It’s the Christmas season. Time for all that tinsel and joy, lights and carols, and… yes, scrooge. It’s that time of year where so many wonder “where is Jesus?” and others see Him in every tradition or celebration. It can be difficult to craft good traditions as a new family, or to salvage other customs in a Christ-honoring way. There’s precept and there’s preference. And everybody, I trust, wants to honor Christ in a meaningful way.

Thinking about some of these things recently prompted me to dig out a post from December 2007. Thought I’d re-post it for those with any interest. Merry Christmas!

Down with Santa Claus

Over the past couple weeks, several people have asked me what I think about children “celebrating” Santa Claus during the Christmas season. Usually the questioner is a parent of a young child with some angst about whether or not they are doing the right thing this time of year.

As is the case with many cultural issues, advocates line up on both sides of the issue. Those who are for the typical Christmas celebrations replete with the big jolly fella and his companions, generally offer the following reasons:

1. “There is nothing wrong with Santa Claus. It’s harmless.”
2. “Children need myth and story like this to exercise or develop their imaginations.”
3. “Children should have fun during the season. They should have something to look forward to.”
4. “It’s part of our tradition (whether family tradition, cultural tradition, etc.).”

Well, for the almost ten years we have been parents, my wife and I have been on the opposing side of this question. We have endured through years of pressure from our parents–the children’s grandparents–to “let them have a Christmas,” meaning a tree, Santa Claus, many gifts and the like. Sometimes it was personal–“You had a Christmas! Why can’t the baby have a Christmas?” And other times it was solidly defiant. “Well, I don’t care what you say. I’m gonna give that baby a Christmas.”

Nevertheless, we weathered the grandparent wrath and we have managed to have quiet, reflective Christmas celebrations without ol’ Saint Nick. And here is why I think Christmas without Santa is a better way to go for Christians.

1. Imagination. The argument that children need the myths of Christmas in order to fuel their imagination has generally baffled me on two counts. First, they don’t seem to need the aid of Father Christmas any other time of the year. Their imaginations are active as they play with dolls, dig in the dirt, imagine themselves to be kings of the realm. For 11 months of the year, the imagination organ works just fine. So, it’s curious to me that they should need an aid in the 12th month. But second, and more important, the argument from imagination seems to me to be an admission that Christian parents may have lost the ability to stand in awe of the most wondrous events in all of history. And if the parents have lost that awe, it’s little wonder that they don’t expect their children to stand amazed at the coming of Christ. I mean Christmas is the time we celebrate the Infinite Creator God, sending His Eternal Son down from eternity into space and time. God entered His creation, indeed, took nine months residence in the womb of a virgin. One fully God and fully man was born, clothed in the likeness of sinful man, lived a perfect life in obedience to the Father, died a scandalous death in love for sinners, and rose from the grave in glory! Imagine that. This is what our children’s minds should be fired with. And it’s all true! In the end, there is nothing as inspiring as the truth about Jesus!

2. Having Fun. A fair number of parents have, almost in panic, expressed concern that should there be no Santa Claus their children would not have fun at Christmas. And children, they say, need to have fun at Christmas. Generally, the “fun” in mind is the passing pleasure of visiting crowded malls, waiting in long lines to sit on Santa’s knees, waiting days and weeks until Christmas morn, and gleefully opening gifts. Only to be bored with it all within a couple days, sometimes hours, after waking to the festival of paper shredding. No doubt Christmas is fun. Even as parents, we get great delight from seeing our children’s faces as they rummage through the boxes and gifts. But the implication here is that Christmas without the trappings, Christmas exclusively focused on the birth of the Savior, is boring. The argument implies that there is no anticipation associated with awaiting the celebration of Jesus’ incarnation.

But that’s surely false where children are instructed in the true meaning of the celebration. My wife and I once had the painful experience of preparing our daughters for “Jesus’ birthday.” My oldest girl, about four at the time, was greatly looking forward to it. The year before we’d had a small neighborhood gathering for the children where we read the Christmas story, baked a cake, discussed the gospel in celebration of Jesus’ birth. She’d had great fun and looked forward to it the following year. The year came around and we decided to spend it with a grandparent, replete with the customary trappings and focus. The day came. So, too, did family and visitors. Presents were opened. Parades paraded. A great dinner eaten. Children played and adults talked. The day came and went. The following morning our daughter asked, “So, when do we celebrate Jesus’ birthday? What day is Christmas this year?” The look of deep disappointment–a look that communicated she felt robbed and ashamed–washed over her face as we told her in our most sympathetic voices, “Sweetie, yesterday was Christmas.” For our daughter, the day had no fun equal to that of focusing on the Savior and celebrating His birth and mission to save sinners. That was our goal, and we’d abandon it. We felt like wearing bags with “World’s Last Spiritual Christian Parents” written on them. Christmas is fun–great fun in the truth–when our children are taught its meaning.

