I don’t think I realized until recently that people care very strongly about Santa Claus. Is it lying to tell your children that Santa Claus is real? Is it manipulative? Will you destroy their trust in you when they find out? And how should Christians react? Should they allow Santa to share equal footing with Jesus Christ on such a holy day? If a Christian parent tells their kid that both Santa and Jesus are real, does that mean that the parent’s credibility is shot when an admission is later made that Santa is fake but yes, Jesus is still real?
I’d like to write something in support of those of us who think it’s just fine to tell our kids that Santa and Jesus are both real.
Disclaimer: This is not to convince someone to do things this way, especially if you have another way that works for you. And if you’re not a believer in Jesus and think that there is some irony in wanting to believe in one cultural Christmas icon (Jesus) while calling another (Santa) fake, I don’t expect you to get on board here. I think it’s fair to state that many of us who believe in Jesus do so not because we’ve chosen to keep believing in a Santa-style myth for decades, but rather for a number of complex social, religious, individual, intellectual, and faith-based reasons.
My daughter is only almost four, so I don’t really have much parenting experience when it comes to Santa Claus. I do have lots of childhood experience, though. My parents didn’t allow my oldest sister to believe in Santa because our church at the time was very rigid and legalistic, and Santa is Satan spelled wrong, after all.
My parents have always been on a path from fundamentalism to liberalism, though, and by the time the rest of us came along, Santa was fully integrated into our Christmas lore. On Christmas Eve, we kids left out cookies and milk for Santa and the reindeer, and then we tried our best to get to bed early so that we wouldn’t accidentally scare Santa off. The next morning we rushed downstairs to see a pile of gifts for each of us. It was great.
Meanwhile, we also went to church throughout the holidays and heard lots of “reason for the season” sermons and messages. We played with the nativity set in the living room, participated in Christmas plays, went to a weird/amusing/kitschy living nativity when we were in Florida every other year, and sat through countless candlelight services over the years.
These days, my daughter Ruthie loves Santa Claus. She remembers what he brought her last year—a dollhouse and Spike the dinosaur from My Little Pony—and asked him for a blue Furby when she met him at a Christmas event a few weeks ago.
Of course we let her believe Santa Claus is real. He’s a great big force of positivity in the world. He represents the importance of being good to people and giving to everyone. We also let her believe that Dora and Diego are real. When we go out of our way to help her write a letter to Santa on Christmas Eve or when we put that blue Furby out on Christmas morning, are we creating some sort of false narrative? No more so than when I took her to Disney World and she ate dinner at Cinderella’s castle and met all the princesses! She still talks about how Snow White took her on a tour of the castle and how she joked with Ariel about eating donuts and grapes. I sincerely doubt she’s going to be scarred by the eventual realization that she met actresses in pretty dresses, not the real princesses.
She already know that the characters from her favorite “scary shows”—Doctor Who, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars—are make-believe, so I imagine it won’t be long before she realizes the other ones are, too.
As far as the concern that celebrating Santa somehow pushes Jesus out of the picture, that seems like a bit of an overreaction. Santa Claus is one aspect of Christmas. Jesus is the whole story. Some people are concerned that if you say they’re both real and then later say, “Okay, actually Santa is pretend but Jesus is still real!” then you have somehow undermined your credibility. (If you’re bristling at this because you think believing in Jesus is as absurd as believing in Jesus, please return to the disclaimer up at the beginning.)
That is only possible if you have created a world in which Santa and Jesus are somehow equals. Maybe if you celebrate them both year round, I could see that happening. If you make them both the focus of your study and worship, then I can imagine why there might be problems. Assuming, though, that Santa Claus is a one-season-a-year story and Jesus is something you focus on throughout the year, the emphasis you place on Jesus should pretty drastically overwhelm any emphasis placed on Santa Claus.
Those of us who enjoy the folklore of Santa Claus and the story of Jesus don’t have to choose between one or the other, because celebrating both doesn’t mean equating them.