 6 option. Some don’t tell them about Santa. Others do. For us, it’s less that Great Lie! than simply seeing what Santa has devolved into, as well as what the consumerism has made of the whole thing. But in our day we didn’t mind. And as our children grew up, they weren’t traumatized by the experience.

      • Rosemarie

        +J.M.J+

        I wouldn’t say we were “traumatized,” but my husband and I both didn’t like the realization that our parents were basically Santa Claus. We never questioned our Faith as a result, though I’ve heard some people claim that’s what they did. Yet we decided long ago that we wouldn’t play the typical Santa game with our kids because of our personal experiences with it. I don’t judge those who do, though, and it’s true that some children take the news better than others.

      • Nancy

        He visits our family as well. It became a challenge to stuff shoes with candy and leave a gift when my son left for the Naval Academy. However, I have been able to find a co-conspirator who would deliver the goods on this day, to my son’s surprise and delight (and a morale boost right before finals). We always included those gold foil chocolate coins for anyone he thought needed a dowry (the blessings of Hannukah!).St Nick also leaves a letter with reminders of that which is important.

  • Guest

    +J.M.J+

    Uh oh. Is it that time of year again? Time for the Santa Claus wars! :-)

    Hopefully, this time the discussion won’t devolve into a melee as I have witnessed online many times before.

    As for us, we told our son about St. Nicholas, that he is the original and true Santa Claus who is in heaven, not the North Pole. That Santa is a whole legend that grew around him – but we don’t bash Santa, either. He seems to like Santa Claus and that’s fine. We bring him for pictures with Santa at a local store and for a picture with someone dressed as St. Nicholas at a local celebration of St. Nicholas Day.

    Speaking of which, I recently discovered on the St. Nicholas Center web site a page with pictures of St. Nicholas celebrations in various places around the US. Maybe someone here will find one near them that they didn’t know about:

    http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/events/?category_id=11

    That whole web site is great, too, BTW.

    • Rosemarie

      +J.M.J+

      For some reason, when I tried to delete this post it just changed the name to “Guest” but kept the post up. Disqus is weird.

      Please delete this post if possible.

  • Rosemarie

    +J.M.J+

    Uh oh. Is it that time of year again? Time for the Santa Claus wars! :-)

    Hopefully, this time the discussion won’t devolve into a melee as I have witnessed online many times before.

    As for us, we told our son about St. Nicholas, that he is the original and true Santa Claus who is in heaven, not the North Pole. That Santa is a whole legend that grew around him – but we don’t bash Santa, either. Our son seems to like Santa Claus and that’s fine. We bring him for pictures with Santa at a local store and for a picture with someone dressed as St. Nicholas at a local celebration of St. Nicholas Day.

    Speaking of which, I recently discovered on the St. Nicholas Center web site a page with pictures of St. Nicholas celebrations in various places around the US. Maybe someone here will find one near them that they didn’t know about:

    http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/events/?category_id=11

    That whole web site is great, too, BTW.

  • Ken Crawford

    I philosophically agree with a ‘no Santa’ policy, but found it impossible to implement. The first few years we gave no gifts from Santa, but the grandparents did. We gently told them to stop, and they quietly refused. At that point you have to decide if this is something worth going to war over (refusing to let them give gifts? Refusing to go to their place? or???) or something to let slide. We let it slide, particularly considering the influence from friends and others that was hard to fight.

    Don’t get me wrong, if there’s something I have to fight because it is that important, I don’t care who I have to take on. But ultimately I decided this issue wasn’t that important. Frankly, at this point we give gifts from Santa because how does it look that Santa doesn’t come to their house but does to the grandparents?

    In any case, what I would say is try to do it, but don’t go to war if others make it tough. There are worse obstacles you’re going to have to overcome than them finding out Santa isn’t real and you were in on it.

    • Rosemarie

      +J.M.J+

      Yeah, it’s definitely not the kind of thing to get into a fight over with loved ones. There was this tradition in my in-laws neighborhood of having someone dressed as Santa come and give presents to the children. They wanted us to do this with our kids so we complied. That’s how we started with bringing the kids to see “Santa,” though we didn’t originally intend to do that.

      The way I see it, if children can enjoy seeing “Mickey” at Walt Disney World while knowing that it’s an adult in a costume, they can enjoy seeing “Santa” at the mall or wherever without having to believe the whole North-Pole-and-flying-reindeer thing. I told my son that adults dress up like Santa and give candy canes to children because they want to make the kids happy. That puts a positive spin on the Santa “game” – plus it’s true, of course.

