It is not uncommon for parents of young children to wonder whether and what they should tell their children about Santa Claus. For those who have received this tradition and doubt the propriety of passing it on, the most important question concerns whether telling children Santa Claus is real — i.e., the “Santa Claus Myth” (SCM) — is morally permissible.
Is it not lying to tell children something patently false so they will believe it? One’s answer to this question cannot be separated from how one regards analogous situations of untruth. Is it permissible: 1) to lie to a Nazi? 2) to say a hideous hairdo looks fine? or 3) to mislead your spouse temporarily so as not to ruin the surprise party tomorrow, at which point the truth and the reason for the untruth will become apparent?
Right or wrong, almost everyone would be willing to say something untrue in at least one of those scenarios. So let us grant that perpetuating the SCM is analogous to the third lie above and that, legitimate objections notwithstanding, such an untruth, which will end in truth-telling, is morally permissible in this case.
Is the Santa Claus Myth Beneficial?
Given that promoting the SCM may be strictly permissible, the second question, then, is whether preserving the SCM is beneficial. In my judgment, the answer depends in part on whether children come to appreciate the temporary nature of the untruth and the reason for it (as illustrated in the third lie above), and, furthermore, if they can distinguish this rationale from other forms of deception that do not end in truth-telling.
What will these same children, whose parents have repeatedly and for many years told them something false about reality, come to think about God and other unseen Christian principles about which their parents have also taught them? Is God just another Santa Claus about whom children should anticipate learning the true story someday?
There should be no danger, for there is really no parity between Christian faith and Santa Claus. Santa Claus intrudes into most children’s lives about two or three days per year — the sighting at the mall, Christmas Eve, and Christmas morning. Children who are raised in devout homes and finally hear the inconsequential truth about Santa Claus could not justly accuse their parents of “living a lie.”
The potential problem I see would occur when a relatively weak emphasis on Christian faith and practice in the family is combined with what I would call the strong version of the SCM, a combination of traits that obtains in an increasing number of American “Christian” households. This could send a mixed message to children.
In the strong SCM, the nature and attributes of Santa Claus approach those of the divine nature. He certainly shares in God’s moral attributes of holiness and justice. He is good and omnibenevolent, rewarding the righteous and withholding gifts from the wicked.
Moreover, in the strong Santa Claus Myth, Santa seems to participate, perhaps in a limited way, in essential divine properties normally not granted to humans. His omnipresence is demonstrated in his ability to be in every mall in the United States and Canada, as well as make all his deliveries to each house in one night. His omnipotence is evident in his supernatural ability to make reindeer fly, carry millions of toys, and effortlessly squeeze them down chimneys.
Santa is also immortal. According to the classic reply to the 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon in 1897 — throughout which the name “Santa Claus” could easily be replaced with “God” — Santa “lives, and he lives forever.” He is omniscient: “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.” The Santa of the strong SCM has much in common with popular notions of God.
Santa Is a Secular, Surrogate Christ
Although it remains a mystery not carefully probed, the strong SCM depicts a Santa Claus who is somehow human and somehow divine. Indeed, he surpasses other characters in the American superhero mythological canon in resembling a Christ figure, set in an Adoptionist mode. In the best versions of the SCM, Santa Claus himself is a gift from God for whom we give thanks.
But when one considers the most sentimental portrayals of the SCM in American culture and film, Santa Claus has become a replacement for Christ in what has publicly become a Christ-less “winter break” holiday. The baby Jesus should have grown to be not the crucified God-man, but a nice old grandpa. Santa is an anthropomorphized, sanitized, Americanized version of God, an embodiment of the religious and moral conscience of a secular and immoral society.
Santa is the culture’s innocuous, annual reminder of unmerited favor from above and a moral code that just may have some bearing on us, if not for the greed and materialism he also enables. As a nice and friendly surrogate Christ, the Santa Claus of the strong Santa Claus Myth, unwittingly and through no fault of his own, has become an anti-Christ.
That conclusion may seem a bit harsh, but what leads to the conclusion is not unrelated to the original question about whether this myth is beneficial. Even in devout Christian family settings, the differences between the God revealed in scripture and the Santa revealed by parents may become blurry, with parents being the source of the confusion. Some well-meaning parents go to great lengths of untruth to reinforce the strong SCM, say, by setting reindeer feed outside the house and making sure it is “eaten” and trampled by morning, or by sprinkling footprints of magic dust inside the house.
