Lying about Santa?

by Richard on December 16, 2010

Many Christians are apt to be just a little bit churlish when it comes to Christmas. I sometimes get a sense that Christians are resentful that “our” festival has been stolen, taken over by revellers who are happy to sing carols and watch a school nativity play but will give little or no thought to the gospel for the rest of the year. Jesus is for life, not just for Christmas. We have a particular problem with Father Christmas (or Santa Claus, if you must). Never a year goes by without some story in the news of a conflict between the church and one of her most widely celebrated saints. Here’s one from a year or two ago. I have spoken to many Christians over the years who have tied themselves up in knots over whether to allow their children to enjoy this particular bit of fairytale. Here’s Josh Claybourn having an anti-Santa moment

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For good measure, we even celebrate Santa and one of the most significant Godly holidays on the same day. Is it any wonder that a child’s perception of God can often get tangled up in the mythical character of Mr. Claus? For Christians this poses an obvious problem. Children are taught to believe in both, and when the non-existence of Santa becomes a reality in adolescence, God will likewise get scrutinized. The blatant lying to children about a figure they already associate with God cannot yield beneficial results. Anecdotally, I know of a number of folks who resent their parents lying to them about Santa, and if they lied about Santa, the belief is that they lied about God, too. I am of the very un-festive opinion that lying to your children about anything is bound to have negative consequences, but particularly when it involves a figure like Santa.

We should stick to what Christmas is all about. Like Dickens’ Gradgrind, we should confine ourselves to the facts. “Bah, humbug!” (to change my Dickensian reference) to the rest. Attitudes like this are a terrible shame, or so they seem to me. Children are creatures of wonder and imagination, both qualities which can nurture faith in the Living God. They thrive on storytelling and their world is naturally full of what we adults, poverty-stricken by reason, regard as naive personifications. One morning on our walk up to school, my then 6 year old daughter asked me: “Daddy, why does Jack Frost come?” Should I have scotched this bit of her mythology fearing for the development of her scientific mind? After all, she had already decided she wants to be a doctor. Perhaps I should have explained that frost is spicules of ice which form on solid surfaces when they are chilled below the deposition point. It is never too early to start thinking about physics! But I confess, I simply said that Jack Frost comes when it is cold. That seemed to do. Likewise with Father Christmas. He has a place in our family storytelling, part of the mythology we share. To suggest that this amounts to lying to our children is as ludicrous as the notion that the ‘facts’ of the Nativity can be easily and plainly stated. I was reminded recently that ‘gospel’ was, in Old English, ‘godspel’ and, though I am sure that this is etymologically unsound, I am taken with the idea that the incarnation of Jesus is “God’s spell” — a moment so wondrous that it takes imagination, not reason, to apprehend it. Of course I’m not here arguing for abandoning the achievements of the Enlightenment, for discarding reason entirely in favour of mythology and superstition. But perhaps Christians before all others should recognize that stories, imagination and wonder are a vital part of our lives. Let’s not deprive our children of them too readily.

This a reblog, so the articles linked to are old. But they still work.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Friday Question: Should Christians tell their children that Father Christmas (Satan Claus) is not real? | eChurch Christian Blog
12.17.10 at 10:39 am
Lying, Santa Claus, Children, and Christmas | Professor Obvious
12.25.10 at 7:26 am

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Allan R. Bevere 12.16.10 at 8:23 pm

Thanks for this post, Richard.

I’m one of those persons who gets conflicted at this time of the year. On the one hand, Christmas represents to me a kind of civil religion which I think all Christians have a stake in denying. On the other hand, it is truly an uplifting time of the year and I do not want to tell anyone they have no right to celebrate regardless of their religious convictions or the lack thereof. It seems to be a time when everyone can enjoy something in common.

As far as the Santa Claus/Father Christmas thing goes, I think it would be interesting to reflect a little upon all those adults who grew up believing in that “jolly old elf” (I do not know if Father Christmas is of the elf species) and other such Christmas mythology, whose celebrations have been enriched as adults because of the mythology they believed as children, but still has meaning even though they no longer “literally” believe. I’m rambling here somewhat, but I hope I have made my point.

And, yes, we too quickly forget that stories, imagination, and wonder are an important part of life and faith. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis who said that the biggest problem with modern theologians was that their theologizing lacked imagination.

2

Will Grady 12.16.10 at 8:29 pm

Brilliant, Richard, thanks for posting this. I admit to some mild conflicting feelings about teaching my daughter about Father Christmas (we have chosen to go with this name rather than the American ‘Santa Claus’), but have so far proceeded with the same mythology I grew up with and loved. I think what you write here explains what happened to me - I grew up with a belief in God and in Santa Claus, but never once thought my parents lied to me.

3

Michael 12.16.10 at 9:15 pm

We tell the “Night Before Christmas” bit in our home but we approach it as myth and not reality, as my parents had. In regard to children and narrative, I would be apt to say there is plenty of wonderful narrative in scripture regarding Christmas, and other times for that matter, that there is no NEED to bring in myth around the holiday.

4

Kim 12.16.10 at 9:55 pm

Here is Robert Jenson, perhaps America’s greatest living theologian, in conversation with his eight-year-old grandaughter Solveig:

Solveig: When people thought of Santa Claus - the idea of Santa Claus is very much like God …
Poppi: No. It’s not.
S: Sort of. He’s just very jolly and …
P: Well, you see, there are two things about Santa Claus. Sinter Klas is Dutch for St. Nicholas. And there really was a St. Nicholas. He was a bishop who became famous for giving people things.
S: Right. But all the same …
P: He is a little bit like God …
S: Very much like God.

[Robert W. Jenson and Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), p. 28.]

Certainly a lot more like God than some twisted images of the deity that far too many Christians seem to hold. Like the one who goes around slaughtering “ites” because they’re idolators. Christmas tells me that God is generous and kind - and kind of jolly.

5

Allan R. Bevere 12.16.10 at 10:05 pm

Excellent, Kim! Thanks!

6

Vashti Winterburg 12.22.10 at 5:50 am

My own church has for years celebrated St. Nicholas on the Sunday closest to his saint’s day on Dec. 6th. Someone dresses up as the Turkish bishop that he was and gives a presentation in place of the sermon telling the saint’s story.
All the children, and any adult who wants to join in, leaves his or her shoes in the library before the service. We then fill the shoes with candy canes for his crosier, chocolate gold foil covered coins for the dowries he gave, oranges which Myra, Turkey was known for, and peanuts in bags in the shells (because they’re cheaper than the almonds that Myra was also known for and easier to open than almonds) and additional foil covered candies. Sometimes we have wrapped cookies in the shape of a bishop’s miter. The filled shoes are always a big hit.
This is an excellent way to honor and tell the truth about a real saint and provide a countervailing alternative to our current Santa Claus mythology. It’s also great fun. It’s also reassuring to see how much pleasure children can receive from pretty simple gifts.
Vashti Winterburg
Lawrence, Kansas

7

John Hartley 12.23.10 at 10:30 am

One day it would be nice to have some proper reporting of whether any scientific studies have ever been done to test the hypothesis, and not simply posts which says “it feels to me as if … is a good/bad idea”.

Many years ago I remember a pastor saying: “I once heard the story of a woman who had fallen down a well which had been left uncovered, and this terrible accident had led directly to her conversion. I praise God for her conversion, but surely no-one would advocate leaving the covers off wells as an evangelistic strategy.”

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