Last weekend, my 8-year-old cornered me, eyed me suspiciously and said “Ginger’s handwriting looks JUST LIKE YOURS, Mom.”
Ginger is our Christmas penguin–an elf alternative– who hides around the house and leaves notes and occasional treats and stuff (but does NOT make messes or tell kids that Santa is watching them, etc.) Since the kids are a little older now, we’ve not been knocking ourselves out to ensure that all these things stay ‘magical’ forever. At some point, it will be what it will be, and you know, it is really exhausting to keep up this whole facade for a whole month of the year. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe I quit trying so hard to make sure Ginger wrote in a distinctive North Pole script.
“Anyway,” boy child went on, “THERE ARE RUMORS that Santa is really your Mom and Dad.”
Alright. Cool, we can talk about this. I’ve long suspected that my (too-smart-for-his-own-good) son knew the deal anyway, and was just going along for the presents. But this seemed like brand new information to him. “Well,” I said… “IF that were true… would it really be so terrible? I mean, just because Mom and Dad were getting the presents… would that make Christmas any less amazing?”
“YES THAT WOULD BE TERRIBLE!” he wailed. “THAT WOULD BE THE WORST.” And he went on about his cleaning chores and life happened and the convo was tabled for awhile. Which is fine, because it gave me time to regroup. (And yes, my son often speaks like Owen Meany, as though the author narrating his life hit the all-caps button and forgot to turn it off).
Later that afternoon, I circled back around. “So bud,” I said. “Do you want me to tell you the real deal about the Santa stuff?” [brief pause.] “No,” he said. “I’ve decided I’m happier not knowing.”
Too true, kid.
I swear to you, with no adult prompting whatsoever, this boy asked for microbiology books for Christmas [frantically texts my college BFF who is a PhD and knows how to science with an 8-year-old]. He wants science books because, more than anything, he wants to know everything. About everything. He wants to know how things work? and why? and then what? and what should we try to figure out now that nobody has figured out yet? He wants the ANSWERS to all the deep mysteries of life in the universe. But you can pry Santa from his COLD SCIENCE-NERD HANDS.
It’s fine. I’ll let him keep it for as long as he wants to. Even *if* he might know what he doesn’t want to know already. I’ll leave the remaining mystery untouched for as long as he wants to.
But you would not believe how many people I’ve heard say that they (or their kid) learned “the truth” about Santa during an unfortunate Christmas service at church. Pastors, listen to me– this Christmas, you’ve got ONE JOB. Do not blow this.
I can imagine how this typically goes down. The pastor is preaching a sermon, whether on Christmas Eve or some Sunday during Advent, about the joy of the season. And maybe he/she wants to remind us all of the virtue of childlike belief; you know, the joy of the season, back when you still believed in Santa Clause. Or maybe the message is about struggling through the holidays– how it can’t all be joy and angels singing, like remember the year you found out Santa wasn’t real? Or maybe it is some morality lesson rooted in the pastor’s own youth, that one time when a mean kid on the playground told me that Santa was really my parents.
Pastors– don’t be that guy. Seriously.
It is so easy to forget children are in the room. To assume that they’ve all gone out to children’s worship, or– and this happens far more often– to think that most kids in the ‘grown up’ worship space just aren’t listening. It is an indictment on our wider worship culture when we preach like children aren’t listening. Believe me, if they are in the room, they are listening. For better or worse.
At my church, we’ve adopted an intergenerational philosophy around worship, from our space to our liturgy. We have children’s programs as well– but we assume that, in any part of worship, there will be people of all ages present, and they will. be. listening.
I mean, if they aren’t listening, we’re probably doing it wrong.
We always preach as though children are listening. This means no dropping f-bombs from the pulpit, obviously. (Believe me, some Sundays that restraint is a struggle, when the whole world seems to be on fire). It also means if you are referencing some horrific event that’s been recently in the news, maybe stay away from the gory details.
And yes, it means allowing room for a bit of magic and mystery. Childlike faith, after all, is not faith that blindly believes what it is told– but faith that leaves room for that which it can’t yet understand. And if we grownups don’t have room in our own faith story for a little bit of that magic and mystery, then we’re probably doing it wrong.
That doesn’t mean we make Christmas all about Santa. Of course, we always articulate the ‘more than presents’ nature of the season, and the gospel itself. But, for the love, church folks– don’t suck all the joy out of the room by dropping the biggest spoiler of all time into your holiday message. Maybe some mean playground kid will break the news eventually. In the meantime, let them have the magic.
As for my boy genius who doesn’t quite yet want to know what he already mostly knows… what I’ll tell him eventually is this: yeah, the presents come from Mom and Dad. So does the penguin. But Christmas–and in fact, everything else we believe– is less about what is, and more about what can be. Less about what we know, and more about who we are. The God within us, made known to the world. A story doesn’t have to be factual to have great meaning. And a thing doesn’t have to be real in order to be true.
Oddly enough…that sounds a lot like my typical Christmas sermon after all.