Is Santa Claus a Bad Influence on Christian Children?

Thanks to everyone for the lively discussion on last week’s post which necessitated a follow-up and set an agenda for upcoming posts.  As always, if you’d like to respond to a Monday Call to Arms in longer form as a guest blogger, please email me at leah (dot) libresco (at) yale (dot) edu.

In my more cynical moments, I sometimes think Santa Claus is God’s greatest gift to atheists.

I don’t that mean in the usual, anti-materialist way. The commercialization of Santa Claus is a symptom of the power of materialism and commoditization generally, not a problem in itself. Even divorced from his commercial connotations, the idea of Santa Claus must weaken belief in Christianity.

Think about the story of Santa Claus. Not the one that recurs every year, but the way that the story plays out during a childhood.  Santa Claus is usually the first major lie parents are caught in (unless their child already rumbled them on the Tooth Fairy question). When the jig is finally up, what is it that children discover?

They find out that their parents maintained a convenient fiction about a man with powers beyond our knowing, who can see you at all times, who will descend once a year for a day of judgment rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. Oh, and he has a long white beard.

At that point, it doesn’t matter whether the kids believe that their parents lied because they thought Santa was a convenient cudgel to compel obedience or because they thought that the world would be better if Santa were real.

What matters is that parents lie, about big things. And this lie is almost never revealed by the parents. It’s told by other kids, who have already seen through the lies. And most parents don’t even have the decency to admit they’ve been lying until the children have already given up on the deception.

So what, from the perspective of a child, is the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus?

The Santa Claus story seems like the perfect introduction to religion as a cultural practice, rather than a truth claim or a spiritual discipline. Both become simply a fun or useful story to pass on to your own children and a way of finding a sense of commonality with the neighbors. It seems a strange way to treat a religion.

So, Christians, how do you deal with this problem

Will you/do you bring up your children to believe in Santa Claus?

How should you reveal that Santa/Tooth Fairy/Easter Bunny, etc are not real?

How do you differentiate between Christian stories and the prevalent mythologies and folk tales of your culture?

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  • When I discovered that my parents had misled me about Santa Claus, I adopted a very skeptical attitude, so when a friend asked me if I had ever considered that God might not exist, I immediately replied, "You're right, he doesn't." I was afraid of falling for the same sort of stupid trick. So yes, I believe that teaching kids about Santa Claus is a big mistake if you ever want them to believe you about God.

  • If a kid's parents actually bring her/him to church, her/his perception of God is probably wildly different from her/his perception on Santa Claus. When kids go to church, they see that this "God" person is something that a lot of adults take very seriously and commit part of their lives to on a weekly, or even daily (priests+little old church ladies) basis. Most kids don't get much reinforcement of belief in Santa Claus beyond their immediate families, during certain parts of the year, and there are always the parents who tell their kids that Santa isn't real, so there's peer pressure to not believe in Santa Claus in a way that there isn't peer pressure to not believe in God (at least, not nearly to the same extent).re: bringing up my kids with Santa: sure, I'll tell my kids about Santa Claus. And then when I think they're ready, I'll tell them Santa Claus isn't real, but Christmas is awesome anyway because JESUS.

