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?’
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.
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.
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.
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