[Beliefnet, December 15, 2001]
Close the damper, quick! If there’s one thing your kids don’t need this Christmas, it’s Santa. The notion that someone, somewhere, has access to unlimited material goods, and can shower them around at will, would be hazardously intoxicating to just about anybody who believed it. (Picture it: your boss sends around a memo that the magic Lexus fairy will be visiting the office Christmas party with goodies for everyone.)
Yes, you can have Christmas without Santa. Yes, you should. Here are a few why’s, followed by a few how’s.
First, it’s a big fat lie. What kind of an example are you setting here? How stupid are your kids going to feel when they realize they fell for this? What else of what you taught them are they going to doubt? Your kids should know that your word is always good and that they can rely on it without question every day of their lives.
Second, the Santa myth teaches kids ingratitude. You want your older children never to acknowledge your gifts? Enjoy the idea of never getting a thank-you note or any thoughtfulness in return? Santa-talk is a good way to start them on that path. They learn that goodies just magically appear and don’t cost anybody anything. Their role in life is just to open packages and enjoy.
It also teaches greed. We may say piously that we want our children to develop just and generous virtues, but filling them with images of a toy-wielding potentate with a lifetime pass on eToys will knock all that flatter than Kansas.
Finally, how about your kids’ spiritual development? You may be trying to help your children apprehend the wonder of an unseen God, trying to inculcate subtle awe. But the kid can *see* Santa—he’s right there at the mall. Which one seems realer? Does anybody get their photo taken sitting on God’s lap? Who dresses up in a God suit?
Santa’s tangibility makes him seem a better bet to kids than vague old God. Santa lives at the North Pole. God lives in heaven. Which one can the kid find on a map? You write letters to Santa. You say prayers to God. Which seems like a more effective way to communicate?
Santa has another unfair advantage over God: he’s imaginary. Lots of us could easily be more appealing if we existed only in fantasy. But why would you encourage your kids to dwell in fantasy, to place their trust and hope in something that isn’t true, especially when its gaudy glow makes God seem irrelevant and pale?
It’s possible to do without Santa. One first step could be to substitute the “real” Santa, St. Nicholas of Myra, and celebrate his feast in a pre-emptive strike on December 6. There are plenty of stories about St. Nicholas beyond the one about coins tossed into children’s shoes; he was called, after all, “the Wonder-Worker.” Storybooks can help your kids appreciate the courage of this beloved hero of Christians east and west. The real guy is a better example than Old Goodiebags; he’s a man of courage and compassion, and the kind of person you’d like your kids to know.
With St. Nicholas, an actual historical figure, reliably in place, you can break it to your kids that the other guy, Santa-in-the-chimney, is just for fun. Explain that grown-ups get such a kick out of seeing kids excited about him that they can’t resist spinning the tale—but that it’s kind of unfair, like a joke at the kid’s expense. Tell them that the world is wonderful enough, and the realities of faith are awesome enough, that made-up stories like that aren’t necessary.
But kids need to be prepared for the grown-ups they’ll run into who will assume they believe in Santa, and who will want to play the “Santa game” with them. Tell them to go along with it for the grown-up’s sake, so the grown-up can get a thrill.
Likewise, kids should know that they must never hint to another child the truth about Santa if the child still believes. That’s between that kid and his parents.
It can be tempting to jump on the Santa bandwagon. We grown-ups may also wish that magical goodies would drop into our lives with no strings attached. But which one—God or Santa—is going to matter more, and make kids happier, in the long run?
Santa knows everything everyone does and gives presents. God knows everything everyone does and gave his Son. “Santa Claus is coming to town.” “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (Revelation 1:7). Which one is true?
Christmas is about something better than free presents, something that has the tremendous advantage of being real and resonating with eternal consequences. Push Santa aside for a minute. See that manger?