  • Rek

    Leah,I agree that Santa can be fairly problematic, and in fact, my parents intentionally never had us believe in any (non-Christian) fairytales except the Tooth Fairy. Still, not all fairytales are equal. To use my own background, disbelief in Santa was easy for a number of reasons. Not only did my parents never tell that Santa was real (they didn’t say he wasn’t real either), but the entire story was so highly implausible. We didn’t have a chimney. How in the hell did no one notice all the reindeer (and where was the evidence)? All my gifts were labeled as coming from specific non-Santa people. Etc. I recall pointing all this out to some kid when I was very young (in a rather haughty and condescending tone, as I was already fairly arrogant by then), and I recall (or imagine) that my parents were proud of my reasoning skills and probably glad that they had presciently avoided teaching us that fable.The tooth fairy, however, was far more benign. For one, while there was a clear economic benefit to the belief, there was no moral lesson. It was just a simple reciprocal transaction by which one deposited a tooth and the next morning withdrew a dollar (or however much it was). Secondly, there was no ostentatious outrage to reason; the tooth fairy didn’t have large and smelly mammals, an ornate but antiquated vehicle, or an immensely large body that could allegedly sneak around millions of houses in a single night unnoticed. Thus, even when I realized (as was inevitable) that the fairy was illusory, there was neither a loss of faith in my parents, nor a fundamental questioning about the way the world worked. I just kept “believing” and kept performing the beneficial transactionAs to religion, I want to echo mar7banbikum’s comments about the social dynamic. As someone who was religiously (pun intended) taken to church throughout my youth, there was a marked difference in the nature of belief in god/Christ and belief in Santa or any other fairytale. The astronomical difference in seriousness and sophistication of the religious beliefs put them on an entirely different level than other fairytales. Thus, even if I had believed in the usual children’s tales, I doubt it would have done much against my faith, at least not directly. But who knows, maybe I was precocious enough that I would have smelled a rat, as it were.It was perhaps useful (from the Christian perspective) that my parents never explicitly told us to believe in any non-Christian mythos. We had no magic items. We were taught not to believe in luck (everything happens for a reason). There were no ridiculous but comforting anodynes at bedtime or anything else of that sort. Thus, we had no basis on which to compare the veracity of our Christian beliefs to any other outlandish claims. Again, my understanding is that this was at least in part intentional, so you may be onto something.To conclude, there is a degree to which you have to wonder whether many (perhaps most) believers actually do treat religion as they do Santa et al. After all, many people are just going through the motions and acting so as to fit in culturally with their peers and neighbors. I’ve heard a number of people talk about how they got involved with their church because it was perceived as the “responsible, adult thing to do”. But, of course, it’s immensely difficult to get people to go from that reality to “I don’t really believe in god and probably never did, but I convince myself I do because it is expected of me”. As for the truly devout, many of them will have no problem grounding disbelief in fairytales simply in the understanding that they contradict the Bible (cf. Justin Martyr’s response to the problem of other gods).

  • This is a great question. In my (atheist) family we did do Santa Claus stuff, but because my parents were so big on encouraging me to question assumptions, I immediately asked enough tough questions to figure out that it was a game, so I don't recall ever believing in any of that.It's something I struggle with now that I'm a Christian parent. I don't have time to type out all my thoughts on it, but I will say that this article in the Wall Street Journal has some excellent thoughts on the subject. The author makes the case that the Santa myth can be good for Christian households, because: "As a parent, I believe (with the older apologists) that it's essential to preserve a small, inviolate space in the heart of a child, a space where he is free to believe impossibilities."I had been leaning away from doing Santa Claus stuff, but that article definitely gave me some good food for thought from the pro-Santa perspective.Great topic!

  • You bring up a great point, one I never considered. Here's some links to my blog that explain what my husband and I are doing and why:Santa: Bunny:

