Santa Claus, that chubby old chuckler who flies around on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and drops through chimneys delivering gifts, has become the iconic symbol of Christmas. There is an almost perverse cultural overemphasis on “believing in Santa”, even as the incarnation of Jesus the Son of God falls further and further away from our collective consciousness.
The spectacular fantasy film “The Polar Express”, based on the beloved children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, is a good example of the cultural pressure to uphold the Santa myth. The protagonist, a boy who is struggling with doubts about the reality of Santa, is invited to ride on a mysterious train to the North Pole. A creepy hobo he meets on the train asks him, “What’s your take the big guy?” The whole point of the yarn is of course to decry disbelief in Santa. A web page on WikiHow tells you how to “Keep Your Child Believing in Santa.”
Even Christians play along with the Santa myth, as it is passionately defended in an article I ran across entitled “Why I Believe in Santa (And My Kids Will Too)” by Hannah Giselbach:
You get where I’m going with this. The thought of having an intervention every time your children use their imaginations is ill-advised and rather silly. Why, then, are we so afraid to let our children imagine and pretend when it comes to Santa Claus? Pretending isn’t always lying. One very sad and dismal day, your children won’t play with dolls anymore. They won’t run, elated, arms flailing when they see Mickey Mouse at Disney World. One day, your children will grow up and understand that all the things they used to play with and pretend with are not actually real. I beg of you, don’t take away that magic prematurely. It will happen when it happens. And I’ve never once met an adult who felt betrayed by their parents who “lied” to them about Santa when they were children. Not once! I have, however, met adults who feel deprived of a major part of childhood because their parents felt the need to dispel their belief and encourage their questioning doubt at a very young age.
This approach, of winking and saying “it’s a good lie” or “it’s just pretend” makes me a bit squeamish. Also it seems unnecessary. In my own family we have reveled in the imagination of “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” without trying to maintain that they are real and true. I don’t want to be a spoiler of enchanting ideas, or an enemy of imagination, but neither will I tell a bald-faced lie to someone, especially a child. Especially as Christians, the myth of Santa is not the place to stake our flag of truth, lest we lose all credibility on more important things, such as the Resurrection.
This is not merely a frivolous worry. Philosopher David Kyle Johnson, associate professor at King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA, wrote an opinion article entitled “Sorry, Virginia” in the Baltimore Sun, in which he stated:
Parents should stop teaching their kids to believe in Santa Claus. Reading stories about Santa is fine, and encouraging generosity and imagination is great. But tricking children into believing that an omniscient fat man, with a red suit and rosy cheeks, will slide down the chimney bestowing presents on Dec. 24 is just flat-out immoral. First of all, it’s lying. It’s one thing to lie to save someone’s life, but stop kidding yourself. “It’s fun to watch the kids get excited” is hardly a noble cause. Nor is it harmless. I’ve amassed recollections of “finding out the truth about Santa,” and many were stories of genuine embarrassment and resentment. The systematic deception makes children feel taken advantage of or like the butt of a joke. In contrast to the opinion of Ms. Giselbach, prof Johnson has collected stories of harm done by the lie, and you can read about this here.
An article published in Lancet Psychiatry also hypothesizes that lying to kids about Santa may be harmful. As reported in The Guardian:
Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia and co-author, said: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”
Even more, from a Christian perspective, is this: The more of our time and brain space we give to the “Santa” myth, and by extension to the plastic and commercial “X-mas” of our culture, the more we distract from–nay, rob from–the glory of Christ’s birth. Pastor and author John Piper, of “Desiring God” fame, responded to the question of Santa by first recounting the fact that Christmas celebrates that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, that he came to give his life a ransom for many, and that through his death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.
So the birth of the Son of God, the very God, very man, is simply stunning and glorious and infinitely serious, an overflow of the happy news. The angel called it “good news of great joy” — great joy, not small joy, not a little bit of joy, but great joy (Luke 2:10).
…It is mindboggling to me that any Christian would even contemplate such a trade, that we would divert attention away from the incarnation of the God of the universe into this world to save us and our children. . . . Not only is Santa Claus not true — and Jesus is very truth himself — but compared to Jesus, Santa is simply pitiful, and our kids should be helped to see this.
I’ll return to the question posed by that ghostly hobo, “What’s your take on the big guy?”
When this came up for me, when my kids were toddlers, I pondered how to honor Santa, without lying, and without sucking away the magic of the season. I purchased a lovely little book by Julie Stiegemeyer entitled Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend, published by Concordia Publishing in 2007. This is a very readable book with charming illustrations, which I found helpful. It links Santa with the historical St. Nicholas, relating him to the real meaning of Christmas at the end of the story.
If asked, “do you believe in Santa?” or “is Santa real?” I will say “yes”. “Santa” is real of course, as he is based on a real person known to us as St. Nicholas, a fourth century Christian bishop in the town of Myra, now part of modern day Turkey. He was recognized as a “saint” by the church. He was remembered for his generosity of spirit, and so giving gifts in his honor is fitting. St. Nicholas now lives, presumably, in heaven. That “Santa” is as real as you and I.
However, if I am pressed and asked whether Santa is literally a fat guy in a red suit from the North Pole who drops down chimneys, then I can’t lie about this. My answer is “no”; that “Santa” is as real as Darth Vader, Princess Bubblegum, and Mickey Mouse. I’m not going to pretend otherwise.