Friday, December 23, 2011

The Santa Issue

I’ve actually been thinking about writing this post for a week or so.  A fellow blogger asked me this question when we were at Disney World, and a friend and I had been discussing it while taking our children on a walk a couple weeks ago.  And yet I hesitate.  Why?  Because I have the feeling that the topic has the potential of exploding, in a hornets nest sort of way, no matter how I handle it. 

On the other hand, half the time when I think a topic might turn in that direction it doesn’t... While a post that I feel is perfectly innocent and uncontroversial that explains why I’ve done something, might turn into a fifty comment torrent of less than pleasant conversation.  So maybe I should just stop trying to avoid parenting controversy (the only type I really consciously try to avoid, in other words the “Mommy Wars”), because I never do a particularly good job of it.

The topic is one that I’m sure some of you have pondered and that others probably haven’t given much thought about because the answer for many is so obvious is…. Santa. 

When we got married I was adamant that we would “do” Santa.  Yet as I read more and more accounts online of adults who said they’d fallen away from the faith when they realized that Santa was a lie, and just figured that the whole Christmas story was in the same vein, I found myself pausing to give the issue more thought.  I wanted to disregard it out of hand.  But over the years I’ve read a number of writers that made the same claim. 

Which basically brings up the issue of outright lying.  I make every effort not to lie, in part because I know that it's wrong and I know that if I do, I’ll be headed right back to confession, even if I just got up from kneeling behind that screen 15 minutes ago, and I’ll have to tell someone what I’ve done/said.  Lying, in my mind, is different from many other sins because it pretty much always involves a conscious choice to do something wrong.  I might say something mean without meaning to.  I might say something gossipy, without intending to.  But if I lie, I know what I’m saying isn’t true.  And that is a problem worthy of a pretty immediate trip to the confessional.  The other half is that I want my children to trust what I saw implicitly.   And I absolutely don't want them to think that lying is okay. 

I don't think that telling a story and using our imaginations is the same thing as lying.  But when we're asked outright?  That's when it becomes problematic for me.

Besides that is the fact that Sadie knows what Christmas is.  She’s been talking about Baby Jesus’ birthday for weeks.  She sings happy birthday to him.  She asks if it’s his birthday yet.  We read stories about the Nativity.  She’s pretty much on cloud nine about it.  And so at this point, introducing Santa as “real” in the aspect he’s portrayed in these days, might seem rather confusing.  I’m not even sure how to bring it up as “real” if we wanted to because it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the story.  What would I say: “You know how we’ve been talking about Baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph?  Well there’s also this jolly old man in a red suit…” which, at this stage, seems like it would be kind of confusing.  She's so enthralled with the reality of the Nativity.  I really don't think there's anything that could add to that pure, wonderful joy.  

At the moment we’ve found a sort of balance.  I read the girls the Night Before Christmas pretty frequently, just like we read about princesses and wild animals who talk.  We also talk about the saints and read books about the saints.  I don’t go out of my way to say “this is pretend” and “this is real” but when I’m asked I’ll be honest.  So far, she doesn’t ask. I'll do the same thing if she ever asks me about the Disney princesses or anything else that's pretend.  As a adult who grew from a child with a very active imagination I'd say that something existing only in our imaginations doesn't make it any less wonderful!

We already celebrated Saint Nicholas’ feast day this year with presents in the girls’ shoes outside.  Sadie was thrilled.  We will be doing stockings at Christmas. Sadie's been watching me sew the cupcakes she's been longing for (out of felt) for weeks.  So I imagine she'll have a pretty good idea where they came from.

Despite our decision, when we were somewhere where “Santa” was going to be posing for pictures I asked her if she wanted to see him, and she said “no!!!!” in a terrified voice (apparently she still remembers past visits, which involved outright hysteria…).    She is into the reindeer (I imagine from the book).  We talk about reindeer way more than the big man in red himself. She's made up her own version of "Jingle Bells" that goes:  "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells... Reindeer pull a sleigh!"  