  • [Sorry if this is long.]Believing for a time in Santa actually improved my intellectual faith. I thought that Santa gave toys not to children who behaved but to children who believed in him. My folks warned me that some other people did not believe in Santa, and they would try to convince me to disbelieve, too. I wasn't to listen to them; they did not believe, so of course they would see no evidence, because he didn't bring them presents any more. I was to examine the evidence I received. Eventually I realized Santa was a physical impossibility. For a while I believed in him anyway, but some time in the middle of elementary school the evidence in favour of "my parents are Santa" outweighed "Santa physically exists". Since my Dad was usually the school Santa, and was sometimes identified as Santa by small children, I might easily have believed that my Dad literally was Santa… but the evidence pointed to my Mom, really, so that didn't jive. Instead, I believed that "the spirit of Santa", derived perhaps from St. Nicholas but perhaps instead for a concentration of jovial kindness, inhabited generous people like my parents and made them give gifts. Some point later I believed that Santa was a social reality if not a physical one (not that I'd have articulated it in that way, but the idea was there), and later I disbelieved entirely.Losing Santa was a process, not an event; my belief in fairies, leprachauns (how I wanted to see one of those!), the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Travel Fairy, pre-Ark dragons and unicorns, and assorted other things went as part of a general questioning of beliefs. (I had an ontological house-cleaning, if you will.) My Christianity transformed many times over since then (from materialism to dualism to other things), but the lessons I learned from my Santa apologetics stuck: there are multiple ways to believe, I had learned in my child-brain, and so I never lost Jesus altogether. (And, anyway, the closest I ever came was to falling from the church was over moral questions concerning salvation, not over metaphysical/epistemological concerns of possibility.) For me, as a child, the physical Santa helped me understand Jesus; the ethereal Santa helped me understand the Holy Spirit. That process helped me hone apologetics, and I learned early on that other people's beliefs ought not interfere with mine. For me, Santa, whether or not he exists, was and always will be a servant of Christ.

  • Wow, you hit on one of the greatest Mommy-war topics of all times. I was raised believing in Santa in a very conservative Catholic household and I never felt cheated or lied to when I figured it out on my own. In consulting with my brothers, they did not either. Santa was a cultural figure. My mother's Eastern European family held St Nicholas in great regard but being immigrants who wanted to assimilate, they adopted Santa Claus as part of American culture. I began to learn about how different children around the world celebrated Christmas and about how different cultures had different mytholgies about Santa in public school and it informed me about the truth in a fairly benign way. I would say, after years of polling more than 100 friends, the friends of mine who felt cheated and lied to about Santa, regardless of religious traditions, by-and-large had some other type of major issue going on in their childhood. I'll use my friend L as an example, her mother was a serious drug addict and her father absent. Her brother, as a toddler, was killed by her mother's drug addicted boyfriend to "teach her a lesson." He tried to kill L too but she ran away from him and couldn't get her brother to follow her. They were homeless quite often and when they did have a place to stay all types of "people" were in and out. One year at Christmas they were living with her grandmother who told her about Santa. When L pointed out that her grandmother didn't have a chimney, her grandmother said that was okay, she would let him in. Now, grandmother's front door was next to the room L was sleeping in (she was 7 at the time) and L stayed awake all night scared about the strange man coming into the house. That's the most extreme story, but it illustrates how under less than ideal circumstances, Santa can cause MAJOR problems.As for me and my husband and our 3 kids, we don't do Santa. My kids are forbidden to tell any other child Santa is not "real." I think we just mutually decided we felt better introducing him from the start as a cultural figure based off of the real Bishop in Turkey Nicholas. (My kids put their shoes out on Dec 5 in honor of St Nicholas, but know Mommy and Daddy put candy canes and money in them.) Honestly, I think with the right faith upbringing and talking with kids about it, I think Santa can be a good thing in Christian homes. It was in mine growing up. I remember my youngest brother at 11 telling my parents, "I know Santa isn't real, but please don't ever tell me." Which, I think is an important point about Santa, he can be a great source of imagination and magic for kids.

  • Anonymous

    Catholic. My main objection to Santa is the lying aspect. My kid knows I think Santa is not real, but she likes to pretend sometimes and that is fine with me, as long as she is choosing to pretend and not being told a lie by an adult. My in-laws, who are idiots, once told my daughter that if she was not good at Mass, "Jesus is going to tell Santa not to bring you any presents." Again, they are complete morons, but this is the sort of crap in which I will not participate.

    • jenesaispas

      That’s nice.