In such a household, on a more subtle level, the parental warning that Santa will not be pleased with misbehavior — which undoubtedly has more force the closer one comes to Christmas Day — must, after a child has found out the truth, become a warning instead about God’s displeasure. If Santa Claus becomes a useful tool for keeping children submissive, is God just Santa for adults? After all, according to the classic atheist line, priests and kings supposedly invented God to keep the masses submissive to their rules.
In a family that combines strong Christian faith with a weak Santa Claus Myth, parents unnecessarily instill a spark of doubt into a relationship of trust in which children otherwise take testimony at face value. The stronger the reinforcement of the SCM and the longer the deception, the greater the chance of disillusionment and doubt about important matters.
Even if we adults never explicitly connect Santa with Jesus, children make the connection. A friend of mine was stunned when, after he revealed the truth about Santa Claus to his child, the child responded, “But Jesus is real, right?” The child clearly linked the two concepts and sought reassurance.
Tell Kids About the Real Santa Claus
In light of these concerns, I recommend something similar to how I handled this issue with my children — at least as I recall it — only better, to parents who share my concerns. As with so many other aspects of parenting, I didn’t begin with any worry about, much less with any systematic answer to, the issue of continuing the myth. I supposed I would raise my children with the same SCM I heard, breaking the news to them later.
But when my oldest child was 2 or 3 years old, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect of saying something untrue about Santa Claus. To ease my conscience, although I would go along with references to Santa and even leave out cookies on Christmas Eve, I did not add to whatever legends he picked up elsewhere, and I did not insist on beliefs such as Santa Claus living in the North Pole. So I had “the talk” with him when he was about 6, but he had nearly concluded the truth already. As it goes with children, it would not be long until his younger brother and sister knew the truth, too.
By the time my oldest was about 7 or 8 years old, I finally came around to my solution, which seems simple and straightforward upon reflection: Tell the kids about the real Santa Claus, Nicholas of Myra (270–343). The historical St. Nicholas was bishop of Myra (present-day Turkey) and well known for his kindness and generosity toward needy children. According to later accounts, he also attended the Council of Nicaea (325), where he became so angry with Arius and his heretical teachings, he struck Arius in the face, for which the council reprimanded him.
To make a long story short, over the centuries, St. Nicholas was venerated by Eastern and Western churches alike throughout the medieval period. Even after the Protestant Reformation, the Dutch continued to revere “Sint Nicolaas,” whose name corrupted over time to “Sinterklaas.” To this day, Sinterklaas’ attire is ecclesiastical, that of a bishop. Over time, Sinterklaas morphed into the English “Santa Claus.”
At first, I enjoyed telling my children about Nicholas of Myra the same way I enjoyed telling my church history students about him. Gradually it occurred to me that this is not just a historical curiosity but the proper response to the problem, one that requires no ambiguous untruth and that could actually lead to discussing distinctively Christian truths.
Use Nicholas of Myra to Point to the Messiah
Thus the original question — Is it beneficial to perpetuate the SCM? — is easily answered. To perpetuate the SCM, even if permissible, is not beneficial. In fact, if one feels uncomfortable with the deception and is asking the question in the first place, the discomfort itself is not insignificant. One should be uncomfortable with telling an extended untruth for the sake of amusement only.
Tell kids the American Santa Claus is pretend. Santa Claus is (loosely) based on the persona of Nicholas of Myra. When people dress up like Santa Claus and when we pretend Santa Claus is giving gifts or we can see Rudolph’s nose in the sky, we are practicing the joy and kindness and generosity of Nicholas, the real Santa Claus.
It is also appropriate to show them Nicholas was a devout defender of the truth about Jesus Christ, even if he lost his temper in the heat of debate. What stirred the generosity of the anti-Arian Nicholas to minister to “the least of these” was the truth that Christmas is meant to celebrate, namely, that the true God became a true human and, as a result, made it possible for every human to participate in the divine nature and to be the object of unconditional love.
Therefore, what has become a secular symbol of greed and pop sentimentality — probably the worst possible way to celebrate Jesus’ birth — can, with a little historical perspective, be reinvested with meaning that points to the true Messiah. Nicholas was not a perfect man, much less a Christ figure, but he was a man whose life was filled with Christlike qualities worth passing on.
For Christians and their children who do not know their history and live in an environment that thinks of Christmas primarily in terms of a secular holiday, this is a truth worth telling. This practice allows parents and children alike to pretend along with everyone else, but to do so with clear eyes, honesty, and greater love for Christ and appreciation for the saints who have gone before us.