As this Christmas approaches my children are 4 years, 2 years, and 9 months old. That puts us smack dab in the middle of the question about what to do with Santa.
To Santa or Not to Santa? – A Personal Reflection
If that isn’t a question you are familiar with let me explain: some of us Christians have wrestled with what to do with the figure of Santa when it comes to how we will celebrate Christmas in our households. 1 To be quite honest, how to handle Santa wasn’t a question for me until handful of years back. In the midst of a conversation with a group of relatives about when it was we came realize we had spent our earliest years believing in a figure that… well… we no longer did (trying to put this delicately in the event that some reader’s child climbs onto mom or dad’s computer).
In that conversation one of the relatives noted that after he came to a better understanding about Santa’s existence the first thought that followed was “Have mom and dad deceived me about any other unseen persons?”
That exchanged triggered something like an alarm in my mind. Initially my concern didn’t center on the ramifications on belief in an unseen God or a resurrected Christ who we can’t lay eyes on. No, in that moment, my trouble was whether or not I could stand the thought that my child could ever come to realize that I had intentionally deceived them – even if that deception served to allow them a great deal of pleasure for an extended amount of time.
From there my mind leapt to broader implication (such as I hinted at before). Would my child, realizing I had given wrong instruction about the existence of a mythological figure (for that is just what Santa is for our age) conclude that I had also misled him about the existence of the Christian God (who is spirit and does not have a body like men) or a resurrected and reigning God-Man who had not been seen on the planet earth for approximately 2000 years?
Where I settled is this: whether or not disillusionment about Santa ever led my children to question the true myths (I’m drawing on C.S. Lewis here if that isn’t clear) it seemed inescapable to me that the process of positing Santa to my child then allowing that illusion, as it must, to be dissipated would only, at the very least I should say, serve to – even if only subtly – undermine the credibility of authority in the eyes of my child and this particularly on the existence of the supernatural.
I’m sure you can imagine why I, as a Christian, would find that prospect horrifyingly dangerous to my child. We believe that God is the ultimate authority from whom all other authorities derive and model their own smaller authorities. Be it government or parent, we reflect on a smaller scale God’s own authority. And if God is an authority then authority, at it’s core, must be a good thing. And I, as a lesser authority, must strive to portray the authority I have been given in the life of my child as a good, life-giving, thing. 2
As a matter of fact I trust that my child will have plenty reason to distrust authority arising not only from his (or her) experience of corrupt authority in this world but also from his own rebel heart. This native tendency to distrust authority, which my child will receive from my own heart, leads him away from the good of authority into the danger of further rebellion. I do not want to add to this tendency even one gram. After discussion with my wife the issue was settled: we would not raise our children to believe that Santa was “real” in the sense that we, as their parents, or the roof over their heads, or the law of gravity, or God’s person, was real.
What Do We Do Now?
This conviction actually put us in a greater dilemma – moved from the proverbial frying pan to the fire. You see, my wife and I are the sort who delight in good fancy. If you will allow me to steal from Tolkien, we see myth (really, good story wedded to imagination) as a good thing – lies yes, but “lies breathed through silver.” 3 Thus we don’t naturally land, like Dana Carvey’s Saturday Night Live character The Church Lady, believing Santa to be a deceptive anagram for Satan.
We like for children to enjoy the delight of a delightful story; we want their youngest years to be filled with wonderful naivety and joyous pretend. I would be incredibly reluctant to deprive them of this experience unless I was forced. Would it be more or less evil to take the fun of Santa from my children than it would be to allow the later consequences to them that I mentioned above? Is one somehow less monstrous if you deny a treat before it can be tasted, even before one is allowed to know the treat exists, than one who snatches it away after pleasure has been taken from it?
This of course doesn’t even touch on the societal horrors our decision raised – I nearly have cold sweats when I imagine receiving the news that my child has informed the nursery, or Sunday School class, or 1st Graders that they have all been living a lie. No, that is not the kind of sharing that I want my family to be part of. Could it, however, be avoided?
Then Let Us Pretend – And Allow Others Their Pretend As Well
Eventually a solution settled in on my mind that I find acceptable. 4
You see, my children already delight in playing pretend. As I mention, this is something my wife and I hope to encourage as much as possible. This Halloween came with a real treasure for us – my son received a bag full of costumes from an older boy who had outgrown them. Thus he added to his Buzz Lightyear costume that of Spiderman, Superman, The Flash, and (as crown) Batman! 5 My daughter, in like fashion, has enough tiaras and twirly-dresses to outfit an army of princesses (or, said another way, almost the right amount). It seems entirely natural – at least to the mind of my wife and I – to extend this delight in playing pretend to the season of Christmas and the person of Santa.
Our family has settled in that we will discuss, imagine, and even interact with (in the form of a tray of cookies and milk lain out) Santa in this season. We will do so in the full knowledge that we are doing this in a way just like my son dressing up as Batman or my daughter as Snow White. And, just as they do with Batman and Snow White, my children will delight in the game and put it away to be resumed again, as a game, when the time is right. I pray this will protect them first from the kind of disillusionment that might wound their faith in Christ and second from the harshness of a world already suffering from far too little sweet pretend.
I realize that we have an obligation to those outside our household so we regularly remind our children that it is for the mommies and daddies of our friends to decide how their families will think about Santa and that we talk about him only as a family within our house. This may not avoid the difficulty I have imagined; my daughter’s tongue may slip – the Kindergarten class might be scandalized despite our best efforts. Still I hope nonetheless – in the same way a parent hopes that words heard at home by little ears which were spoken in anger over a smashed finger might not make their way to broadcast outside the home.
Is it enough? Is it right? I can only say that from where I stand it satisfies my wife and I. Time will tell how, if at all, the strategy holds up and wins success. 6
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- Might I also take a moment to note that none of what I will write in my explanation is an indictment or anyone who thinks or practices differently than I? I offer this merely as a record of my thought which serves to illustrate the dilemma. ↩
- This bit is not germane to my discussion here so I mention it in foot-note: if you are unfamiliar with the Christian idea of earthly authority derived from the Heavenly Authority let me encourage you. The reason you have so hated corruption and incompetence in the authorities you have encountered is, at least partially, because you natively sense that they should be better – specifically, they should better reflect the wisdom, integrity, and care found in God’s exercise of authority. ↩
- This phrase, given to Lewis which turned out to be instrumental in his conversion is preserved in Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories which I really do recommend you read. ↩
- Feel free to diagree! This is why blogs have comment sections and why that section on my blog remains open. ↩
- I might should mention that I first came to delight in mythology through the medium of comic books and hope my child will have that opportunity as well. ↩
- I have hit on no solution for the problem of the well-intentioned questions in the vein of “What is Santa bringing you?” or “Did Santa bring you lots of presents?” Currently I think it best to train my child to respond “We have been very blessed” but it smacks of disingenuity to me. If you have a better alternative I would love to hear it. ↩