So our game plan, at the moment, is to tell the girl’s stories of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, when we’re asked and say that yes, he is real, he’s a Saint in Heaven with God, no he's not that man with the line in the red suit.  And of course, I’ll certainly also teach them not to ruin the secret for other kids (a concern that usually comes up... and of course, in the same vein, I greatly appreciate it when people who know our decision and our reasoning, respect it, instead of undermining our parenting decisions and confusing our children!  It's a two way street!). 

Sometimes reality is so rich, that it doesn’t necessarily need the addition of a myth.  And when they’re old enough I’m sure they’ll appreciate the stories of Saint Nicholas defending the faith (did you know one story about him is that he punched Arius, author of the Arian heresy, which claims that Christ is not divine, in the nose at a council?), alongside the stories of his generosity.

I totally understand why people “do” Santa (I know we’re in the minority here).  And no, I don’t think it’s inherently damaging (although those stories I read did stick with me and influence us).  Just to preempt the conversation heading that way…

Have any of you taken this route for various reasons?  I know it's a bit odd, but then again, so are a lot of our decisions!

The picture of Bishop Nicholas punching the heretic Arius in the nose is borrowed from the Saint Nicholas Center page.


  1. My fiance and I have been talking about this for a month or so. He was pretty adamant at 'doing' Santa for our future children because of the magic and imagination. I was pretty adamant for the reasons you listed. Now that we are thinking about going to homeschool route, it seems way easier to not do Santa. If they were in school, they would be flooded with Santa stuff all the time and we'd be the 'bad' parents who don't do Santa. Anyways, we came up with a compromise which is that we will teach them about St. Nick and let them know that lots of kids call him Santa, but we will stick with factual St. Nick info, and St. Nick will visit to fill stockings on St. Nicholas day. If they ask, we'll tell them we have a special arrangement with St. Nick that he visits our house that day instead, so that Christmas is saved for Jesus. They will still one day find out that St. Nick is not living and that mom & dad were carrying out the legend/tradition, which bothers me some, but they will still have the magic and excitement that my fiance wants. We are still debating if we will take our kids to see St. Nick at the mall on the first day of Advent before he comes to do stockings. Not sure if I want to take it that far and like you said, make it be about the man in the red suit.

  2. We got the VeggieTales story of St. Nicholas. It's a very good account of the story of St. Nicholas and has a few funny quirks about how the story may have morphed into Santa Claus as we know it. (Like escaping from the soldiers, his chariot hits a bump and goes airborne) Then we simply stated that Santa is Latin for Saint, and Claus is short for Nicholas. But as for reindeer, and the North Pole, and all that- no one knows for sure. (There very well could be some guy at the north pole with all that stuff, I've never been there). But we know there's no such thing as magic, only miracles. And the miracle of Christmas is that a long time ago, a man gave everything he had to show people the love God had for His people and that spirit of giving lives on every Christmas. So when you see a gift from Santa under the tree, you know...

    We figured, they'll keep getting Santa gifts by well meaning people no matter what and I don't want them to see the gifts as based on something not real, when it really is.

    But I also haven't had coffee, so this might have been very rambly and nonsensical.

  3. You totally made sense Megan. I do have a question though. Do people where you are usually give gifts as Santa? I've only lived places where parents did that, so we haven't had that issue. Although admittedly, with our decision I'd likely just tell our girls who the gifts were really from!

  4. Thank-you for answering my questions. I realize it's a controversial topic but I like your morals and was wondering what you do when applying something so commercial and make believe.

    My parents did the same but my mom can't remember quite how they did it since it was so long ago. I remember getting a gift I snuck a peak at before Christmas that was labeled "from Santa". It wasn't that big of a let down. I put two and two together and told myself that Santa was make believe but that it was nice to get extra presents. I didn't tell my parents when I made the realization because I was mercenary enough to not want those extra gifts to disappear. :) My parents never lied to us and I like that you rightfully put the emphasis on Christ, Mary and Joseph.

  5. Although we "did" Santa, we also put a lot of emphasis on St. Nicholas, as that was very much a part of my husband's Eastern European background.

    I think you can't go wrong if the main emphasis is, of course, on Jesus, Mary and Joseph, with the real St. Nicholas thrown in. Not to forget the Wise Men, from where the tradition of gift giving arises.

    Merry and blessed Christmas!