3. “There’s nothing wrong with Santa Claus, etc. It’s part of our tradition.” Sometimes I hear this and think, “My, you doth protest too much.” There’s a palpable admission in the strenuous way this defense is offered. When I’ve had this conversation with folks who’ve taken this defense, it sometimes seems they are troubled by what is perhaps missing in their celebration, but they’re perhaps seeking to comfort themselves. And the statement is sometimes more about the parent’s desires than it is about the needs of children.

But is there anything “wrong” with a Santa-inspired Christmas? There are possibly three things wrong. When we lived in the Washington, D.C. area, there was a lawsuit over Christmas/holiday decorations filed against a local city council. The filers of the suit specifically targeted the town’s use of Santa Claus in the city parade and in other decorations as religious symbolism that violated church and state. The folks filing the suit won. What’s wrong with that picture?

What’s wrong with that picture is that the non-Christians in the suit, and probably many others, thought Santa Claus was somehow connected with the Christian faith. Christ Jesus and the Christian gospel were shrouded in mythology. What may be wrong with Christian participation in holiday myth is that the Truth is lost beneath pagan ideas or light clichés. It’s hard to know “He’s the reason for the season” if the folks who purportedly follow Him don’t publicly and joyously celebrate Him during the season. So, the first possible wrong is that we may miss gospel opportunities with our neighbors and friends.

The second possible wrong is we may indeed be cultural syncretists, blending our faith in the Lord with the celebration of myth and the material festivals of our day. We may raise children who come to find both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ incredulous. For after all, children “grow up.” And if “growing up” involves the putting away of childish things, and we’ve somehow lumped Christ in with childish things, then it’s not surprising that some become “too grown up” or “too intelligent” or “too scientific” to really consider the Lord of glory. Turning the hearts of our children to a myth when the glorious Lord is available to them may be to eventually turn their hearts to worldliness in its 1,000 flavors. That’s what is wrong with good ol’ St. Nick.

A third thing that may be wrong, in many ways associated with the issue above. Is it right and what effects might we expect from raising our children to participate long-term in a lie? I’ve been calling Santa Claus a “myth.” But the other word we could use is “lie” or “deception.” We sometimes put this in the “little white lie” category, the harmless tall tale. But, it seems to me that there people are sometimes so commitment to this “myth” or “lie” that it’s anything but the little white variety. And though children may grow up beyond such fibs (though not without first experiencing the mild trauma and pain of finding out he is not real), what do we teach them about the nature of truth, commitment to and pursuit of it, and ethical behavior with Santa Claus? Is the not so subtle message, “It’s okay to believe a lie when it favors or advantages you in some way.” Or, “It’s okay to tell a lie if we think it will make someone happy.” If our children grow up and apply that reasoning to dating, the workplace, marriages, or most any other area of life the results will be painful and sometimes disastrous. If we do the Santa Claus thing with our children, do we take the time to “back fill” their understanding of the nature of truth and morality? Do we honestly think our children at four, five, etc. are able to comprehend moral nuance? Any parent who has told their child to do one thing, only later to be called on the carpet by that child’s black-and-white observation of the parent’s own failure in that area, knows that nuance is not something children do well. The thing is black or white, true or false. And that should be used to parenting advantage when it comes to raising our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

Our children have grown up to have a wonderful, imagination-engaging, fun Christmas without Santa Claus. And scores of children whose parents make Santa Claus a part of their Christmas celebration have also grown up to have wonderful memories of Christmas and to serve the Lord faithfully. And there are tons of children in both camps that have not had great celebrations.

I’m not arguing a dogmatic causality here. I’m simply asking the question, “Why include Santa Claus at all?” Is the imagined upside of following the culture here worth what we think it’s worth? And are our justifications helping us to point our children to Christ or masking the reality that we may be pointing our children away from Him? Personally, I doubt Santa Claus is worth it, and pointing our kids away from Jesus at Christmas may be the worst form of child neglect I can imagine.