What is this idea that Santa Claus somehow detracts from celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ? I grew up in a Christian household that loved Santa and, as pretty much anyone who knows me or follows me on Twitter can attest, I still really like Jesus. Believing in Santa Claus and loving Jesus are hardly mutually exclusive.
Let’s take each in turn.
Is Santa creepy? This is a purely secular argument, but I’ve heard Christians use it, so I thought it was worth addressing. Usually this argument refers to a mall Santa, parents recoiling at the idea of putting their child on the lap of a stranger to get a photo. One has to wonder exactly why people think he’s creepy, though. Santa Claus is an embodiment of goodness, of innocent joy. It takes a hypersexualized and suspicious culture to assume that the elderly man at the mall is secretly a pervert. Has there been a rash of mall Santas gone wild that I somehow missed? I’m pretty sure there hasn’t.
If the Santa at your mall is skeevy, or if the whole thing gives you the skeeves, skip it. Don’t get a picture. That doesn’t mean you have to skip the legend of Santa Claus entirely, though, does it? He is a whole lot more than a guy from whom you request gifts at your local mall. Mall Santa can easily be removed from the Santa equation. Embrace those parts of Santa that remain, if you prefer: the magic and the goodness.
Next up is the idea that Santa Claus is a secular being who will detract from Jesus at Christmas like a false idol. I can understand arguments against traditions rooted in paganism (although I still love my Christmas tree), but that simply does not apply to Santa Claus. He is not secular. This argument doesn’t stand up against even the most minor of scrutiny.
The name “Santa Claus” is a derivative of Saint Nicholas, making it perfectly simple to connect his story back to the birth of Christ. Saint Nicholas tended to the sick and needy and, the story goes, he sometimes did this by sneaking gifts into homes at night. After his death, stories of his gift-giving spread, and that has turned into today’s stories of Santa Claus.
Yes, the image of Santa Claus now permeates popular secular culture, but that does not make him a secular figure. He doesn’t lose his religious background simply because some people are unaware of or ignore it. If anything, it gives us an opportunity to introduce the work of Saint Nicholas through an already familiar figure. I call that a win.
The story of Saint Nicholas gives us a chance to talk to children about the ways that we can do the work of Christ on Earth, that giving is more important than receiving, and that we do these things to glorify Jesus, whose birth we are celebrating. It all ties together perfectly, and keeps Christ central to the story. If Santa Claus is a false idol, then you’re not telling the story right.
Finally, there is the question of whether or not teaching one’s children about Santa Claus will somehow lead to a lapse in faith when they find out that he does not, in fact, shimmy down the chimney every Christmas Eve. To this, my answer is an emphatic no, unless the religious education you are giving your children is very much lacking.
No, Santa Claus is not a living person who flies around the world in one night, leaving presents and nibbling on cookies as he goes. He is, however, the embodiment of Saint Nicholas, and shows that his spirit is alive in us helping others, as he did, to serve Christ. Parts of the legend of Santa Claus aren’t real, but they came from the true story of Saint Nicholas, who lived and walked the earth just as Jesus did.
Finally, faith gets tested. Any faith. It just does. This is an early, easy test for your kids. They will come to discover that parts of the Santa Claus legend aren’t true but, when a child is disillusioned by a hero or a supposition is overturned, we don’t say “well, there goes their faith in God.” This argument seems to be unique to Santa Claus. In fact, these are opportunities to strengthen their faith in Jesus, to show them that we keep on believing in Jesus even when we are tested. Little things may change, but the big things remain the same in Christ.
In short, if you think Santa Claus is a threat to Jesus Christ, your kids need to know more about the latter.
Santa Claus is the embodiment of the spirit of Christmas, based on the life of an actual saint. This teaches kids that it is better to give than to receive, and that we are blessed when we give in the name of Christ. Sprinkle a little magic on top, and you stir a child’s imagination, which just might make them want to learn more about the saints, Jesus, and miracles. Let them embrace that magic, let them love Santa Claus.
If you choose not to have Santa as part of your Christmas celebrations, that’s up to you, but there should not be any religious barrier to including him. If you choose not to include Santa, I hope you teach your kids not to spoil the magic for others. For me and mine, we remain on Team Santa, which in no way threatens our loyalty to Team Jesus.
This post previously published December of 2014