The Flawed Theology of Naughty and Nice Lists

A few years ago, my mother gave me a Christmas pillow on which a picture of Santa’s naughty and nice lists was embroidered.  She had a strange smile on her face when she gave it to me and once I looked at it closely, I figured out why:  Both my and my sister’s names were on the ‘naughty’ list.

Nice, Mom.

Or should I say, naughty?

For years moms and dads the world over have preached Santa’s naughty/nice list theology to their children.  If you’re good, you earn your way onto the nice list and a subsequent pile of gifts under the tree.  If you’re bad, you join the ranks of naughty listers who get nothing but charcoal in their stocking.  With such a threat looming large, what kid in his right mind wouldn’t be on his best behavior, knowing that ‘he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake?’

But being ‘good’ in order to win Santa’s favor and an accompanying stack of presents is not why we should be good.  And, convenient as it may be when trying to get our sugared-up stir-crazy kids to cooperate tree decorating night, teaching kids that being good gets them their way, while being bad gets them kicked off the list is plain bad theology.

God simply isn’t like that.  He isn’t concerned about a superficial ‘goodness’ that is only as deep as our greatest desire for a Lego Turbo Tank.  He doesn’t reward the ‘good’ for properly kissing up one month a year or punish the ‘bad’ for not minding their p’s and q’s.  He loves all His children and while our ‘badness’ grieves him, it does not make Him love us less.

As cute as Santa lore is, we parents would be wise to make sure our kiddos understand that, unlike the jelly-bellied man from the north, God cares more about the condition of our hearts than our external behavior.  It’s a little thing called grace and come Christmas morning, perhaps the best way to show it to our children is to lavish love and gifts upon them all, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ and thank God that He doesn’t separate us out into naughty and nice, but places us in one big category called ‘forgiven.’

Humans and Kings
Can You Take the Heat?
Making Special Time
What Top 5 Attributes Do You Want to Pass On?
  • Jean

    Well said Amy! Thanks for this post!

  • Mary L.

    Love this! Great post–as always. :)

  • Kilmrnock

    Well, what if we don’t follow your god , tis still a nice way to get kids to behave , just like the elf onthe shelf story. We don’t have a concept of grace or forgiveness. Our lives are based on personal honor , a behavior/ conduct code and personal responcibility . We don’t believe even a murderer can be forgiven . Our take is that one is responcible for what you , yourself does and acts , even in the afterlife . Our gods will judge us by our deeds and how we lived.A child , w/ a childs mind isn’t judged until adulthood .And after all , Santa is based on pagan concepts . Do the research, most holiday things are.

  • Katherine Harms

    I thought your point was well made, but to tell the truth, I don’t know anyone who punishes children for bad behavior by withholding Christmas presents. In fact, I don’t know anyone who withholds much of anything from a child. I have to say that I would object strenuously to the idea of telling children that they receive any sort of gift as payment for being “good.”
    In the normal daily family interaction, I think rewards for compliance with certain kinds of requirements help kids learn, but they need to gradually be weaned from rewards and punishments for every little thing. As early as possible they need to begin to understand that in our family, people show respect and pick up after themselves and so forth. A child could easily extrapolate some of the reward systems to mean that everything in life is about manipulating other people. That is even worse than believing in Santa and his lists.

  • LutheranChick

    @Kilmrnock – Actually, Santa is based upon the lore of St. Nicholas–who was in fact, a Christian saint, whose official “Saint Day” is December 6. The concept of Santa has grown out of his story, and while elements of “pagan” beliefs have also been incorporated, it was from St. Nick that Santa found his beginnings. Perhaps you should “do the research” as you so recommend to this blog’s author. Also, if your entire focus is on “what if we don’t follow your God,” then you have totally missed the argument of this post. You will notice that nowhere in the post does it claim to be anything but faith-based. Look at the subtitle of the blog, for crying out loud. And clearly since the title of the post includes the word “theology” — that means the study of GOD–this article was being directed at those who believe in God, and who are part of the Body of Christ. Rather than making such a vicious and unfounded attack on the blog’s author, perhaps you should pay better attention to the message of the article: That we are all sinners who fall short of God’s hopes for the world. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. We all belong on the “naughty” list. But luckily, God’s love goes above and beyond our poor, simple humanity. God’s love is more than anything we can even comprehend. And praise be to God, that while I might deserve to be on the naughty list, I have also been redeemed by God’s mighty acts of love. Not because I deserve it. But because of who God is and what God has done. And not just for me. But for the entire world, that all of creation might be restored.

  • Elvenfoot

    Santa Claus is based on the legend and facts about St. Nicholas, who was not pagan in the least. Any secular nuances surrounding the Santa Claus lore don’t seem to me particularly “pagan” in nature, but maybe I’m misunderstanding some of it.

  • Phillip

    Think about it. Here we tell little impressionable children that there’s a person up at the North Pole, whom you can never visot, and whom you can never see, who is watching our every move and keeping track of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

    Then after they’ve grown up a bit, we tell them, “Oh, we were just kidding.” The true story is that there is a Person up in Heaven, whom you can never visit, and whom you can never see, who is watching our every move and keeping track of the content of our character.

  • writeon1950

    Thank you for this great reflection on grace…seems we all still need to realize it is a practice…not a judgement perhaps!

  • Trisha Niermeyer Potter @ Prints of Grace

    A couple weekends ago our pastor gave a sermon that included a reflection on the lyrics of the seasonal song he likes the least: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” He doesn’t have a problem with the concept of Santa, who of course was inspired by Saint Nicholas, but he does find some verses of the well-known song to be a rather misleading.
    “He’s making a list and checking it twice; He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice…
    He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.
    He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.
    Oh, you better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout, I’m telling you why…”
    Upon closer examination, this seemingly inane song, sounds rather creepy. Do we really want kids thinking that some stalker Santa is watching their every move? Does it make sense to make a bigger deal over having our kids go sit on some stranger’s lap and tell him what we want for Christmas than to marvel at the circumstances and love implied by Christ’s birth? Yikes, let’s hope not!
    Interestingly enough, I spent many years thinking of God as more of a harsh judge or stalker Santa making a list of everything I did wrong. I’m grateful that our God is a just God, but also the One who is love and mercy itself. If someone’s going to watch my every move, then I’d prefer it be someone who loves me unconditionally

  • menomenee

    hi am i on the nice list an r u real

  • Artor

    In addition to Saint Nick, Santa is also based on Odin, who rode through the sky on an eight-legged horse, and brought gifts to the worthy during the Winter Solstice. X-mas tree? Pagan. Caroling? Pagan. Decking the halls with boughs of holly? Pagan.

  • Artor

    Excuse me? Vicious & unfounded attacks? Pot, meet kettle. Kilmrnock’s post was polite & factual, while yours is only tangentialy truthful. The image of Father Christmas has been around long, long before St. Nick existed. I’m sure Kilmrnock got the point of the post perfectly well, and was expressing disagreement with it. Despite what you might like to think, non-Xtians are not “sinners.” Sin implies breaking a covenant with a god. We have made no such covenant, and have therefore broken nothing.
    Perhaps you could explain, using actual logic, how someone else’s “sin” at the dawn of time could possibly carry down to me? And then explain how someone else’s sacrifice a couple thousand years ago could in any way absolve me of something I didn’t do?
    There is some flawed theology in this post, but it goes far deeper than Santa’s naughty list.