  • Mama Kitty

    We chose to have Santa, but never played him up. I remember as a child constant reminders, especially during December. . . “You better be good or Santa won’t bring you anything” and also writing letters to Santa with our wish lists (probably everything in the JC Penney catalog). With our daughter we would casually mention gifts and stockings on Christmas Eve and Christmas day and that was the end of it.
    We played up Advent with a Jesse Tree, and talked about Jesus. We wanted Jesus to be the focus of the season.
    When our now-teenage daughter finally figured out the Santa thing, we explained the presents and the stockings as games we play with children, and when they get old enough and figure it out they can then play it with other children. She was fine with this. (I also was not traumatized by figuring out Santa.)
    It helps that we homeschool and have very little TV in our lives.

  • HornOrSilk

    I follow Tolkien. It’s not a lie to spread myths.

  • An Aaron, not The Aaron

    I’m open to fraternal correction here, but in my view giving my children gifts on behalf of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus falls under the category of “not lying.” Since we wouldn’t give them gifts from SN/SC but for the inspiration of St. Nicholas, in the first place, this really just strikes me as good old fashion Catholic shorthand. A Catholic prays “Mary Save Me!” because praying “Mary intercede on my behalf to your Son that He should save me!” is a bit awkward. A Protestant, upon hearing said Catholic pray “Mary Save Me!” may think the Catholic is asking Mary, with her magical God-like powers, to actually do the saving, but when the Protestant figures out how the world works, specifically the concept of the intercessory prayers of the Saints, they’re likely to decipher the shorthand. In a similar way, when a parent gives a child a gift and says it is “from Santa,” she really means that the child is receiving the gift in honor of, on behalf of or under the inspiration of St. Nicholas of Myra. When the child matures and understands the concept of agency and that members of the Church Militant sometimes do things in honor of or in imitation of a member of the Church Triumphant, she will figure out that shorthand as well. Our kids received gifts “from St. Nicholas” this morning and on Christmas will open gifts “from Santa.” I hope St. Nicholas of Myra approves.

  • Nami

    Hmmm…I guess the Santa thing isn’t as big a deal for me because it didn’t phase me when I found out he wasn’t real. It just kind of happened, and I thought, “Ok.” I was pretty young when I found out, too.

    My parents did tell me about Santa–I got pictures with mall Santas, and my dad even used his calligraphy talent to write my siblings and I letters from Santa. But they always made sure that it was connected to God, to Christ–Christ was always more important than Santa.

    One thing the issue makes me think of is that kids do their own mythmaking anyway–I mean, when they’re rather young they still don’t separate fiction from reality when they play and stuff. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them stories or let them play house, right? Those things ultimately help them grow into healthy human beings. I think the whole Santa thing falls into the same category.

    • Andrew

      I never even heard about this debate until recently.

      When I was a kid I loved it that stuff just magically showed up under the tree between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, like my GI Joe Mercury Space Capsule or my Topo Gigio figure (yes, I’m that old). It’s one of my favorite memories. The idea of resenting my parents for lying to me about Santa Claus seems inconceivable. I’m grateful to them for wonderful mysterious surprise of it all. So I guess that’s why we did the same thing with our kids, up to this year. They seemed to suspect the truth before we even told them, so they weren’t bothered at all; they seemed sort of amused about the whole thing. But we always talked about the real St. Nicholas too, because I knew he would be always be there when they outgrew Santa Claus. I didn’t have him growing up (protestant at the time), so he has been a delight to get to know.
      I was able to leave some chocolate coins in the kids’ slippers this morning, just for fun. And I’ll second the recommendation for the Saint Nicholas Center website.

      • James Scott

        +J.M.J+

        (This is Rosemarie on my husband’s account.)

        We never actually “resented” our parents for telling us about Santa. It was just a bummer to learn the truth; the “magic” was gone. The jolly guy we had grown to love didn’t exist after all. But I hope I didn’t give the impression that we were “angry” at our parents for “lying” to us. That wasn’t it at all. It was just a letdown.

        I am glad that these comments have not devolved into the “Santa wars” I mentioned below. It’s good to see a charitable, respectful exchange of ideas instead.

  • C

    This may sound strange but I learned a lesson about trusting my parents because of Santa Claus. I was six years old when I figured out he wasn’t real. I stressed greatly about how to tell my parents, i didn’t want to disappoint them. This is usually an argument as to why not to do Santa Claus. However, my parents handled me telling them so well that I learned that I could go to them with anything. My teenage years were not that bad, I shared so much with them. It wasn’t until i was in my 30s that I realized why. I do agree it is how much it is emphasized, the faith traditions of our family were a much larger part of Christmas.

  • Joe

    I think both St. Nick and the Christkind are the way to go. I don’t have kids now, but I think I would introduce both to make the month of December extra special. And children can continue to believe in both.


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