Dec. 6 is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, not the one who lives at the North Pole, but a fourth-century bishop in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) who achieved sainthood after his death. Saint Nicholas’s great love and generosity have inspired generations across the globe to follow in his footsteps, and yes, he is also the inspiration behind the modern Christmas tradition of Santa Claus.
Though there are many stories of Saint Nicholas’s life, one is particularly noteworthy: when he saved three girls from a destitute future of slavery. At that time, young women needed a dowry in order to marry, and the family of these three girls had no way of raising the funds to secure their future. Before the oldest was to be sold, Saint Nicholas crept to their house while the family slept and left a bag of gold in the young woman’s socks that she left hanging to dry by the fireplace. This money covered the dowry she needed. The next night, the same thing happened for the middle daughter. The father anticipated this secret benefactor would return the next night to help the third daughter, so he stayed up to learn the person’s identity. On the third night, Saint Nicholas returned, and the father spotted him and thanked him profusely. Nicholas instructed the man not to tell anyone and to direct his thanks to God.
Though each culture, country, and family has their own rendition of this tale, at the heart of it is the man who chose to truly embody the message Jesus gave his disciples long ago: “So when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” (Matthew 6:3-4)
What Role Should Santa Play in a Christian Home?
Christian parents today often wrestle with the modern traditions surrounding Santa Claus. While Saint Nicholas embodies the virtues of love, generosity, and care for the poor, Santa Claus seems to bring out selfishness and discontent in our children. Modern-day Santa seems to be the antithesis of his origin story.
In addition, Santa has been equated with Christmas, a season where our focus should be on the blessed Babe born in Bethlehem, not the jolly old gentleman with magical powers.
The list of pitfalls continues. While creating this magical story for children, we are also lying to them which doesn’t sit comfortably. Many parents worry that as their child grows and their critical thinking develops, discovering the truth about Santa will erode their trust in the people that perpetuated that story.
Another challenge is one of equity. Why does Santa, with all the Christmas magic and elf labor at his fingertips, give rich kids Nintendos and poor kids socks and toothbrushes? Many kids who are either poor, in foster care, or whose family simply just had a challenging year are aware of the inequities and have some level of understanding of the reality that different parents have different levels of resources. But when it comes to Santa, why would he treat children with such disparity?
While there are valid arguments for keeping a Santa tradition, such as fostering imagination and family tradition, others have started to vocalize their concerns, listing even more reasons to use caution when embarking on this tradition. Consider some of these potential strategies to improve your family’s Santa traditions.
From: Mom and Dad
Make it known that the most expensive gifts are from Mom and Dad, not Santa. Perhaps Santa only brought the gifts your children find in their stockings. By limiting the number and size of gifts from Santa, you are demonstrating sensitivity to the kids that belong to families that aren’t as well-off. It doesn’t make things equal, but it does make inequality more understandable and digestible to kids in poverty.
Honesty from the Very Beginning
If you are thinking about these things early in your parenting journey, you could opt never to do Santa gifts. This is the strategy our family is using. Santa has never given a gift to our kids; it’s been us the whole time!
As with any parenting decision, this comes with pros and cons. I am glad I don’t feel like I am deceiving my kids and that I don’t need to dread the day when the truth comes out, but I have to say this strategy also hasn’t played out the way I thought it would. Even though I have been upfront about Santa from day one, my kids are still a bit confused. Our culture’s narratives around Santa are very strong, so we revisit the conversation every year.
Tell the Story of the Real Saint Nicholas
Regardless of how you do your Santa tradition, consider finding ways to sprinkle in the story of the real Saint Nicholas. Introduce your child to the virtues Saint Nicholas was known for by having them participate in secret gift-giving, particularly to those most in need.
Introduce your children to the traditional ways of celebrating the feast of Saint Nicholas, like leaving your shoes outside or by the fireplace in hopes that Saint Nicholas will fill them with treats.
Have an Exit Strategy
Be ready for the questions and conversations about Santa and have a plan in place. If your child is getting to the age where they are thinking more critically about Santa, you could consider getting out ahead of it by initiating the conversation. A post went viral a few years ago that described a beautiful invitation for children to learn the truth about Santa by inviting them to “become Santa” themselves and continue the spirit of generosity and kindness. Happily Family also has some short scripts and talking points that can help guide the conversation.
Each generation has an opportunity to refine and adjust what we hand down to the next generation. While my Santa tradition doesn’t look exactly like what my parents did for me, I am continuing their tradition of love, magical Christmas mornings, and a holiday filled with fun and laughter; all the while doing my best to foster virtues that serve my family’s spiritual health, honor and be inspired by the saints, and keep Christ at the center of it all.