December 20, 2015
Should Parents Let their Children Believe in Santa Claus?
Dear Dr Craig,
As the Christmas season is upon us, I'd be interested to hear your wisdom regarding Christian families celebrating the Santa Claus tradition. To be more precise, do you think it's consistent with Christian values to pretend that Santa is real?
As a parent of two young children this is particularly relevant to me at the moment. On one hand we recognise that as a Christian family, we always want Jesus to be at the centre of the Christmas celebration. We also highly value telling our children the truth in all things. But I also can see a place for fantasy and make believe and see the fun and joy that this can bring to a family.
While it almost sounds like a trivial issue, living in a post-Christian, highly secularised culture where Santa Claus is almost revered as a sacred childhood tradition, abandoning this tradition could potentially cause quite a lot of friction with our non-Christian family. Then again, it could also have the potential to be a strong witness for the importance of Jesus in our lives.
Thank you for all the work you do serving Christ through your academic work. I hope you can spare the time to address this not-quite-as-apologetically-relevant question.
Merry Christmas to you and the Reasonable Faith team!
I’m glad you’re thinking seriously about this matter, Dan. The decision on the part of Christian parents about what to tell their children about Santa Claus is, I think, potentially very consequential and therefore important. Whatever you decide, your decision needs to be a thoughtful one, not one thoughtlessly taken.
On the one hand, the replacement of Jesus Christ at Christmas by Santa Claus is a sacrilege. Santa Claus is obviously a sort of God-surrogate: an all-seeing person endowed with miraculous powers, who’s making a list and checking it twice in order to find out if you’ve been naughty or nice. “He knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good, for goodness’ sake!” But never fear: Santa Claus is a kindly old man with a long white beard who never judges that someone has been bad. No matter what you’ve done, he thinks you’re good and delivers the presents. Such a caricature of God is so perverse that one wonders how Christian parents could possibly allow their children to believe in such a being. Christmas, as the word suggests, is supposed to be about Christ, not about this imposter.
On the other hand, who wants to be an old Scrooge, spoiling all the fun and dampening the festiveness of Christmas? Poems like “The Night before Christmas” are so much fun to read to your children. Isn’t there some way to reach an accommodation?
I think there is. Saint Nicholas was a historical figure, an early church bishop. We can teach our children about who he was and explain how people like to make-believe that he comes and brings children presents today at Christmas time. Children love to make-believe, and so you can invite them to join in this game of make-believe with you. When you see a Santa at the shopping mall, say, “Look, there’s a man dressed up like Saint Nicholas! People pretend that he is Saint Nicholas. Would you like to tell him what you want for Christmas?”
Jan and I found that this strategy worked well with our children. Moreover, in Belgium, where they were raised, Saint Nicholas Day is actually a day distinct from Christmas, which helps to preserve the integrity and meaning of Christmas. Saint Nicholas (or Père Noël) brings the children presents around December 5, as I recall, not on Christmas morning. This separation of the days worked beautifully for our family. The tradition of opening gifts on Christmas morning was too strong a tradition to give up, but what we did on Saint Nicholas Day was put out Belgian chocolates for the children which we made-believe were delivered by Saint Nicholas. Then Christmas was the day we celebrated Jesus’ birthday. I’d suggest doing the same.
I strongly believe that Christian parents should not lie to their children about the existence of a supernatural, all-knowing being who is watching them and holding them morally accountable. Once they find out that you have lied to them about Santa’s existence, how can doubts not also arise that you have been wrong as well in telling them that God exists? Maybe the whole Christmas story is a myth which thinking adults should outgrow. In fact, I’ve heard ignorant atheists actually comparing God to Santa Claus and saying that there is no more evidence of God’s existence than Santa’s. In lying to your children about Santa Claus, you may be setting them up for fall.
We need therefore to teach our children about the historical credibility of the Gospels and help them to see the stark differences between stories of Santa Claus and the biographies of Jesus of Nazareth. Just as we acquaint them with the historical Saint Nicholas, so we also need to acquaint them with the historical Jesus. In fact, just as we share with them how myths have built up around the historical Saint Nicholas, we can share with them how Christmas myths like the three kings or the drummer boy or Jesus’ being born on December 25 “in the bleak midwinter” have built up round Jesus. They will have a stronger, more durable faith as a result.
There is one caution, however. You should let your children know that many other children actually do believe in Santa Claus, and that it’s not their job to inform them otherwise. That’s between them and their parents. My daughter said that our policy of telling the children Santa is make-believe led to “some interesting conversations” at school with children who said that Père Noël exists. “No, he doesn’t!” Oops! I find it rather ironic that it was our children who were the free-thinkers and sceptics when it came to Santa Claus. Best to tell your children that while we know Santa is a just a fun, make-believe figure, they shouldn’t upset other parents who haven’t been so honest with their children as we have.