My wife grew up in a world without a Santa Claus. Her parents were and are very conscientious in focusing their lives around the real story of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, and as part of that, didn’t want their children growing up to believe that just like Santa, Jesus was a story their parents told them. From the outset, they were informed that Santa was something that other children might believe in, but that he wasn’t real. Oh, they still got stockings and presents and all that, but Santa Claus was not held to be responsible.
My own upbringing was more conventional in that regard. My parents did the whole Father Christmas thing, with hanging up stockings, going to see him in a big department store, leaving a mince pie and a drink out. I think we even wrote him letters. It was all part of Christmas. And somewhere along the line, in a process that I don’t remember with any sense of trauma, I joined the grown-up world of those who were in on the secret.
Needless to say, once we started having children, there needed to be some discussion between the two of us over the subject of what we were going to do with our kids about Father Christmas.
After what I took to be a preliminary conversation about it, I came into the room just in time to hear my wife boldly proclaiming the truth that Santa wasn’t real, that he was a story that a lot of other families invited their kids to believe. I forget the exact way she put it.
Not one of our most successful instances of communication, but there was no way I could undo what she had done, so somewhat reluctantly I went along with it. There was no way I was going to come in and say “Mommy’s lying to you, kids; Santa is real”. But I might have handled things a bit differently.
There seems to be a rising trend among Christian parents to follow my wife’s parents in their early footsteps. Increasingly, as with this blog right here, we’re presented with the suggestion that it might be wiser to avoid the whole Santa thing. It’s argued that Santa promotes a legalistic mindset of “do good and get rewarded”, that Father Christmas functions as a sort of god, that it sets up another figure in opposition to Jesus to compete for kids’ attention over the holiday season, that it produces covetous desire and acquisitiveness, that it forces Christian parents to lie to their kids, that it blurs the line between fantasy and reality, that it promotes the idea that “maybe Jesus isn’t real either”.
I can see the point of all these arguments. They’re cogent, well-reasoned and reasonable. But I can’t help thinking that if belief in Santa was as pernicious as some Christians seem to be coming to believe, most of us would have turned out a lot more screwed-up than we are. If presenting Father Christmas to your kids as real promotes all the things we’re told it does, wouldn’t we all be legalistic, acquisitive, idolatrous hardened atheists?
My wife’s the only person of my generation that I know of who was raised without a belief in Santa Claus. And it’s interesting to note that of the two of us, she’s the one that more often struggles with legalism.
Maybe part of that is just that she has a natural tendency in that direction, and if her parents had done the whole Santa thing it would only have reinforced that tendency. But we’re never told what would have happened.
Maybe my family were the odd ones. Maybe it was the particular way we dealt with Father Christmas that minimised the damage, so to speak. But if so, there might be things we can learn from it.
I remember that in our house, Father Christmas was much more limited in his influence than he appeared in some of my school friends’ worlds. Father Christmas was only responsible for stocking presents, which were the various cheap-and-cheerful extra gifts of limited monetary value, good for an hour or two’s entertainment. Stocking presents might have had one or two larger items, but they seldom included any single gift that might be valued at more than £5 or £10 these days, if that much. Father Christmas had nothing to do with the “main” presents under the tree; those were from family. And those, by strict family custom, were not to be opened until after church in the morning and Christmas dinner at lunchtime, whereas stocking presents could be opened as soon as everyone was awake.
In this way, by limiting both the scope and value of “his” giving, we said without saying that Father Christmas was a fun addition to Christmas but not the main event. Because a set of coloured pencils can only go so far in competing with a Lego Space Cruiser and Moonbase.
Also, while we were carefully disciplined to write thank-you letters to our family for the gifts they had given us, somehow the notion of writing a thank-you letter to Santa never came up.
We of course didn’t really like writing thank-you letters – what child wouldn’t rather be playing with what they’ve received? – so we weren’t going to insist that we extend the chore. But this functioned as another subtle signal that Father Christmas wasn’t real. You didn’t have to say thank you to him.
Santa also wasn’t used as a behaviour-modifying threat, or at least, not to any great degree. I don’t remember a lot of “Father Christmas won’t bring you any presents” sort of talk from my parents. Maybe it was there and I’ve forgotten, but in any case the threat was a minor one. Father Christmas was only responsible for the little extra presents of our stockings anyway. Main presents were from family; if you needed to please anyone it was Mum and Dad. And what parent deliberately inflicts the idea on their kids that parental love and gifts are contingent on their behaviour anyway?
Perhaps, though, one of the main distinguishing features of the way we handled Father Christmas was a sort of linguistic distinction between how we talked about him and how we talked about God and Jesus.
Jesus did miracles. These were discussed as real things that really happened. God was omnipotent anyway; why shouldn’t He be able to make remarkable things happen? He had angels, who were sort of like His helpers, and He could work His power through real flesh-and-blood people.
By contrast, Father Christmas was magic. The answer to questions like how he coped with houses without a chimney was something like “that’s part of his magic”. Magical reindeer, magical sleigh, magical guy himself. And magic was consistently treated around our house as a big game of “pretend”, not a real thing.
This might conceivably have had the effect of setting us up to believe that the spiritual world of Satan and his demons weren’t real either, except for the fact that when we heard about those sorts of things happening on the mission field and in other places, we talked about them in spiritual, not magical language.
The spiritual world of God, Jesus, miracles and science was real, the magical world was imaginary. Witches weren’t a real thing in the sense of actually existing with the power to turn people into toads, and it wasn’t until later that I began to find out about the existence of the other kind of witches who worshipped nature spirits or Satan himself. Conjurers and illusionists on TV did “magic tricks”, the unspoken inference being that this was a trick and not really happening in the way it was portrayed. Even one of the children’s programmes I watched on TV deliberately set up a situation in one episode in which things were shown to be trickery and not what they appeared.
The true Christmas story had a higher public profile back then, too. We put on a Nativity play at school most years, with every kid getting to be an angel or a shepherd or a camel or Mary or whatever. And this was at a public school (US meaning); we in the UK don’t have the ruthless Separation of Church and State that America does today. Jesus didn’t have to fight so hard for kids’ attention around His birthday.
Then, too, physical evidence of Father Christmas around our house was more sketchy than some of the stories you hear. Yes, there were the left-over dregs of drink and crumbs of mince pie, but Father Christmas was only one of numerous possible explanations for that, and that was the only physical evidence we were ever offered. When my sister and I started to disbelieve, my parents did nothing to throw us off the scent, unlike some families you hear about who seem really committed to their deception, planting boot-prints in the fireplace, leaving reindeer tracks in the snow outside, actually dressing up to fill the stockings and whatnot.
That would indeed seem to be blurring the line between fantasy and reality, and lying to your kids, but the way we treated Father Christmas was more like a game of pretend or actually being in a story, even if presented as “real”. My parents never, as far as I can recall, actually came out and said “Father Christmas is real”. I certainly don’t remember any traumatic incidence of “Mum! Michael at school says that Father Christmas isn’t real! He’s wrong, isn’t he?”. If I’d ever come home with a tale like that, I have no doubt that my parents would have just comforted me, sort of smiled a secret smile and said something along the lines of “well, what do you think about that?” The implication that Santa was real was certainly there, but there is a difference between misleading by implication and outright lying. And kids are grown-up enough to work it out.
Am I lying to my kids by implying to them that Santa is real? It’s an interesting question, and one I cannot answer for your conscience. But as a countervailing argument, I might ask whether I’m lying if I tell my kids that God will always take care of all of their physical needs when the book of Job is in the Bible?
Yes, technically the truth of the matter is that sometimes bad things do happen to Christians as well. Believers in Jesus aren’t inherently immune from starvation or earthquake or any other disaster. But telling a young child that bald fact is only going to undermine their confidence that they can rely on Him to take care of them. They are children. They don’t need to know that particular hard truth yet, not until they have a solid foundation of belief in His trustworthiness and faithfulness.
I wonder sometimes whether a lot of the blurring of lines that upsets us so much as adults isn’t just kids being kids. Their imaginations are potent and their sense of real and unreal is only beginning to develop, as it does naturally. In a sense, it makes no difference to a kid whether the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are really real or not; within the world of TMNT, which the child partially inhabits through watching them on TV, they are real. As they get older, the lines between what’s real and what’s not get firmer. It’s all part of the process of growing up.
I have no idea how normal a lot of this perspective on Father Christmas was. It might be that most Christian families did things in this sort of a way, but it could equally be just that we were different. It wouldn’t be the first time. In either case, the sense I got growing up was that Santa might or might not be real, but that Jesus certainly was real. The two weren’t in competition because they inhabited different worlds, any more than Batman could hang out with Spiderman (upside-down, presumably). Besides, Father Christmas wasn’t nearly as important as Jesus, so the issue of his reality or unreality was more minor. Finding out the truth didn’t destroy faith. It didn’t even destroy Christmas.
The family in this blog take things even further than mine did, deliberately and strategically planning for their kids to one day discover the secret, making it not a deception but a surprise.
I think that if I had a do-over on the matter of whether of not to present Father Christmas to my kids as real, this is the sort of way I’d want to go about it.