Dec 13, 2010

Bad Santa?

A few weeks ago parents at our church met to discuss parenting and Christmas. The question we were all wanting an answer to was the obvious one – ‘What do we tell our kids about Santa?

bad santa?

Essentially you can do four things with the Father Christmas tradition; ignore it, embrace it, build on it or knock it down.

Ignore Father Christmas

You might wish Santa away but the reality is that you can’t ignore him. Whether it’s Santa coming to nursery or the conversations your kids are having with their friends or remarks of well-meaning non-Christian family or even the woman at the supermarket checkout everyone will be asking your child ‘are you looking forward to seeing what Father Christmas will bring?’  We may wish the problem away but it’s not going away.

Embrace Father Christmas

Some Christians ask ‘why not simply join in the fun?’ and they embrace the story of Christmas, Rudolph and all.

But we had a few concerns:

  • There is a difference between fun fairy tales and the things we ask our children to believe in
  • If we seek to celebrate Christmas as a story about Jesus and at exactly the same time Christmas as a story about Santa (and the presents) Santa will always win first place in own children’s hearts!
  • The attributes of Santa mirror the attributes of God e.g. He sees everything you do, he can be everywhere in the world in one night, he gives good gifts, he’s a famous ‘old man’ in the sky and yet he rewards on the basis of being good quite the opposite of the gospel.  Might we begin to set in our children’s minds the wrong idea of how God relates to us? Are we not making the gospel of grace a harder thing to grasp?

Knock Father Christmas down!

For some the only Christian response is to denounce Father Christmas as a demonic lie. The concern is that the story of Father Christmas;

  • distracts attention that should rightfully go to Jesus Christ, the one whose birth we are really celebrating.
  • distorts the gospel because he divides the world into the naughty and the nice, the good and the bad. Santa is a secular religion in which we train our children to think that being good is good enough and we disadvantage our children.
  • Puts doubts in the minds of our children once they realise he’s not real. After all if we lie to them about one person they cannot see, Father Christmas, might we be lying to them about another, Jesus Christ?

Whilst the concerns are right we wondered whether it really helps our children to ask them to deal with issues of deception and the demonic at a young age. And do we want to reject everything associated with story.  Might it be more helpful and beneficial to use the story of Santa to point our children to Jesus in a better, less confusing, way?

Build on the story of Father Christmas

At our parenting day the approach we advocated was rather than ignore it, embrace it or knock it down we should try to build on the tradition of Father Christmas.  That’s the approach we’ve taken at home with our son. We want him to know and appreciate that:

  • There was a real ‘Father Christmas’ called Saint Nicholas
  • We have much to learn from him – his Christian faith, his kindness and generosity to others.
  • We can also say that in some sense in which he points us to Jesus and the character of God
  • There is a ‘fun story’ that he gives presents to children
  • But he’s not the one who gives presents now
  • It’s important not to spoil the ‘fun’ for your friends
  • It’s OK to join in with events at nursery, school

As someone else has said ‘Everything about secular Christmas can remind the Christian of Jesus.’ And that means everything about a secular Christmas can be used to teach our children.

CS Lewis, Narnia and Christmas

Someone else who used a ‘build on it’ approach was CS Lewis who decided, against the advice of JRR Tolkien, to leave Father Christmas  in the Narnia Chronicles.

Will Vaus has written a number of books on Lewis and Narnia and writes

Lewis left Father Christmas in the story as a sort of clue, a pointer. Father Christmas acts as a sort of “John the Baptist” to identify Aslan as the Christ figure of Narnia.’

Writing in Reflections on the Psalms Lewis says:

“There is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began ‘Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen’. This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer be sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat.” pp. 48-49.

‘Reject, receive, redeem’

Then just a couple of days ago a friend pointed me to an article written by Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.  He talks through three responses under the headings of’ rejecting Santa, receiving Santa, redeeming Santa’. And, along with CS Lewis, Driscoll opts for redeeming the story.

redeeming Santa

As the parents of five children, Grace and I have taken the third position to redeem Santa. We tell our kids that he was a real person who did live a long time ago. We also explain how people dress up as Santa and pretend to be him for fun, kind of like how young children like to dress up as pirates, princesses, superheroes, and a host of other people, real and imaginary. We explain how, in addition to the actual story of Santa, a lot of other stories have been added (e.g., flying reindeer, living in the North Pole, delivering presents to every child in one night) so that Santa is a combination of true and make-believe stories.

