We just spent our Thanksgiving weekend at a hotel that’s Christmas-themed year round. During story time with Santa, the children gathered around his feet to hear him sing songs and tell stories. In the one hour he spent with them, who did he talk and sing about most? Not Rudolph. Not even Mrs. Claus.
Instead, he talked about Jesus. And he sang multiple birthday songs to Jesus. Our kids loved that even Santa focused so much on Jesus.
That’s a weird mix for many of us. As a dad of a 6- and 4-year-old, this is a question we continually pray about for ourselves on a personal level.
Perhaps you too wonder whether you should conform to the holiday tradition of Santa Claus celebrated around the world. Logically speaking, your concerns are warranted. If we lie to our kids about Santa, then perhaps they will think we lied to them about Jesus as well.
Yet, some of my greatest childhood memories were baking cookies and putting out milk for Santa. It wasn’t until I was in second grade sitting at the lunch table that one of my best friends broke the news. I defended Santa as fiercely as a 7-year-old could.
Were my parents wrong for lying to me?
Research from two psychologists just last year, suggest that lying to our children about Santa Claus could expose our children to “abject disappointment.”
As Kathy McKay, co-author of the study, said: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”
If you go along with the Santa tradition like most families do, take heart. I’m grateful my parents went along with Santa. But I also think we should pay attention to the research, and take some caution.
7 Suggestions for Handling Santa Claus as Christians
1. Follow your convictions.
For some, the answer to whether we should tell the truth about Santa to our kids from the beginning is clear. For others, the answer is a little more nebulous. Either way, we must know and follow our convictions. But in so doing, don’t judge others for how they carry out their own Christmas traditions (see Romans 14). Besides, there’s already enough parent shaming to go around today.
2. Don’t use Santa Claus to manipulate your children to behave.
Let’s be honest, who hasn’t used Santa to exorcise a sugar-possessed child from Christmas candy? At the risk of sounding like a scrooge, Santa’s not making a list and checking it twice. God, on the other hand, really does know your child’s heart. The values and discipline we instill in our children throughout the year ought not to be based on a fictional character, but on the God who knows even the number of hairs on our child’s head. Teaching our kids to love and behave well because God already loves them is better parenting—and theology—than telling them to behave because it will earn them presents. Relying on Santa to get our children to behave throughout December says more about our parenting than it does our children’s behavior.
3. Build relational trust with your kids.
Notice what McKay says in the study, “…that if a relationship is vulnerable, [the myth of Santa] may be the final straw.” Emphasis is mine. Some of my greatest childhood memories with my parents involved Santa Claus and Christmas. Not only did my parents also place high value on the birth of Jesus, I already trusted them. I didn’t question my parent’s love for me. I was emotionally safe. Again, Santa Claus isn’t the issue here; it’s the overall quality of our relationship with our kids.
4. Teach your kids about the real St. Nicholas.
The term Santa Claus is derived from the name St. Nicholas, a real and revered 4th century Christian saint, who became known for secretly giving gifts to others. Note: He gave presents to people not based on their behavior, but to secretly bless them.
5. Focus on Jesus’ birth.
No matter your personal convictions about Santa Claus, spend more time talking about Jesus’ birth than jolly ‘ole St. Nick.
Through advent, we teach our kids about the 25 characters of the Christmas story. If he comes to their school or we see him in a Christmas movie, we talk about Santa, but we also use him as a way to point our kids to Jesus. And yes, we also put out milk and cookies the night before Christmas. But it pales in comparison to the birthday party our family holds for Jesus.
6. Focus on imagination.
What my mother-in-law did with my wife, Christi, and her siblings growing up is exactly what we do in our house. They played Santa. And when it came time for the kids to ask if Santa was real, her answer was simply, “Santa is pretend. And in our house, we pretend.”
7. But what about the elf on the shelf, you ask?
It’s too much work. Santa has enough to do this Christmas.
For another take on Santa, see Katie Orr’s post, “Why We Chose to Keep Santa Out of Our Christmas.”
Want to see more from Dr. Josh? Check out his other LifeWay Voices posts: