On St. Nicholas and Santa

On St. Nicholas and Santa December 11, 2009

The comments from the last post overwhelmingly voiced a desire to continue the Santa discussion.

I have recently come to realize that this is a more sensitive topic than I thought. I brought it up at my book club last week, the day that I learned my son had told his class Santa was dead and in Heaven. I think I have been a bit naive about the subject, thinking it not so big of a deal. Because of our son’s intolerance for large crowds and noise, we tend to stay closer to home at this young age and many of our friends in the area do not do Santa. But, by virtue of his participation in his class, Santa has made his way into our lives. Below my post, you will see Red’s family tradition, which does incorporate Santa.

Because of my oldest son’s fierce love for truth and justice, I was afraid that telling him Santa wasn’t real, even thought other kids believed, would spur him on to a crusade of telling the truth about Santa. So I thought that by downplaying, noting that some people called St. Nicholas Santa Claus, we would gloss over the differences and everyone would be happy. I was wrong. Of course, the problem is that Santa Claus and St. Nicholas are not the same in today’s world and I have since told him that some people like to pretend that Santa lives at the North Pole, has flying reindeer etc. I’m not so concerned with the precise historical metamorphosis of St. Nicholas into Santa. But the cartoon Santa with the flying reindeer and toy workshop is not exactly the same at the Bishop of Myra who shared from his own wealth and gave his life in service to the Church.

Let me be clear. I don’t hate Santa. I don’t think that doing Santa is wrong or bad or misguided. Santa is not an issue of moral absolutes. I do think Santa can be done in a way that does not lose the true meaning of Christmas. We don’t forgo Santa as a pious, holier-than-thou act. We don’t forgo Santa just because he is secular. Many things we do during the Advent and Christmas season are not overtly religious, but add to the specialness of the season. I am not a theologian or a historian. Just a mom trying to navigate culture, faith and family.

Here are some of the reasons that we do not do Santa, some paraphrased from the discussion our book club had on the subject:

1. We love fantasy. I believe it plays an important role in a child’s development emotionally, morally and spiritually. However, I do believe there is a difference between entering into a fairy tale world and having an imaginary character come down your chimney and into your home. For our son with sensory issues there must be a very sharp line between reality and fantasy. I have heard several stories, and some mentioned in the comments, that kids are afraid of a strange man coming into their home at night. This is not an issue with our second son, so I think it depends on the temperament of each child. For our oldest son to feel safe, we must suspend reality and enter into an imaginative world. Knowing that it is pretend allows us the freedom to be imaginative without fear. I am asked 14 times a day if things from Curious George to our mailman are pretend and don’t think that all young children are comfortable with a vague understanding or what is and is not real. I don’t intend for this to turn into a discussion of the nature of fairy tales and fantasy, just trying to make a distinction.

2. In order to convince our son that Santa was real we would have to lie or come up with an insanely outlandish story to explain everything at the age of 3. A cursory “Santa has some helpers…” would not do the trick in our home. I would be peppered with questions incessantly and Dash would probably insist on trying to go down the chimney himself. When he asked me if Santa was pretend, I told him yes, but that we don’t need to tell other kids that. Honestly, Dash is not yet of the age of reason and a stickler for truth and I am afraid that he may tell another child who believes in Santa that Santa is not real, but I can’t lie about it. But, after explaining that he is a pretend character, Dash seemed happier to play along with everything, knowing it is all a story. It is not the fact that Santa is secular that makes me refrain…it is having to lie about it. Again, our second son would swallow the Santa tale with a smile on his face and ask no questions. I am okay with pretend characters as long as we call a spade a spade.

3. Santa adds to the consumerism of the Christmas season. The Christmas shopping season that begins in August and ends December 24 is outrageous and over the top. Buy, buy, buy, Get, get get. Questions about Christmas revolve around, “What did you ask Santa for Christmas?” Though, during our discussion, one mother brought up how she likes doing Santa because it allows them to be super generous to their kids without blowing their “frugal facade.”

4. I do think that a sense of magic and the miraculous can spur a child on to a deeper understanding of things unseen. However, if a parent has been lying to a child about Santa, then would they not call into question other truths about God and the saints that are being taught? I remember being totally scandalized to learn that Santa was not real. I was riding home from school in the way back seat of a station wagon and Diana and Molly told me that Santa wasn’t real. I guarantee you I would not remember those names were it not for that awful day. There are many real miracles in addition to, or course, the Incarnation, to elevate a child’s sense of the divine. My children never tire of hearing the story of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe all year round.

Why we celebrate St. Nicholas on December 6:

1. It is a feast in the liturgical year. Even though many legends surround what good works the Bishop of Myra did or did not perform, the Church in her wisdom has declared December 6 a day to honor and remember St. Nicholas.

2. Celebrating the lives of the saints is a great way to teach moral lessons. Ours focuses heavily on sharing and generosity, especially with respect to the poor, which ties in very well with the Advent theme of preparation. We can prepare to welcome to baby Jesus into our hearts and homes when we are generous and detached. We usually purchase and wrap our angel tree gifts and try to give some of our extraneous toys/possessions away during this week when we read about St. Nicholas and bake our Speculatius.

3. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, an intercessor and a friend in Heaven.

4. December 25 is Jesus’ birthday. We exchange family presents on December 25th in honor of Jesus’ birthday and with the other side of the family on January 6, Epiphany, but the focus of the day is celebrating Jesus’ birthday. I don’t really remember the boys’ reactions to opening presents last year, but I do remember them running around to all our nativity scenes to add, finally, baby Jesus. We bake a birthday cake and sing Happy Birthday to Jesus.

5. Christmas morning is magical whether or not you do Santa. We enjoy a warm breakfast and hot chocolate, attend mass, sing Christmas carols and share gifts as a family. Joy exudes from each well-prepared heart as we give Jesus the gift our ourself, striving, however imperfectly, for holiness.

A different view from Red:

When I was a young girl, the magic and mystery surrounding Santa Claus was always a special part of Christmas morning. Thanks to my grandparents, both of my parents had strong memories of Santa from their youth, and it was with great joy that they passed that tradition on to me and my siblings.

When I was in first grade, my neighbor and best friend was the daughter of the local baptist pastor. Their family didn’t do Santa, and, in fact, they vehemently opposed having Santa as a part of the Christmas tradition. One day, my friend proudly told me that Santa was a lie. I was quite disappointed (and my mother was very irritated!), and I wished my friend hadn’t taken it upon herself to end the childhood magic my parents had worked so hard to create. I do remember, however, that I wasn’t shocked at the news. I was at the age where I was questioning certain things about Santa (the wrapping paper was a big tip-off for me), but I desperately wanted to believe. I was going to find out sooner or later, but the manner in which my friend broke the news was a sad memory. Fortunately, I have used this memory to form my own approach to Santa with my children.

First, I think it goes without saying that every family is going to have their own Christmas traditions. Extended family situations can get complicated, so even the best intentions for certain family celebrations may be altered to appease disapproving grandparents. In our case, we have found Santa almost impossible to avoid, particularly when it comes to my own extended family and even our local parish! Family Christmas traditions are such great fun, so I think it is important to consider (but not cater to) the feelings of grandparents and extended family members. If we had ditched Santa completely, making a strong break from the way my parents celebrated Christmas with me, and the way their parents celebrated Christmas with them, it would be rather harsh. In addition, if all my siblings and their young ones are celebrating and including Santa, it gets complicated to have our family not participate.

I found great joy believing in Santa as a child, and I do want my children to experience some of that joy. I do think that the magic of Santa helped me to embrace the magic and mystery of my Catholic faith. At the same time, however, I want to avoid my children having a moment like the one I had with my baptist friend. So I have instituted the following guidelines for Santa:

1. We make it very clear that Christmas is about Jesus, and the character of Santa exists because Jesus is so special that he wants all of us to have gifts on his birthday. Our children get three gifts because that is what Jesus received from the 3 wise kings.

2. I do not lie to my children. We read books about Santa, and we talk about the story of Santa. We explain that St. Nicholas was a real person, a Saint, who lived and served the poor. Santa Claus is a modern character in the spirit of St. Nicholas. Santa is like Elmo. I read books about Elmo and we talk about Elmo–and we even go to Sesame Place where Elmo “lives.” I don’t feel the need to explain that Elmo is really just a weird man wearing a big suit. At some point, this will become obvious, or my kids may ask, and then I will explain fully that Elmo is just pretend and what they see is really just a man in a suit. I do not tell my children that Santa is coming to our house and bringing them presents. I do say, “there will be presents under the tree on Christmas morning” and my kids let me know that Santa will put them there! Last year Gianna asked me if Santa was dead (similar to the conversation Texas Mommy had with Dash). I went so far as to tell her that Santa was a character like Elmo, whereas St. Nicholas was a real person. I thought she understood, but immediately afterward she asked how Santa would get into our house because we don’t have a chimney! The line between real and make-believe is very faint for a young child, and I think as long as that line is faint, it is great to pretend in regards to Santa. Once the line starts to make more sense, I think the truth is important. I do think that belief in things like Santa, and fantasy in general, helps lay the foundation for a lifelong belief in God. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out–belief in God is belief in the ultimate mystery.

3. Santa is not a big part of our Christmas celebration. We do not go out of our way to “visit” Santa. We do not write him letters asking for things (I have a general aversion to children getting greedy at Christmas). We do not leave cookies for Santa. We do not sign the gifts from Santa, rather, certain gifts are from mom and dad while others have no tag. Not doing some of these things tones it down a bit, and helps to keep us focused on Christ. I have found it to be a nice balance and it helps us to avoid the materialistic nature of Santa. The kids know about and believe in the tradition of Santa, but it isn’t overwhelming.

4. When a child is asking questions and the line between pretend and make believe is gaining clarity, I plan to tell them the truth about Santa, and then solicit their help in pretending for the younger children. I will also share with them the importance of respect, and that they should never go about and tell other children that Santa is pretend or a lie–this is both mean and disrespectful of the parenting choices of other people. The age at which we plan to have this conversation with our children depends upon their individual personalities. Some kids may want to outgrow their fantasy world at the age of 6, while other children may be 8 or 9 before they start to figure it all out. I have head of quite a few kids who never even need to talk to mom and dad about Santa, but instead just play right along for the benefit of the younger ones–and maybe even mom and dad!

4. We do not celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas. It is impossible to celebrate every feast of the church in our home, and to be honest, with the already hectic nature of Advent, St. Nicholas just doesn’t make our list. Each family has to choose some feast days to recognize and others to let go. At present, we haven’t felt a strong desire to foster this devotion, but I think it is great that Texas Mommy and some of the other builders celebrate this feast in such a special way.

I hesitate to state the obvious, but please keep all comments civil and refrain from personal attacks!! I now realize that this is a sensitive topic. Of course, we can be very emotional about wanting our children to experience joy and excitement during this time of year. I pray that this post has not put anyone on the defensive. If it has, please email me separately.

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