Should You Teach Your Children To “Believe In” Santa Claus?
By December 14th, we are all knee-deep in the holly jollies. We don’t get real snow here in Florida, but the lights, trees, wreaths, and inflatable Frosties have been out for a long time. The carols are playing. Yummy food is coming out of the oven. Christmas time is here.
But for those conservative-Evangelicals, particularly of the “worldview” stripe, there’s one thing that comes up this kind of year that’s not so nice. I’m talking about the Santa thing. While the larger culture doesn’t give this much thought at all, many of us have come to have serious questions as to the morality and propriety of teaching children to believe that Santa Claus is real. It seems like telling young children that Santa flies around the world to give gifts on Christmas Eve, and that if they are good he will visit them, when none of this is actually true, is, to put it rather bluntly, a lie.
This is, of course, one of the most explosive things you can say around this time of year. People hold Christmas traditions very near to their hearts, and if they think that you are taking those traditions away– or worse, saying that they are sinning by participating in those traditions– then they are most-likely going to be upset. Handle with care. And yes, there are better or worse, smarter or bone-headedier, ways to have this conversation. If you go around announcing to all the little kids in your neighborhood that they are mindlessly living in the Matrix, then you deserve to be slapped upside the head with a fruitcake. And if you use this topic to lash out at others, particularly when you know that they have not really reflected on the matter, then you are being immature and abusive.
Still, with those warnings and qualifications, the basic question still remains. Is the Santa mythology ok? What should we think about it? Should we teach children to “believe in” Santa Claus? We can’t tackle every possible rabbit trail here, and we are not going to get into the “real history” of Santa. That’s a very fascinating story, but it would just take too long. For this post, we are only talking about the current cultural representations and practices associated with Santa Claus as a jolly magical elf. To get a better perspective on this, we’ll offer some basic thoughts on the question and then conclude with some practical suggestions.
Despite all of the complicated emotions and social protocols, the basic question here is actually simple. Now, “simple” does not mean “easy.” This question can be tricky to answer. Instead, “simple,” means “not complex” or “doesn’t contain many diverse parts.” That’s because the basic question is, “Am I telling the truth?”
Break it down to the smallest parts. Does the character we call “Santa Claus” actually exist? The answer is no. Now, the following question is, “Does my Christmas practice require me to teach my children that Santa actually exists?” If your answer to this question is “no,” then you are ok. But if you answer to this question is “yes,” then you have a problem. You are bearing false witness to your children.
Now, don’t we tell children good-intentioned half-truths all the time? For instance, don’t we say things like, “When the sun comes up tomorrow,” when we know that the sun doesn’t really move, and don’t we tell them that “It’s ok, Fido isn’t dead, he’s just in a better place.”
Well, yes and no, or yes and I hope not. We need to be careful with our categories. To say something like “The sun comes up” is not actually a lie. It’s not even a half-truth. It’s just a common way of speaking that fits our perspective. The sun looks like it comes up, and from where we are standing, it does “move” (bc motion can rightly be understood as relative to the vantage point). Furthermore, colloquial forms of speech are typically understood to not be intended as strictly literal. There’s no reasonable “deception” going on.
Now, with things like death, we can use euphemisms to soften the blow. “She’s in a better place now.” This isn’t necessarily wrong. There’s also nothing wrong with choosing to avoid a question for the time being, if you think the child is too young to handle it. This can be tricky, but it’s not immoral. However, if you tell your children that Fido went to live on a farm where he can run free forever, then you’re doing something different. You inventing a false story, and while most everyone will forgive you for it and understand your intentions, it’s not a safe way to go about things. It’s not true.
But the Santa mythology is actually much stronger than that. We are not merely trying to side-step a question or offer a soft coping mechanism in the middle of a deeply challenging struggle. No, with Santa we are teaching children an elaborate story and infusing it with transcendent meaning– it’s a foundation for good morals, as well as a way to promote values like faith, hope, and joy. At times, we even go to great lengths to set up false evidence (the milk and cookies by the fireplace being the most common). It’s a very active thing that commands a great deal of our time and resources to maintain, and it occupies a central place in our lives during the month of December. For many children, it’s the most important part of the whole Christmas season.
