To Santa or Not To Santa

The most contentious dividing line of the Christmas season — the one between people who want their kids to believe in Santa and people who don’t — runs right through the middle of my house.

My wife is a big supporter of Santa and elves on the shelves and the whole holly jolly menagerie. I love Christmas and always have, but as a parent, I find myself not wanting to go along with the Santa thing.

I always thought that my position on this matter would be a pretty lonely one (and it would be even lonelier if I didn’t give in and go along with my wife). But I’m starting to see that there’s more debate about it than I knew, and there are a lot of people who don’t teach their kids that Santa is real.

At The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway introduces us to a whole bunch of weirdos who never had Santa, including writer Ashley McGuire:

My family grew up without Santa – my parents simply did not want to lie to their children in the name of Christ’s birth. I had a wonderful childhood replete with happy Christmas experiences. I also ruined Santa for a lot of other kids. (sorry) I struggle with this now with a daughter closing in on Santa age. While I sometimes envied the Santa traditions of other families – things like leaving out cookies or listening for reindeer, I’ve realized now that the Christian faith offers many traditions full of excitement and wonder without the lies and disappointment. I’m inclined against Santa as an adult and never really missed him as a child.

And pastor Adrian Sherrill:

A child’s life is learning things aren’t real. All their cartoon heroes become fake. Spiderman, Tooth fairy, Santa, Superman, Easter bunny, whatever. Then our kids bibles depict Jesus, the disciples, Moses, Mary, Adam and Eve in the same cartoonish way. I think it is dangerous and scary, so we just try to be honest with our children. No, we don’t believe in Santa, he is a fake. We do believe in Jesus, He is real.

Over at Acculturated, Erin Vargo suggests that it’s time to retire Santa:

I am not a parent now, but I’m on Facebook, so I understand the story of Santa is still very relevant for many families. I also have a close relative who decided, for religious and ethical reasons, to tell her children at a young age that Santa wasn’t real. “I just don’t like lying to my kids,” she told me. (This has had no discernible impact on the children, in case you’re curious.)

Whether a parent chooses to continue the myth of Santa Claus or not, the question of Santa’s relevancy in our culture is a debate worth having. Times are changing, and it may be time to update our collective understanding of Santa given the increasing influence of pop culture on children.

Santa, in the context of modern wealth, is not only obsolete—his message is out of alignment with our values. Santa has dedicated his life to toy making year-round so that we may have more things. As long as children behave well, they deserve more things. (At least the children whose parents have wealth to begin with.) But American children, by and large, don’t need more things. They need experiences; they need coaching; they need activities in which to participate and develop; but they don’t need things in the age of abundance, as we know it.

And at The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is definitely taking a chance of getting coal and a big ol’ restraining order in his stocking when he says, “Kill Santa“:

Most parents perpetuate the Santa lie simply because their parents did it to them, without reflection. But if you think about it for a few seconds, you realize that it makes no sense.

Let’s go over the reasons.

The first is simple: Lying is wrong. And that should really be the end of it, no? Lying is wrong. It just is. Especially lying to people who you love. Especially lying to people who put their trust in you. Especially people who are young and impressionable and don’t know any better. You can make a case for white lies to protect kids, but just making up an entire story out of whole cloth is unjustifiable. (And lying to manipulate is even worse, which is how many parents use the Santa lie: “Clean your room or Santa won’t come!”)

And indeed, for many children, learning the truth about Santa damages their trust in their parents.

Of course, the reasons to eradicate Santa go well beyond the lying argument. If you are a Christian, as I am, you are really shooting yourself in the foot. “No, the thing about the magic flying fat man, that was just a made-up story, but the thing about the magic bearded Jesus, that part, that’s totally true!” That sounds silly, doesn’t it? Mainstream popular culture works hard enough telling people Christianity is unbelievable; we should not join the chorus ourselves.

Even without Santa, for we Christians, the Christmas story is already the most wondrous, the most joyful, the most profound story we know. What need is there for anything else?

I think these are some compelling opinions, and I’m heartened to see so many people basically agreeing with me. But if you love Santa Claus, take heart — the big guy still has plenty of defenders.

Also at The Week, the Kringlecidal Gobry is counter-punched by Michael Brendan Dougherty:

But I am unpersuaded by the more principled anti-Claus chorus. There is something too flatly literalistic, even Puritanical, about their arguments.

Radical Protestants of an older stripe thought holy days like Christmas were offensive because God is with us every day, and because they hated the “mass” in Christ’s Mass. How this translated in practice was that around the time other people began making merry, the dour low churchman marked the time with especially strenuous sermons against holy days.

Similarly, just as parents are conjuring a model of abundant generosity and joy, today’s killjoys make it a season of rote sermonizing against materialism. This misses the point entirely. A materialist looks under the tree and sees the year’s economic surplus, badly invested. It takes a spiritual person to see it as the work of St. Nick, as a recurrence of the Magi, or an imitation of the great generosity of the God-child born to us. Only the devil wants your Christmas to be just like all the other days.

And back at Acculturated, Brandon McGinley joins the fray on the side of the Claus:

My disappointment in the Santa revelation was not about parental deceit or a crisis of faith: It was about having to accept, once and for all, that the world was a little less enchanted than I had hoped.

But this disappointment does not vitiate the value of believing to begin with; to the contrary, there is value—wisdom, even—in dissatisfaction with this world we’re stuck with. We are told that the mature posture toward our world is materialism and literalism, but too often that “maturity” means nothing more than acquiescence with the status quo. We need more grown-ups who understand and engage with reality but who also maintain that childlike disenchantment that whispers hopefully our ear: “Surely this cannot be all there is. Surely we can do better.”

The Santa legend does more, though, than cultivate a longing for enchantment in young children. It complements the religious significance of the season (while being properly subordinate to it) by making children participants in a story-through-time—the Santa legend that has been passed down through the generations—that implicitly affirms a great truth: The blessings of that first Christmas are not confined to the past, but are alive with all of us today. Sure, we can just tell them that truth; but Santa makes it real in a way perfectly suited to children—hence the tradition.

This is the best pro-Santa argument that I’ve seen: There is magic in the world — wonderful things, things beyond our understanding. And Santa provides a comforting, training-wheels way to introduce kids to that concept.

But there are other stories, other ways to teach kids about love and grace and generosity. None of them require kids to believe things that aren’t true. In spite of all the heartfelt defenses of the tradition, I just can’t get away from what is obviously and fundamentally true: dating back to a time when there was no mass media and opportunities for entertainment were few, the story of Santa Claus provides people with the opportunity to deceive children for their own amusement.

I’m not a hard-line anti-Santa guy yet. Like I said, I will go along with my wife because she loves it so. But I want to lay down a marker here for when the truth comes out: Graham and Campbell, daddy never wanted to lie to you.

What do y’all think out there? Am I making too big a deal out of a charming, harmless holiday tradition? Anybody want to join me in the Santa-free zone? C’mon, you still get presents.

As an addendum, the Gospel-Centered Mom has a really good post that non-murderously covers the downsides of perpetuating the Santa myth. She says it as well as I could hope to.

2 thoughts on “To Santa or Not To Santa”

  1. I am with Rachel (not just because she is my niece) 🙂 I love Santa. I grew up believing in him and I think I am ok (some people might not think so) I didn’t think that Jesus wasn’t real just because I believed in Santa and found out he wasn’t real. I guess I am one of those that think it is ok just because that is how i was raised. 🙂

  2. We never taught our kids about Santa
    Because of the very reason enumerated here,
    But at the same time we have never vilified those who play Santa within their own homes.


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