  6. I remember asking about Santa as a kid and my Dad explaining that Santa is a personification of the spirit of giving. he tied it into the Three Wise Men giving gifts and the gift of Jesus coming to save us, and the gift of salvation, and that all this giving is very important and so Santa is real as long as we remember generous giving is something we are to do, and when we give we make Santa real.

    Dad made it make better sense than I do, but I grew up enjoying Santa Claus and it never harmed by faith in God. After all, Santa is a personification of the spirit of giving. Jesus is real.

  7. We didn't "do" Santa. As a matter of fact, my son at three was quite puzzled when someone after the Christmas Eve service (we were Protestant then) asked him if Santa was going to visit his house. I told them to ask him whose birthday tomorrow is, that he had the correct answer to. We did read things like The Night Before Christmas, but the kids knew that was pretend. We had a book by Harold Myra called Santa Are You For Real that told the real story of Saint Nicholas and how that had morphed into the story of Santa. Our kids were told to be very careful with kids who did believe in Santa, and we explained that other parents liked to play a game with their children and pretend that Santa was real. We chose to honor the Saint, and also to celebrate Christmas as Jesus's birthday (and yes, that was while we were still Protestant).

    My daughter and her husband are choosing to do the same thing. Interestingly, he grew up with the Santa myth, as did my husband and I. I think that the danger of Santa goes beyond telling a lie. I think it also sets kids up to think that we get rewarded in this life for good behavior and punished for bad, which rather goes against the idea of suffering sometimes being a profitable thing. There's a strong myth in this country of good people prospering that sometimes makes people really believe that God rewards those people who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,etc. and that people who aren't rewarded like that must not have God's favor. Meanwhile New Testament teaching simply doesn't support that. So, I'm really glad that we didn't do Santa and that our kids realized that sometimes good things come undeserved, and sometimes suffering is undeserved as well, but can have a benefit anyway.

  8. We don't "do" Santa. There are a lot of reasons for that, but really what it comes down to is that I'm not a fan of mixing pretend/make-believe/magic with real life. We're very into imagination and stories and all that, my kids love unicorns and fairies and princesses and Narnia, etc. but my kids know that it is just pretend and make-believe. I do think there is a "danger" in mixing in a child's mind of what is real and what is not-real (causing confusion about God or miracles) and gets into shaky ground as far as lying goes. Plus, it takes away from the real focus on Jesus.
    We do St. Nicholas and celebrated his feast day, but kids *knew* that it was really me putting candy in their shoes and we did it in honor of St. Nicholas who gave money to the poor. They know that a long time ago St. Nicholas (who was a real man) did that, just like now I am the one who actually gives them candy since St. Nick is up in heaven.

    I also feel that my experience as a child around Santa was basically feeling let-down that I never (or rarely) got what I REALLY wanted (after all, I never woke up to a pony outside our back yard. LOL) I don't think it was particularly good for me to believe that there was a guy flying around in a red suit delivering presents, since after all, if this guy is magic and can fly around the world in one night, surely he could deliver exactly what I wanted, right? So, when that didn't happen, it was always a let-down.

    Plus, the presents I got from Santa, never meant nearly as much to me as the presents I got from "someone", even if it wasn't what I wanted, even as a child I could appreciate the fact that someone put thought and effort into the present and got it for me.

    I don't WANT my kids believing that there is a magical guy who flies around the world with reindeer delivering presents. I want them to know that presents came from someone who loves them and that someone had to go out and buy it or make it, spend their money or their time, etc. I feel that makes the present more meaningful. I like my kids to know that this present is from their parents or siblings or grandparents or aunt/uncle or godparents, etc.

    Plus, I feel like the fact that we never did Santa helped my kids understand that some years we have less money and maybe can't afford everything they want for Christmas, and that is okay. I think dealing with the "lean" years would be much harder if my kids believed in a magical guy that could give them whatever they wanted and it would be a lot more stressful (on me) to try to deliver that.

    Maybe it is just my pragmatic, scientific nature, but I don't want my kids thinking something is magic or a miracle when it isn't, so that when they actually do experience or learn about miracles, they can recognize it for what it is.

    Anyway, this is just my opinion. I realize a lot of people do things differently, and I do think as long as you keep the focus on the Nativity all will be well.

  9. We "do" Santa, but like you, I am honest when my kids are old enough to ask about him. The way I see it, small kids are literal thinkers. I think Santa's gifts are a really good way to symbolize God's gift to us. That's why in our home, gifts are not contingent on behavior. We don't threaten that "Santa is watching." God gives us the gift of redemption through His son freely, and Santa offers his gifts freely as well. Just because the children are loved. Both of my oldest kids came to a gradual realization about the nature of Santa. There was no awful moment when I became a "liar." They understood that it was fun and magical when they were little, but that over time the concept morphed from a literal one to a more spiritual one. They understood why the concept was so concrete when they were little, and really enjoyed participating in the fun for their younger siblings as they aged.

    It's the same as the "where do babies come from" question. At three, you tell kids they are a gift from God, which is true on one level, but not exactly an accurate answer. Later on, you add the details, which may or may not be kind of upsetting for kids. Do the kids call you a "liar" when they learn about intercourse and ovulation because at one time you gave them a highly incomplete answer about the origin of new life? Of course not. Do they start to believe that God has nothing to do with new life? I don't think so.

    You should read this. I think it's beautiful...

  10. I forgot a giant part of the story. (See the whole non-coffee thing) This is only our third Christmas with them, and they are 15 and 8. We adopted them out of foster care. The foster family did ALL gifts from just Santa. See they had four foster kids and two biological kids and each set of foster grandparents had several foster kids. They would get gifts from charities, the agency, neighbors, hopefully from the birth family, and of course the foster family. Rather than make hard feelings of who got what from whom (or worse yet, why some of the kids would get presents from their birth family and others wouldn't)it was just from Santa. We didn't want to say that they were lying and there is no Santa, but we did explain the situation so they understood why suddenly Santa didn't leave as many gifts. (They get 3 from him, same as Jesus got from the Wise Men)

    Does that make more sense now?

  11. Oh that totally makes sense! Yeah, there's no way I'd be going this route if they already had preconceived ideas about Christmas and Santa! It really just kind of turned out this way, and I've only really started thinking about it this year!

  12. I didn't want to "do" Santa when our first daughter was born, but family were pushy about it and my husband went along with it. I was scared to death of Santa as a kid and it freaked me out that someone was not only watching me, but was also going to sneak into our house while we were sleeping. When you think about it, Santa is really a creepy character who seems an awful lot like a stalker. I emphasize that "Santa" comes from St. Nick and I don't do much to promote Santa. I refuse to give him credit for all the shopping and wrapping I do for Christmas so the kids typically get two gifts with Santa's name on the tag and a stocking. Everything else is from my husband and I. My ten year old knows that Santa is make believe but she doesn't ruin it for her six year old sister to believes. The six year old does make comments from time to time that she knows that St. Nicholas is dead and that he is where "Santa" comes from.

  13. Jacob moved into our house when he was 8, so he already had his ideas about "Santa." We are trying to slowly faze him out of the Santa focus (less gifts from Santa each year and more emphasis on Christ).

    We haven't exactly decided how we will handle it as we have more children (those decisions also need to be made about Halloween, Easter etc.)

    Right now we are leaning more towards the story of Saint Nicholas. I don't think Santa automatically ruins a child's faith, but at the present, I don't see any compelling reason to introduce Santa to my future children. Christmas is already so rich without him.

    I should also add that from the time I was small, my (Italian) family would go to a La Befana party at the Italian American Society in our town. I guess La Befana is typically celebrated on the Epiphany, but she was always explained to me as "the Italian Santa" so I don't think I ever had much trouble recognizing Santa as make believe, even from the time I was small.

  14. Your timing on this is great! I had seen a few other posts on this topic, but neglected to speak up. Tonight, while driving home from the store, I realized that I was going to have to wrap those 'Santa' gifts. My children are 8 (girl) ten (boy with Asperger's) and they have always 'done' Santa. A few years ago I wanted to tell them; my son was asking vague questions and hinting that he may not really buy all this stuff. However, my husband, a former actor, said no. He wanted to 'keep the magic alive.' As I am drawn more and more into my faith; I am learning two (more, actually) things: I need to follow my husband's lead and I need to focus more on the Lord. Unfortunately, right now they seem contradictory. I've never outright lied to my children. BUT (and this is a big one), I won a photograph of Santa's boots coming out of our chimney. Now the children think they have definitive proof that he exists. No matter how many times we watch the VeggieTales version; no matter how many books and discussions we have on St. Nicholas, they are steadfast in their belief. I don't want to go against my husband, but I still feel like I'm lying to them by the very nature of my participation in the myth. I have no idea what to do about this one. I know my daughter will be crushed; and I will feel like the heel that did it to her.

