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Are you lying to your children about Santa?

We live in a culture that has taken Christ out of Christmas. Our appetite for material goods is insatiable. Our religion, a cult of consumerism. Our dogma, the marketing maxims of slick sales execs that have redefined for us what it means to be “prepared” for Christmas. Rather than prayer, fasting and repentance, we prepare by just buying lots of stuff. And they’ve made Santa Claus the spokesperson.

So it’s no surprise that, as a reaction to all that, some have been tempted to throw Santa Claus right out and get back to the “reason for the season.” Additionally, a lot of people had parents who “did Santa” in a way that left them feeling lied to and now they aren’t quite sure how to pull it off with their own children. But in so many debates on this topic, it seems parents are struggling with a false set of choices: to either 1) lie to their kids about Santa or 2) just lay out the full “truth” about Santa all at once. I believe this is an unfortunate mistake.

First, there is no need to lie to your kids about Santa (in fact, you shouldn’t because lying is bad). Second, we should all believe in Santa. I think the fact that jolly ol’ Saint Nick has gotten roped into helping us celebrate Christmas is a wonderful opportunity we should not waste. Third, regardless of what you decide for your family, don’t beat yourself up about it. If you’re no longer having fun with it and are wondering whether you should lie about it or not, I think you’re asking the wrong question. I hope this essay helps.

So why do we tell our kids about this imaginary man in a sleigh anyway?

Well, I’ll tell you.

First, the story of Santa Claus is a Christian story. Hello! When told properly, it points to and emphasizes Jesus Christ. So, it’s actually one of the (fun) ways to “get back to the reason for the season.” And kids like fun.

Second, therefore, Santa Claus is not the problem. The commercialization of Christmas has victimized him as much as any of us. In fact, I’m pretty sure the real Santa Claus isn’t taking all of this too lightly, either.

Which brings me to my next point, Santa Claus is a real person. So it’s not a lie to say that Santa Claus is real. He has died, yes. But he’s not really dead. He’s alive in heaven, which means he’s more fully alive than any of us.

Santa Claus = Sinter Klaas = Sint Nikolaas = Saint Nicholas. Make it a lesson in linguistics for your kids. Santa means Saint. A Saint is someone who has lived a life of heroic virtue. A life worth mimicking. A life worth observing. A life worth learning from. A life that points to Christ.

Saint Nicholas was a 4th century bishop in the Church. And his spirit of giving and serving the poor is worth remembering by re-enacting (and imagining) his life and then learning from it. More importantly, the reason he served the poor and gave of himself so much is because he served Christ at the center of his life. And he did so with heroic enough virtue that we remember it thousands of years later. We are all called to live lives like that.

The point is that Santa can’t just be somebody we get stuff from.

He’s a kind of model for our life – just like every “Saint.” He’s somebody we can teach our kids to look at and say, “do you see how generous and giving he is? That’s what God calls us to be every day, and especially during this important religious season when we celebrate the greatest gift mankind has ever received, Jesus.”

The giving must be emphasized, not the receiving. But you can’t have one without the other! So the question for our family is, simply, which are we focused on? and therefore, what are our kids learning is most important? The giving…or the receiving?

And it’s okay if your 4 year old gets more excited about Santa than she does about baby Jesus. That probably means you have a healthy 4-year-old who can’t grasp the magnitude and deep theological significance of redemption, eternal salvation and God becoming a man. Even most adults struggle with it. Let’s not waste the opportunity because our kids think a jolly fat man in a red suit who flies around in a sleigh with magical reindeer giving gifts is more exciting than a baby in a manger.

We just have to make sure that as kids get older they continue to learn the depth of the Santa story as they are able. And how that jolly fat man who gives presents is not there to give us presents, but to show us how to give. And he’s not doing so because you’ve been good, he’s doing so because giving is what life is all about. And the most radical way that old Saint Nick lived this out was not with the gift of presents, but with the giving of his entire life to Jesus Christ and the way he lived it in service to Him. And, ultimately, that the greatest and most exciting gift we celebrate on Christmas is not under the tree, but in the manger.

So how do we tell the story without lying?

Personally, I think we should tell the Santa story to our children the same way we tell any great mythical story. Let them get all caught up in it. And then let them learn in time what is true about the story and what isn’t. What is important about the story and what isn’t. And more importantly, help them learn the deeper (and very real) truths contained within it. And along with that, of course, use it to help them understand the infinitely more significant and completely true story of Jesus.

