In the time-honored spirit of judging other parents, many Christians this time of year inform fellow moms and dads that they’re lying to their kids, and probably setting them up for atheism by encouraging them to believe in Santa Claus. Initially, this pious-sounding stance held some appeal for me. I despise the over-commercialization of Christian holy-days, and generally find that believing households focus too little, not too much on Christ’s birth. And of course, lying to your children is wrong. All of this is why it took me a while to reach the opposite conclusion—that not only is aiding and abetting a childhood belief in Saint Nick acceptable for godly parents, but the view which calls this “lying to your kids” is deeply impoverished and sad.
First, I should lay my Christmas cards on the table. My wife and I are not actively encouraging belief in Santa Claus, as distinct from the historical Nicholas of Myra. And I’m pretty sure my six-year-old daughter already has the gift system figured out. So, I don’t exactly have a sleigh in this race, at least not yet (my youngest is a year old). But I do think those who categorically rule out a certain right-jolly old elf as morally illicit are overstating their case—badly.
A story might help. A few years ago, I first encountered members of a fundamentalist church who believed that fiction is wrong. They taught that reading about characters and events which are not literally real violates the ninth commandment because it involves sentences which, out of context, convey falsehoods. “Once upon a time there lived a princess named Snow White” is a lie, according to this thinking, because there technically never was such a person.
When I asked these Christians to explain Jesus’ parables (which are stories), they insisted that there really must have been a Prodigal Son, a Good Samaritan, and a man who built his house on the sand! They couldn’t prove this claim, of course, except by begging their first principle that all technical non-facts are lies. I pointed out that this was circular. That was more or less the end of the discussion. I think we moved on to debating whether C. S. Lewis was a warlock.
But fiction is clearly biblical—even fiction which some mistake for fact. We know the disciples occasionally took Jesus’ parables literally, as when He told them to beware the leaven of the Pharisees. Nathan seems to have intended David to take his parable about the poor man and the lamb literally in order to trap him. God’s people kept speaking and writing fiction, anyway, without disclaimers.
And that’s fine, because good fiction requires no disclaimer. In fact, much of the best fiction coyly invites readers to treat it as fact, and blurs the distinction between myth and reality. I think of how J. R. R. Tolkien explains in the opening chapter of “The Hobbit” that halflings are seldom seen these days by “big folk,” since they are good at hiding and want little to do with us. I think of fellow Inkling C. S. Lewis, who begins his “The Screwtape Letters” by notifying us that he has no intention of disclosing how these correspondences fell into his hands, as if he actually intercepted demonic telegrams. Readers delight at such trickery and lean in closer. They obligingly suspend their disbelief. Children’s eyes grow wider.
And there is more to this than a covenant between story-teller and story-hearer for fun’s sake. There are different senses of the word “true.” Even the staunchest fundamentalist I have met will not disown “Pilgrim’s Progress,” though Bunyan’s dream could technically have recorded actual events! This is because any reader worth his salt knows this allegory conveys truths which are bigger, higher, and if anything more important than what we dirt-dwelling mortals call “fact.” Faith is not a fact. Neither are mercy, justice, hope, or love. But they are as true as truth gets. They are the things that make facts worth knowing and life in the world of facts worth living.
Michael Daughterly highlights a delightful excerpt in which G. K. Chesterton defends belief in Santa Claus on the grounds that it inculcated in him the wonder of receiving undeserved gifts and fastened such graces with Christmas morning in his heart. “I had done nothing to produce the things that filled [my stocking],” writes Chesterton. “I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good — far from it.”
Anyone who knows what Christmas is really about can see where he was going.
C. S. Lewis flirted even more boldly with the boundary between factual and fantastical. He confesses in “Surprised by Joy” how, while living at Campbell College, his world became charged with fairytale magic. His delight in woods and fields and dewy mornings carried him “to the very frontiers of hallucination,” where once, he tells us he thought he saw a dwarf dart across a garden path.
I am not, of course, advocating a search for fairies or an expedition to the North Pole. Santa Claus and satyrs are both, as far as I know, outside the realm of scientific verification. But part of being made in the image of God is creating like He did, and this means there are additional categories of reality between “scientific truth” and “lies.” One of those categories is myth.
Myth (or if you prefer, legend) is what makes mountains more than boulders covered in ice. It is what gives us the unshakeable feeling that there is more happening in an ancient grove of trees than botany. It is what makes us shudder when we think about how deep the ocean really is. It is what causes us to remember what truly matters in life when we look at a sunset. Rich Mullins knew what I’m talking about.
The fact that Christians of my crop so quickly dismiss the myths of past generations as “lies” tells me we’ve lost a category. With that category, we have lost the sense wonder it inspires—a sense of which children have always been the special stewards and beneficiaries. At no time in our lives is the border between the factual and fantastical as thin as it is during childhood. And that’s not a bad thing. You will rarely meet an adult who does not look back on those wide-eyed childhood beliefs with fondness.
We should remember that children will entertain myths, whether encouraged by their parents or not. I told my siblings stories of Jabberwockies in the woods and a gnome named “Ramone” who lived in the attic. My favorite myth as a child wasn’t actually Santa, but a leprechaun named Lucky who became my pen-pal every March. (I was blessed with fun-loving parents.) Today millions of children immerse themselves in inferior imaginary worlds through the portals of glowing screens and game controllers. Only instead of evoking a sense of wonder and mystery, these massively multiplayer worlds usually create obesity and an aversion to sunlight.
If your children ask you whether Santa is real, and it is clear that they want to know if he is real in the same sense that the prime minister of the Netherlands is real, then you ought to answer them truthfully. I also think a good myth is something that is caught more than taught. There is no need to catechize them to believe in Kris Kringle. The stories you read them and the popular imagery about him will either capture their imaginations, or it won’t. There are many alternative myths to enjoy.
To those who worry that finding out the facts about Santa will endanger their children’s faith in the very literal truth of God and Christianity, I paraphrase N. T. Wright in his book, “Surprised by Hope,” titled in tribute to Lewis: If someone declares himself an atheist because he finds he can no longer believe in an old man with a grey beard who lives in the clouds and listens to prayers, then that person hasn’t stopped believing in the Christian God. He never believed in Him to begin with. God is not a bigger, better Santa Claus. He is utterly and incomparably different. That is why Father Christmas gladly bends the to knee to the True King in Narnia. He is King everywhere, not just in Narnia.
Provided we always reinforce for our children that the Christ-myth is the Truth to which all good myths point—and that this Truth became flesh and inhabited the literal, factual, dirt of history—I don’t think we have much to fear from Christmas fairy tales—especially not those loosely based on a Christian saint. I have never met anyone whose religion was destroyed by sneaking downstairs on Christmas Eve. Anchored in the truth of Christmas’ deepest meaning and the Gift who inspired all subsequent gift-giving, I think we’re free to enjoy the myth of Santa Claus with our children. A legend is not the same as a lie.