We do not, however, demonize Santa. Dressing up, having fun, and using the imagination God gave can be an act of holy worship and is something that, frankly, a lot of adults need to learn from children.

The Driscoll article concludes with a helpful summary of the true Saint Nicholas

The Truth about Santa Claus

The larger-than-life myths surrounding Santa Claus actually emanate from the very real person of Saint Nicholas. It is difficult to know the exact details of his life with certainty, as the ancient records are sparse, but the various pieces can be put together as a mosaic of his life.

A Gift-Giver

Nicholas was born in the third century in Patara, a village in what is now Turkey. He was born into an affluent family, but his parents died tragically when he was quite young. His parents had raised him to be a devout Christian, which led him to spend his great inheritance on helping the poor, especially children. He was known to frequently give gifts to children, sometimes even hanging socks filled with treats and presents.

Perhaps his most famous act of kindness was helping three sisters. Because their family was too poor to pay for their wedding dowry, three young Christian women were facing a life of prostitution until Nicholas paid their dowry, thereby saving them from a horrible life of sexual slavery.

A Bishop and Saint

Nicholas grew to be a well-loved Christian leader and was eventually voted the Bishop of Myra, a port city that the apostle Paul had previously visited (Acts 27:5-6). Nicholas reportedly also traveled to the legendary Council of Nicaea, where he helped defend the deity of Jesus Christ in A.D. 325.

Following his death on December 6, 343, he was canonized as a saint. The anniversary of his death became the St. Nicholas holiday when gifts were given in his memory. He remained a very popular saint among Catholic and Orthodox Christians, with some two thousand churches named after him. The holiday in his honor eventually merged with Christmas, since they were celebrated within weeks of one another.


  • As one who is imminently about to become a father (5 days over due), this is a great post. Though I won’t have to deal with this, I guess, for a few years, I wholeheartedly agree with the redeeming approach.

    Too much of the Christian space is divided between over embracing culture or rejecting it, when we should see things like this as an opportunity to redeem something for Christ.

    A great way to get in the right frame of mind for Christmas and thanking God for sending Jesus to redeem us!

  • Thanks for a balanced & sensible approach to the thoughts on Father Christmas!
    My main though on this is that the belief if FC is comparable to (in the world of our 6 year old) the ‘belief’ in aliens, etc, and that as they grow they will hopefully with our help and their own intelligence be able to distinguish between all these things.
    We also stand by the fact that faith in Christ is something that we pray they will come to in their own time and that it is not (thankfully!!) dependant on us!
    [Our main issue we’re now having is that we’ve always maintained that FC doesn’t bring the big / main presents (why should he get the glory?!) – but of course others do and they’ve seen adverts for Santa bringing big things like computers & that’s added confusion!!!
    I think an 8 year old is on his way to working things out…! It’s a sort of rite of passage really. Like joining Facebook at 13!!!]

  • I would be very careful about being the kind of Christians that “don’t do Santa ” it could destroy months of patient evangelism. I will tell you for why.

    Imagine you are an unbeliever. Imagine you don’t like Christmas much. It’s a time of spending more than you have (or feeling rotten for not being able to afford anything your kids want) , seeing family you don’t get on with, either steering them away from the booze or negotiating awkward silences and the ONLY SMEGGING THING that makes it bearable is the sparkle in you kid’s eyes as they shout “he’s been daddy, he’s been!!” On Christmas morning. And someone from the local God -squad goes around telling your kids there’s no Santa, then you’d be kinda likely to tell them exactly where they can stick their saviour.

    Kids indulge in a lot of make believe and fantasy when they are young but as they get older they learn the difference between fantasy and reality and as Christian parents we can help them realize that Jesus belongs in the “reality ” zone and the myths surrounding St Nicholas as “fantasy “. Kids won’t see us telling them about Santa as lying, by that stage they will realize that we were merely joining in the make-believe. Lie about real stuff (e.g. promising you’ll be at the nativity play and then not turning up) and they’ll have a hard time believing you about Jesus as well.

    Excellent blog as usual.

    P.S. Of course Santa is real.

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