It inevitably comes up every year: the question of how parents of young children should handle Santa Claus. For some, this is a highly impassioned subject; with many liking to remind everyone as often as possible that “Santa” is an anagram of “Satan”—or, if not giving this trite spelling lesson, at least asserting that Santa actually represents Satan himself. Other Christians maintain a “more enlightened” and less uptight response, arguing that it’s no big deal to lie about Santa, that we should allow for children’s strong imaginations rather than imposing a boring, rigid scientific perspective from a young age:
Children are creatures of wonder and imagination, both qualities which can nurture faith in the Living God. They thrive on storytelling and their world is naturally full of what we adults, poverty-stricken by reason, regard as naive personifications. … [P]erhaps Christians before all others should recognize that stories, imagination and wonder are a vital part of our lives. Let’s not deprive our children of them too readily.
It’s an interesting question. On the one hand, we tell children fairy tales and myths all the time and personify inanimate objects (“Jack Frost”) and such things all the time. On the other, there seems to be quite a difference from telling the story of Cinderella and telling a child that a magical being is going to bring him/her presents. That is, fairy tales rarely have any real contact with the child’s world beyond the enjoyment of hearing the story told. And children rapidly understand the difference between fairy tales and true stories—a three year old readily understands that Beauty and the Beast is just a story, not reality. It’s not quite the same when the charade actually reaches into reality. So it’s a worthwhile question: what then should parents do?
**As a matter of full disclosure, my parents never played the Santa game with me or my sister, instead explaining the myth of Santa very early and explaining that it was something many parents told their children and we shouldn’t spoil it. My experience with the whole thing is thus informed by that experience (which I regard quite positively), and I remain rather biased in this direction from the start.**
That said, I think the “let’s not deprive our kids of imagination” case is an extremely poor one. For one, choosing not to do the whole Santa thing doesn’t deprive children of any sort of imagination; it simply chooses not to contribute a particular item to their imagination. I have a hard time imagining anyone buying the argument that parents deprive their young children’s imaginations by not telling them about Freddy Krueger or not exposing them to hardcore pornography. Children have strong imaginations, and no one is proposing that adults try to remove this characteristic. But the question we’re asking has more to do with what adults should positively contribute with respect to children’s imaginations; it’s not a matter of trying to deprive them of what they would otherwise imagine on their own.
Leaving aside the well-worn “parents shouldn’t lie to their kids at all because it builds distrust” and “if we lie about Santa and they find out he’s not real, they might eventually become atheists” arguments, I think the stronger case for not getting children to believe in a real Santa Claus actually arises from the other side of the “imagination” coin. A pro-Santa commenter in the last link above suggests (citing C.S. Lewis) that we should allow for more “imagination” in our theology. Lewis was right, but shouldn’t that imagination have a positive thrust and not a culturally and spiritually self-destructive one?
I have nothing against the use of myth, narrative, allegory, and “imagination” in our theological endeavors, but I think we should be especially careful of what our “imagination” and “mythology” fosters. And the truth of the matter is that, as I see it, Santa Claus in many ways has come to represent not just the worst aspects of modern Christmas celebration but the worst of our materialistic, selfish, and consumer-driven culture (parodied nicely by Banksy this year). Essentially, the modern Santa myth/reality serves to get children associating Christmas with what gifts they’ll get—and even worse, it ties the notion of material gain to whether they’ve been “naughty or nice.” I have nothing against giving gifts at Christmas, but I (from experience) think it’s preferable for children to know the actual sources of their gifts. When the gifts are from an ethereal fat, bearded, magic man and are the result of their having been “nice,” (and yes, I’m aware that not all parents will push this part as much), it fosters ingratitude and a notion that good behavior is properly rewarded with material goods. It serves to build a sense of entitlement—I’ve been good, now Santa owes me presents.
On the other hand, if the children know that their parents (or others) bought the gifts, it fosters thankfulness (or at least it should). In addition, it emphasizes the other side of the gift—the giving part—in addition to the receiving part. The reciprocal and relational aspects of giving are already too de-emphasized in our culture; the modern Santa game further inculcates one-sided conceptions of giving that we should be avoiding. (I could go further about the inherently reciprocal notion of grace in Paul and how standard modern presentations of the Gospel ignore this reciprocity, but this would be a lengthy digression beyond the scope of this subject. Suffice it to say that Santa—a “one-sided” supernatural entity who expects nothing in return for his gifts—reinforces this bad modern theology and impoverished conception of grace.)
Again, I have no problem with storytelling, imagination, or anything of the sort. But I’m not much of a fan of willful deception. Children can quite enjoy the mythology of Father Christmas, St. Nicholas (a whole different story from the modern Santa at that), and Santa Claus just as well without being conned into believing in Santa. I had no less enjoyment of the various Santa-songs or stories as a nonbeliever than the kids who were fooled. I’ve become increasingly convinced that more parents tell their children about Santa for their own sake than for the children’s sake. Just look at the lines in the mall—half the toddlers who get to Santa are terrified by the strange bearded fat man. But the parents get quite a pleasure out of keeping up the illusion, all the while telling themselves it’s really for the children. I’m not so sure that’s always the case.
Naïve personifications in children’s imaginations are fine and dandy, and take it from me: the kids can still enjoy Miracle on 34th Street without ever having believed in Santa. That’s not a concern. But we adults are fools if we uphold myths and narratives that guide these impressionable imaginations towards materialism, ingratitude, and the very flaws of consumer culture we critique the rest of the year (they don’t need any help getting there anyway). So, it’s not necessarily that Santa (or playing the “Santa game” with kids) is inherently evil, nor that Santa is the embodiment of all things Satanic, but that fooling children into believing in Santa is unwise both on an individual and cultural level. If we’re going to use myths, we should pick them more carefully.