And it’s fake.
What Does Santa “Do For” My Holidays?
This leads to another big concern. “Christmas” is supposed to be the celebration of Jesus Christ’s coming to earth. It should proclaim the incarnation of God, the consummation of the Covenant of Grace, the coming of the messiah, the establishment of the kingdom of David, the consolation of Israel, and the eternal salvation of mankind. These things are all real. Has the fake Santa helped to spread this message or has it detracted from it or even replaced it entirely?
Some Christians have attempted to save Santa on this point. “Santa shows us the goodness of giving.” or “He reminds us that Jesus is God’s gift and that we should be charitable.” While a nice sentiment, and partially true (Jesus is God’s gift!), it really just feels like a Jesus Juke. In popular American culture, Santa is not connected to Jesus. Don’t believe me? Then just watch Elf, The Santa Clause, It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or any of the other Christmas classics. They don’t mention Jesus at all, and they often point to things other than Jesus as their “main idea.” Why should you be charitable, love your family, accept others, or have a childlike wonder and “faith” at the holidays? The answer they give is never God’s promise or the sacrificial grace of Christ. It’s always something more like the universal brotherhood of man and the power of “believing” (in yourself or in magic). Yes, Christians can try to “Christianize” these things, but they need to be honest that that’s what they are doing, and they need to know that many people are indeed attracted to the secular versions and are quite happy to leave the religious stuff out or replace it with a sort of modern humanism.
But isn’t the secular version just a rip-off of Christianity? In some ways yes, but you’ll only be able to combat this by pointing to the true history. You can’t do that if you continue to promote some of the false mythology. Again, is “Santa” helping you correct this, or is it reinforcing the things you say you are trying to correct? We said we weren’t going to get into the history of Santa, but you should be aware that the modern Santa mythology was created as a part of 19th century Romanticism (see here and here for starters). Santa was precisely a way to “get the magic back” for people who no longer believed in the traditions of the old world. Ask yourself honestly, does teaching your children that Santa is a magical elf who flies around the world to reward children “take back” Christmas for Jesus, or does it continue to pull Christmas away from its roots?
The Defenses of Santa Don’t Hold Up
Another layer of problems arise when you consider the typical responses. People will say, “But come on, Santa is fun!”, “You’re worrying too much!”, “You’re being a prude!”, or “You’re taking the magic away from our children!” But none of these responses would hold up for other moral questions. We won’t bore you with trivial rebuttals, but you can see that, “But you’re no fun!” is not actually a serious argument. It’s a way to avoid looking into the matter at hand.
The “magic” defense is also a problem for another reason. Not to get all “Westminster Larger Catechism” on you, but I don’t think Christians are supposed to promote a belief in magic, at least not any sort of supernatural activity that functions apart from God and not revealed to us in His Word. The Old Testament calls this stuff sorcery and witchcraft, and it never goes well. Now, no, we’re not saying you can’t read Harry Potter. That’s another debate (and we mostly like Harry), but depicting magic within the genre of fiction is one thing. Claiming that it’s really real is another– especially if it isn’t.
One final response deserves its own heading. This response usually shows up in the form of, “Oh, what’s the big deal? It doesn’t hurt anything. The kids like it, and they’ll be just fine.” But there is a big deal here.
Children Are Naturally Trusting, And We Should Honor That Side Of Them
While children do enjoy playing make believe and other games, they very often do not enjoy discovering that what they were told to be true was not true. Children have a very strong sense of justice (“That’s not fair!” they say again and again). While some will take the Santa thing in stride, others will not appreciate it. They will feel a sort of betrayal. A parent can’t know which reaction their child will have until after the fact.