    Have a Blessed Christmas, Cam; and thanks for the headband!

  15. That is a tough situation Heather! At eight I was pretty much clinging to the belief too. Some of my friends were already proclaiming that they didn't believe and I kind of knew, but really didn't want it to be true. I wonder if that happens a lot at around that time (I'd kind of think that it might!).

  16. My family "did" Santa. In fact, I still get presents from "him". My husband's family "did" Santa's stocking, along with a family present from him. When my husband came home from (Catholic) school when he was about 8, crying because he thought Santa hated him because he didn't get gifts from him on St. Nick's Day, they started that tradition too.

    We've gotten into a few heated debates about it, and have set a few ground rules. We will celebrate St. Nick's Day, without fail, telling the story of St. Nicholas. We will also celebrate Santa, who we call St. Nick as well. However, he will only give one family gift, stockings, and 3 presents (symbolizing the three wisemen). The family present, along with the three others, will never outshine the gifts we give, and we hope to keep each of the three presents under $10. (Oh, and parents get presents and stockings too- its a way for me to give my husband things, like socks, without him throwing a fit!) I know it might sound bad, but I don't want Santa to get all the credit for our hard work! The only snag we run into is that our family likes to spoil each other and everyone gets gifts left from Santa at their house for others. This means that we get "visited" 20 times between St. Nick's Day and Christmas, not including his stop at our house! Luckily, he likes to give books, nuts, fruit, and necessities like socks. ;-)

    It is really outrageous though. I don't know how to decline presents for my son gracefully without hurting feelings, because to them, it is tradition. Any ideas?

  17. We kindof do what you do. I grew up with Santa but, well, it didn't go over well when I learned the truth. It didn't hurt my faith in God or Catholicism, but it hurt my self-esteem that I was "so gullible" for so long. I have other issues with my childhood and in relation to my mom - she made me feel stupid in many things, but that didn't help, so I knew I wasn't going there with my kids. I'm not saying it is wrong to do Santa. I think it can be done well in some families. I also think it can be done wrong, like it was for me.

    We treat Santa the way we treat Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. We don't go around denouncing characters as fake when we read books or watch movies, but when someone asks, we tell them the truth. And, I'll tell you, our oldest turns 6 at the end of January and 2 weeks ago she went on an "Is it real?" kick. In the same sitting she asked about the reality of Santa, Mickey Mouse and Elmo. Now, I have never been a good liar. I can keep my mouth shut, but outright saying no when the truth is yes, I don't do well. I don't handle it well either. I've only ever once done it well in my life and, well, let's just say that brother has never tried to pull a prank on me again. :) Cecilia still likes cartoons and songs about Santa, Mickey and Elmo, but the only one she regretted not being "real" was Elmo. I have to admit, a reality with walking furry ticklish monsters sounds fun to me too.

  18. I think you explained your position very nicely. We have had a similar experience. It's not that we hate Santa... it's just that he never really fit in very well. We started focusing on Christ and it seemed forced to stuff in Santa. When the kids are so excited about the true and beautiful... why mess with it? I wrote our perspective a couple years ago here:

    As far as ruining it for other kids... I assure you that this really is only a concern for very small children. My kids have told me many times how their young friends pretend to believe in santa so that they will make their parents happy and continue to get lots of gifts. Especially if kids go to school... it really doesn't last long. In fact, I would make the argument that older than toddler age children WANT to know the truth because (among a number of reasons) no one wants to look like an idiot in a group of other kids who already know.

  19. We do something quite like that.

    I told the kids the story of Santa, mentioning St. Nicholas as the actual original Santa.

    We "pretend play" Santa in that the kids know I'm dressing up, but it' still fun. Then the kids dress up as Santas too. No lying, all the fantasy and fun. Win-win.


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