  • Leah

    I find teaching kids about Santa Claus to be utterly pointless and leaning more towards detrimental to beneficial. I grew up 4th out of 5 in a Catholic family, and my parents told us1. the Santa story2. there are kids who believe in Santa, and don't make them sad by bursting their bubble3. don't make fun of kids who believe in Santa4. Santa isn't real.We kids broke #3 all the time but not #2, which probably was the more important of the rules because I'm sure my parents did not want to deal with angry parents whose children come home in tears.Why lie to your kids in the first place? Why come up with convoluted, contradictory explanations for Santa? Honestly, I don't see the point in coercing kids to behave well so they'll get more stuff for free.I think it's much more important to teach them personal generosity and to observe the sacrificial example of others. Kids will witness a much greater example of selflessness if they know Mom and Dad gave them a few presents out of the already-wrung-out household budget than if "Santa Claus had a lean year this year" while Susie across the street got a whole toy kitchen from "Santa".There are so many *real* sources of lessons, inspiration, etc of magnanimity, good behavior, etc, that I don't think bringing in a fake story is worth anything at all.

  • Catholic parents should impose a complete ban on Santa Claus as a "true" story. If they want to include Moore's "Night Before Christmas" among the seasonal books they read they're children, that's different, but NO TELLING OF UNTRUE STORIES AS TRUTH.See the Catechism, over there on the shelf? (If not, then your problems go beyond Santa Claus.) We have a lot of TRUE supernatural information to impart to our kids. Imparting UNTRUE supernatural "information" to them, at any age, is actively harmful.

  • Sorry — "THEIR" children. Fast typing.Btw, nearly all Catholic parents hate me for saying this. Then about half of them follow this advice, and are glad they did.

  • +J.M.J+My husband and I were both raised Catholic and also told that Santa brings presents at Christmas. We both took it hard when we found out that the latter was not true, though neither of us lost our Faith because of it. In fact, I would never have thought back then that the non-existence of Santa would have any bearing on the existence of God. I guess God was very real to me back then; I've always had strong spiritual leanings.We both still decided, however, that we wouldn't tell our children that Santa brings them presents, mostly because we want to spare them the disappointment that we felt. Christmas around here is centered on the Christ Child. No Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy either; I'm still not sure what to do when my son's baby teeth start falling out within the next year. I'll probably just by them off him for $1 or something, if that's still the going rate.However, we don't hate Santa Claus or consider him an evil influence. We do bring our kids to have their pictures taken with "Santa" every year. I remember visiting Disneyland as a child and being so excited when I finally got to "meet" Mickey Mouse. Yeah, I knew that was really an adult in a humongous mouse costume yet I was still somehow able to appreciate seeing him and having my picture take with him. If I could do that then I don't see why my kids can't enjoy seeing those department store Santas even if they don't believe in the jolly old elf.I've told them that Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, a very loving and holy man who lived a long time ago. I told them that his example of generosity causes adults today to dress up as Santa Claus in order to make children happy (It's an oversimplification, I know, but I'll explain the whole story in more detail as they get older). That way, maybe they can appreciate that a lot of love and good will goes into the whole Santa thing. It isn't just a malicious lie that parents tell to take away honor from Baby Jesus and inflict future pain on their kids when they inevitably learn the hard way that this beloved figure doesn't really exist.I've also told them that other children believe that Santa is real and not to tell them otherwise. I hope that works; I'd rather not deal with irate parents, either.

  • As a child growing up with ADHD, I was ruled primarily my my Id. While I could think deeply about individual subjects, I did not have the tools or the attention span to connect them. I remember suspecting that the Holiday Gods (Easter Bunny, Santa, Kwanzaa-bot, etc) were just my parents. I employed surprisingly scientific methods for a kindergartner with the attention span of a goldfish to prove the Easter Bunny was my mother.I didn't really connect that with the other God that dominated my Catholic School life. At least not until my ADHD was diagnosed halfway through kindergarten and I was put on medications. At that time I began playing catch up on logic. Then I leapt ahead of my contemporaries. I connected the SantaGod relationship, but didn't really get to the possibility that one could just not believe in God. After all, I knew lots of people who did not believe in the Holiday Gods, but nobody I knew was an Atheist. I remember getting as far as "religious affiliation is directly related to geography" before I jumped to new thoughts to think (mainly about time travel, as I'd just seen Back the the Future)It was not until I was in my twenties and trying to become a better Catholic that I finished the logical framework from which I could hang my Atheism. I suppose it's hard to develop an organized process for logical thought when I am bounced between functional human being (medicated) and a scatter-shot formation of impulse and instinct (unmedicated).This was only going to be a paragraph long when I started. I really should write something sometime about the effect of chemicals on who we are and what that could mean for the existence of a soul…