Does that mean your kids might not buy the whole story – hook, line and sinker? Maybe. That’s fine. Let them question. But also let them wonder. A child’s wonder should be kindled to flame, not stamped out with the cold hard “facts” as quickly as possible.

Let them wonder.

Remember, the goal is certainly not to deceive our kids, it’s to tell a great story. Too many parents get this backwards. They get too caught up on trying to make their kids literally believe every bit of it. That’s not the point. And, for me, that can easily become lying, which is never good. Be honest with them, but don’t let the wrong details distract them.

Just look at the book of Genesis. If you read the story of creation and get caught up on whether everything was made in 6 literal days or not, you’re missing the whole point of the story. The writer didn’t feel the need to clarify certain questions of *fact* when telling that story. Does that mean they were lying or intending to deceive? Not at all. They were telling the better story and teaching a more important truth in the process.

I get it.

It’s a legitimate criticism that the story of Santa too often overshadows the story of Jesus. It’s so true. And that must be corrected. Yes, the feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 should be the main time we celebrate Saint Nick. But the fact is that a feature of our culture, whether we like it or not, is that Santa helps us celebrate Christmas. We can co-opt and run with that, or we can opt out and waste a big opportunity. I think the former is what the Church has done repeatedly throughout history with much success.

Let the malls and the advertisements and the chatter and pictures of Santa be like the pages of a great story book come to life and we’re all characters! I think we’ll have more success reminding people of the reason for the season if we joyfully join in the drama rather than opt out.

Do we need more Jesus inserted into the mix? Absolutely. At every turn. And He must remain central to the overall narrative we teach our children during this time of year. But don’t needlessly bail on Santa. If you look close enough, his jolly red suit is a giant red arrow pointing straight to Jesus. We just have to make sure and follow the arrow when it shows up.

We’ve become boring story tellers.

Our modern scientific minds have turned us into impotent story tellers. Telling stories is an art performance, not a repeating of scientifically verifiable facts. There are lots of ways to tell this story without lying to our kids. Again, if your conscience is bothering you about it, then it probably means you should be telling the story a little differently.

I like to think of it this way. When we read a good bed time story, we read it like it’s real because it’s more fun and impactful that way. You learn more and it exercises the imagination. But at the end when your kid asks, “is that really real, Daddy?” the answer is rarely as simple as a yes or no.

Do princesses and castles exist? Yes, honey. Does princess Jasmine? well, no. Or maybe she did exist, but this story is only partially true about her. Or maybe she never existed, but the situations in the story are real. Maybe the scene is made up but the lesson is not. Does magic exist? No, not really. But do some moments in life feel magical? Absolutely. Are super heroes real? Yes, although they may look differently than you think. Dad, does anyone really have special powers? Yes, but not like you are thinking…better ones, that you’ll only realize are better when you’re older and wiser.

You have to be the judge on how much you answer now or allow to be answered in time. When your child asks “Is Santa really real?” a simple yes or no is not sufficient. If they ask, “is Santa really going to come down our chimney tonight?” maybe a good response is “well, what do you think?” or “we’ll have to see in the morning, won’t we!?” If they are getting more persistent, maybe you need to explain a little more, but no need to tell more than you must. Or, again, take the opportunity to ask them what they think and let them ponder it for awhile. Maybe you let them ponder it for years. But it’s still a story worth telling. At some point, when you tell the story to the older ones it’s accompanied by a wink and a nudge. That’s how they know they’re “in” on the secret and that they’ve been recruited to become enthusiastic tellers of the great story along with you.

If you find yourself lying about it, you’re telling the story all wrong. But we must remember that what is “real” in the mind of a child is established in a very abstract way over years of their life. When it comes to their experience of reality, the distinction of precisely what aspects and in what ways those aspects are “real” or “not real” is, first, not a simple black and white answer and, second, something clarified over time — and that’s okay. Our insistence on immediately and forcefully classifying everything neatly as either factually true or a lie is “an impoverished understanding of the nature of language, of thought, and of truth.”

A child’s mind is such a dynamic place – and forming it doesn’t happen in a single moment. With Santa — just as with Genesis and so many other great stories — instead of finding out the full story immediately in one sentence, the full understanding is something that sets in over time as we are ready. That’s the mark of a great story.

It makes for a much more memorable experience when we let Santa eat the cookies and deliver the presents. But kids soon learn that Santa had a few partners along the way to get the job done.

Good myths are the ones we grow in to – not out of.

And if that’s not enough, read why G.K. Chesterton still believes in Santa and this now-classic wondrous response to Virginia.

(Originally published 12.03.2013)

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