Posted by Michael Hayden, 24 Jan 2019
Michael Hayden continues our mini-series reflecting on Christmas in the church with some thoughts about the Santa Claus myth
In the weeks before Christmas, President Trump yet again made the headlines, this time for daring to ask a seven year old child whether they still believe in Santa Claus, before describing such belief at that age as “marginal”. This led to a flurry of news stories condemning President Trump, and seeking to reassure the world’s children that Santa does, in fact exist. Such a story headline is hardly new; there have been several vicars who have made headlines for much the same reason, and this Christian charity who allegedly asked children to smash up a chocolate Santa to show that wasn’t what Christmas was about. And how many parents have experienced the stress of older siblings coming to realise the truth, whilst younger children still believe? This, I think, poses a challenge for us as Christians, and Christian parents in particular: should we join society in teaching children to believe in Santa Claus, or should we join with those who believe they are standing for the truth by quelling the lie?
Well, as a single person, I have no way of knowing where my thoughts on this might stand if/when I might have children, but at the moment I envisage some guiding principles governing my thoughts on the matter. I offer them here for consideration, ideally as part of a larger conversation on the matter.
1. I don’t believe the dichotomy need be as sharp as laid out in my opening paragraph. Uneasiness with the consumerism built around the Santa myth need not result in us feeling the need to go around viciously spoiling the festivities of small children, à la Ebenezer Scrooge. There may be a way of helping our children engage with the Santa myth that doesn’t sell out to the wider culture, in a similar way that they might enter the world of any other fairy story or imagination game. It could well be argued that there is no difference between telling children about Santa, and telling them about Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel, or even reading them a Narnia book. But, I would gently push back, there is one significant difference: teaching children the Santa story results in something quite tangible—presents on Christmas morning. There is more incentive for children to believe in a real Santa than a real Aslan.
This is particularly the case if your family tradition is to say that all the Christmas presents come from Santa. Giving and receiving presents is one way in which we teach children how to love people, but if this is all outsourced to Santa, they don’t have any reason to be grateful, nor any opportunity to give.
2. As Christians we are to be people who love the truth, in reflection of the fact that we belong to the God of truth. No matter how we engage with the Santa culture, we should be seen to be people who love the truth. Therefore, if a child were to ask a direct question as to the existence of Santa, I would find it difficult to give anything other than a direct, honest answer.
3. Our society has allowed Santa to totally replace the Lord Jesus at the heart of Christmas. This is extremely troubling. No matter how we choose to engage with Santa, we should seek to do so in a way that gives all the glory to God alone. There may be a way that we can creatively use the Santa myth to segue into an explanation of the Gospel story–perhaps by way of antithesis between the rampant legalism of Santa and his twice-checked lists, and the radical Gospel of grace. But we should have no truck with anything that in any way detracts from our duty to give glory to God alone.
4. If we are not careful, there is a risk of confusion for children if we seek to tell them both the Santa story and the Gospel story. As Glen Scrivener helpfully draws out, the idea of an invisible man who lives far, far away, whom we invoke when we want nice stuff, but aren’t particularly bothered about the rest of the time, sounds suspiciously like many people’s concept of God- “an invisible St Nick in the sky”. We must do all we can to counter this false view of God. The Santa myth may be helpful if we can creatively use it to, again, provide antithesis to a proper view of God. Or it may be highly unhelpful. But we mustn’t be complacent about this.
5. We shouldn’t neglect the rich story behind the real St Nicholas of Myra. This beautiful story of generosity and service, helpfully told in Annie Kratzsch’s Just Nicholas, seems a much more helpful way of retelling the Gospel story to our children.
So I don’t know how I may end up engaging with the Santa myth in the future. I don’t know whether I’ll conclude that it’s just too unhelpful to teach children, or whether I’ll find some way of doing it that satisfies the governing principles I’ve laid out. But I do know that complacently accepting everything in our culture to do with Santa is not a viable option. In all things, let us be people of the truth who glorify the Lord Jesus above all else. And let us teach our children to do likewise.
Michael Hayden is an ordinand studying at Oak Hill College.
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