  • Reazon uk

    I agree with your points about the lying to children but I disagree that Santa claus is incompatible with Christianity because the existence of the true Santa claus ( not his doubles in the malls and streets) is as provable as the existence of god because both rely on faith .Santa claus if real would be immortal not human ,he has a monopoly on the presents that we receive and delivers with such speed on one night our gifts on the grounds the children are good and he alone ,not the parents or anyone else , has final judgement on who gets what . It Dosnt end there , since Santa is a “moral figure” he does this work selflessly , receiving no payment except perhaps milk and cookies left by the family . There for his work force , his elves are a unpaid work force . Santa claus as our symbol of morality -altruism is a way to distort what happiness , good , morality is truly all about. Rational Selfishness . Santa claus does not exist and should not take credit as the deliverer of gifts . Parents should . Kids are excited about getting presents that santas got ,not overwelmed by santa himself , because hes not possible to view or ever get to know or meet . There for, from a young age we have no idea where presents really come from. We say the north pole ,even though the kids have seen the products in stores in town and so the whole concept of capitalism is mis understood and slanted in modern sneering and stereo typical culture aswell . People generally take what they have for granted and by that I mean the brilliance they inherit when they come into this civilization . Every toy, laptop , mobile phone , car ,house , medical and technological advance that raises the over all standard of living are products of mans mind, bought about through thought co-operation and trade with profit as a reward for success . Xmas for me is a celebration of the productivity of any given time in history , with presents exchanged to those we especially love selfishly while we donate voluntarily to charitable organizations ,causes we individually decide are good and pass on a less personal gift -money itself. Christmas is an expression of capitalism in how we work ,produce ,earn money and then spend that money on the end result of hard effort ,and give to those we love personally .why should this not be celebrated ,is this not the true meaning of Christmas ? What’s the Santa clause reality ? We live in a welfare state ,we don’t provide for ourselves because credit goes to a evil fat dictator who decides who shall get what by his judgenent . He takes no payment for this altruistic deed and there for his monopolized slave labor force at the north pole get nothing either for providing to those who receive . The unemployed couple are greatfull someone else is doing it all for them .
    Perhaps the truth is revealed further if u take one of the oldest original sources for Santa claus where by this dictator in the form of a horned demon snatches the children who he judges as bad away in his sack . For me Xmas us about families coming together exchanging gifts and the celebration of life itself . Mans ability to shape his background to aid his survival and standard if living by having the freedom to think and take materials from the earth and craft them not just into gifts for entertainment purposes but everything u use everyday.

  • lee

    Santa is an idol and the observance of him is to worship an idol. Read the Bible, define idol and worship learn the truth. Not to mention lying is a sin. So much more I could say but I’ll keep it simple. Feel free to email me.

  • GDB1024

    Santa is a parable, so why all the fear and fuss? Should we remove all parables from the Bible, Torah and Quran? As well as every other conversation and teaching moment? Christmas itself ia a parable, as Christ was definitely not born on December 25th? Shall we stop celebrating his birth? Santa is a word, like God is a word, both representations of concepts and realities that are hard to completely grasp. If God wanted a reindeer to fly, or a fat man to pass through a chimney, I believe God can pull it off. Are any of you saying God can’t? Stop blaming God and your parents for everything good and bad in your life. And give up Santa a break.