But take a deeper look. Children are naturally trusting, especially towards their parents. And this is good! This is one reason that Jesus says to adults, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Luke 18:17). That passage is talking about humility, but it’s also talking about dependency. The children recognize that they are in need of support and provision, and that is how we should relate to Jesus. Child-like faith is a good thing.
If this is how children are made to be, then we, as their parents, need to acknowledge that and honor it. We need to make sure that we support, provide for, and protect our children’s childlike nature, and we should try our best not to take advantage of their dependency. We should guide their faith and nurture it properly. That means we must nurture it in the Lord, with honesty and love. Intentionally misleading them, all in the name of fun and games, is very dangerous. They might (reasonably) wonder where else you have been misleading them. And we especially shouldn’t teach them that we are unreliable when it comes to supernatural things, the kind things that it takes faith to believe.
While a great many faithful Christians do teach their children to believe in Santa, it seems to us that this is a very dangerous practice. Hopefully the issues raised above have led you to think more critically about the whole thing. So now what? Do we have to be Christmas scrooges? Can Santa be anywhere at all, or must he be banned entirely? Here are practical suggestions.
Be Able To Speak Honestly With Your Children
The most important principle here is honesty with your children. If you have already started the Santa thing, you should make time to talk with your kids about it. You should tell them the truth. Explain that it was all in good fun, but then tell them what’s real. You should also repent to them for telling them a falsehood and ask their forgiveness. This example of repentance will be powerful and leave your children with an essential lesson.
While you can and should still postpone certain topics for when they are older, you should still work on honesty with your kids. Just tell them, “That’s a grownup word” or “We’ll talk about that more when you’re older.” They’ll be ok with that. And it will be true. This is an example they can follow in their lives as well.
Be Proactive about the Biblical Christmas
The best thing for Christmas it to get out in front of the whole thing. Tell your children the true story of Christmas, the birth of Christ, and fill their imaginations with tales of kingship, the messiah, worldwide restoration and redemption, and the baby king who grows up to slay the dragon. Focus on the gospel, and make sure your children are excited about that. Christians already have a wondrous and majestic story, and we already have a bunch of great Christmas carols about it too!
Tacking Jesus on to the end of some other story is not going to be an effective strategy. The kids will see that it’s kind of lame, and they’ll want to get back to the good stuff. Thankfully, the Biblical story, when taught in Biblical context, is extremely exciting. It’s got miracles, dark spirits, violence, escape, rescue, kings, damsels in distress, and a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Load up on that.
If your family is really clear on what the “big issues” are with Christmas, then stuff like Santa will be able to take up a minor and peripheral role. He can be as important as “the Three Little Pigs” or Elmo. Which leads us to the next point.
Treat Santa Like an Ordinary Character in a Story
If you can treat the modern Santa like an ordinary fictional character, your children can still enjoy the various holiday trappings and have their fun without the danger of false magic. They know how to “play make believe.” They are quite used to pretending. And they have a thousand cartoon characters all over the place. Make Santa one of those, and it will all be “no big deal.”
This approach also helps you not be so uptight or turn into the Christmas police. Santa can be fun, but just a fun story. The intensity level goes way down, and no one has to be militant or angry.
The goal in all of this is not to make people feel guilty or show off you holiness. Rather, it’s simply to be a dependable and trustworthy guide to your children. You want them to be able to believe what you have taught them so that they will rely on you in the other important matters of life. You want them to trust you when you tell them that they should trust Jesus.
This is also the key to lasting parental influence once your children grow up. A time will come when you cannot spank them, when you cannot ground them, and when you cannot take away the keys to the car. Once your children are grown, all you will have is the credibility of your word and the abiding influence that your character has earned in their minds. You are forming that influence now. Take care how you do it.
This is a hard conversation in today’s world. We understand the sensitivity of talking about it, and it is not our goal to shame people or make them feel guilty. But you should think about these things. Compare them with God’s teaching in the Scripture. Ask yourself what you are really doing. And then make a God-honoring decision.
It’s precisely because of these challenges that we need Christmas. Ask the hard question, but then be sure to receive God’s cheer and celebrate to the glory of God.