My wife and I decided a while ago that we would not perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus in our family. Feel free to start judging us now as crazy Christians who yell about the “war-on-Christmas,” yet long before I was a Christian, back when I still considered myself an atheist, I found this cultural tradition of lying to our children about an old man who comes down our chimneys strange.
Forever vivid in my head, right down to the inflection in her voice and her angry little face, is the memory of when we broke the news to my younger sister that the big guy with the white beard was all make-believe: “You lied to me!” It was part incredulous question and part harsh condemnation.
Now, to be perfectly transparent, it’s not just that my wife and I think that this culturally permissible fabrication is a bit weird, but that it could also be potentially damaging to our children’s faith in God. I remember wrestling with the idea of Santa Claus as an elementary school student. How did Santa deliver all those gifts in just one night – even taking into account time zones? Why did my mom lock herself in her bedroom to wrap gifts for so long and then in the morning only one gift under the tree was from her and my dad? Something odd was afoot.
One of the reasons I continued to believe was I couldn’t comprehend why my parents would lie about such a thing to me.
It’s not difficult to imagine the train-of-thought from there: If my parents would lie to me about some silly guy bringing me gifts (or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth-fairy or – the most diabolical! – the Elf-on-the-Shelf) maybe this whole God thing is a big, fake story too. I can’t say the Santa Claus myth had any direct connection to my skepticism about Christ, but sometime in middle school I found myself questioning the truth of the Bible like I did the truth of Santa years before. Having no one to answer my questions, my hard agnosticism lasted into my thirties.
This Christmas season is the first year our five-year-old son is talking a lot about Santa Claus. So, I did it. I said, “Well, you know, Santa isn’t real…” I said it’s okay to like Santa, the same way you like Batman, but it’s mommy and daddy who give you gifts on Christmas. He thought about it but didn’t have much to say at that moment, but he still talks about Santa daily. And perhaps my wife and I have been overdoing it a bit because one time when he brought up St. Nick and I reminded him he isn’t real, he responded with a tone I’ve only heard teenagers use: “I know, daddy.” I wasn’t looking at him because I was driving, but I think he might’ve even rolled his eyes.
But, the thing is, after the first time I told him that Santa is fiction, I suddenly realized I had totally overlooked something important: I, then, adamantly made clear that he wasn’t to tell other kids this. It was okay for them to believe in Santa. Five-year-olds aren’t known for keeping secrets, and I suddenly pictured my kid ruining Christmas for tons of his friends and their parents hating me forever.
Yet, I haven’t had to worry about this, not because my son is the model of Christ-like obedience to his father, but because my son doesn’t believe me. He sides with his friends. Apparently, they’re having fiery discussions about this. More often than not, after picking him up from daycare, my wife and I are told something like, “Martina says Santa is real” like we’re fools for doubting.
Next to nothing can be known historically about the real St. Nicolas. One popular story among theology nerds (ironically, despite Nicolas’ unchristian behavior) has him slapping the heretic Arius at the council of Nicea. Unlike the real St. Nicolas, we can be quite sure historically about Jesus.
With over 2,600 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, we can be confident the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life have been passed on to us without corruption. Within the New Testament, we find early confessions of faith that predate the writing of the New Testament. Immediately after the writing of the New Testament, we have the witness of the early church fathers. We even have first and early second century non-Christian writings about Jesus. The historical argument for the life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus is a surprisingly strong one. Perhaps I need to explain this all to my five-year-old instead of arguing about Santa Claus.
Maybe it’s too soon for him to grasp historical arguments, but where I have had success is by teaching him little truths about our Christian faith. He can paraphrase Jesus’ “golden rule” (Matt 7:12) and the “two greatest commandments” (Matt 22:36-40), and he can recite John 14:6. My five-year-old can even define the Trinity. I may be losing the battle against Santa, but if nothing else, when I ask my son why we celebrate Christmas, he promptly answers, “Jesus’ birthday.”