“What do you tell your kids about Santa Claus?”
This question can strike fear into the hearts of many Christians. The issue is that while most of us love Christmas, and many of us will even admit to enjoying “the whole Santa thing,” we do not wish to lie to our kids. It may seem harmless to fib about a mythical character that produces so much wonder and joy, but we worry that down the road our dishonesty may cause them to distrust us or perhaps even doubt the existence of other unseen figures (namely, God). The further association of Santa with the commercialization of the birth of the savior doesn’t help either.
But who wants to be the parents that ruin such a fun Christmas tradition? Who wants to be responsible for the kid who ruins Santa for other kids? Plus it’s a hassle to have to explain away all the TV shows in a way that doesn’t alienate the poor kids. What is a good Christian to do?
After much deliberation, my wife and I decided to tell our kids the honest truth: Santa Claus is real, and he exists today.
You read that right – Santa Claus is a real person. Have you ever wondered why is Santa Claus is sometimes referred to as jolly old Saint Nick? It is because Santa’s origins began in the 4th Century with Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey. Nicholas was primarily known for his generosity, miracles, and for punching the heretic Arius in the face.
Nicholas was famous for his generosity to children. He once saved three children from a butcher, as well as finding abducted children. Another well-known example is his saving of three young women from being sold into prostitution (not an uncommon practice for poor, unwed women back then). Nicholas secretly tossed three bags of gold through their window to provide the necessary dowries for their marriages. (These are the reason behind the three golden balls that indicate a pawn broker’s shop).
Nicholas’s official title is “the Wonderworker.” He was said to have raised three young boys back to life who had been murdered and placed in a barrel to hide the crime (this is why he is often pictured with barrels). Of his various miracles, one of the most famous occurred when his city faced a famine. Nicholas asked some passing sailors to give some of their cargo of grain to help out. They refused on the grounds that any unaccounted-for grain would get them in serious trouble. Nicholas promised them that when they arrived at their destination, none would be missing. They acquiesced, giving him so much that he was able to hand out grain to any who asked for two years. Yet as promised the sailors lost nothing.
I’m not going to lie, one of my favorite stories begins with his smackdown on Arius. In A.D. 325, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, called the Council of Nicaea to settle a dispute with the “Arians” – followers of a man named Arius, an Alexandrian elder who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. According to tradition, Nicholas went to the council and ended up hitting Arius in the face. Because of this, Nicholas had his office of Bishop taken away (which meant relinquishing his copy of the Gospel and his vestment stole), and thrown in prison. It is said that one night both Jesus and the Virgin Mary appeared and returned his status and belongings. With that pedigree, he was reinstated!
After Nicholas’s death, he became the patron saint of more causes than anyone else.
So Saint Nicholas really existed, and in fact lives on today in the presence of God (Mt. 22:32). He is obviously not the Santa Claus of modern myths though – or are these true too?
St. Nicholas Day is commemorated on December 6th – the day of Nicholas’s death. It became a day for gift exchanges in honor of the saint’s generosity. This holiday (“holy-day”) was brought to the Americas by Columbus, and as late as the 16th century people dressed as St. Nicholas and went around helping the needy in his honor. Parents also gave tribute to Nicholas by secretly giving presents to their children – saying they were from Saint Nicholas, who had sneaked them in through the window (remember the gold bags?).
When the Protestant Reformation suppressed celebration of saints, Martin Luther launched a competing tradition where the “Christ Child” (a sprite-like child, often depicted with blond hair and wings) gave out gifts on Christmas Eve. This was called the “Christkindl.” The practice gradually secularized into the “Father Christmas” tradition in Protestant regions. Eventually (and ironically), Christkindl evolved into just another name for St. Nicholas: “Kris Kringle.”
The transition from “Saint Nicholas” to “Santa Claus” is easy to see. “Santa” and “Saint” have some obvious parallels, and if the end of Nicholas’s name is stressed, you get the “klaus” sound. St. Nicholas was the patron saint of New York, which had a large Dutch population. The name of “Claus” came from the Dutch Klaas, which came from the older Middle Dutch Niklaas, which derives from the Greek Nikolaos (which helps explain why “Santa” – the feminine form of saint in some languages – was used for a male). The Dutch made “St. Nick” out to be an elfish figure with a pipe who came down chimneys to distribute gifts and leave treats in the children’s stockings which hung on the fireplace mantle.
Gradually these gift-giving traditions merged, and by the end of the 19th Century the holiday had moved to Christmas day. The mythical elements surrounding Santa Claus (magic sleigh, North Pole residence, elves, etc.) accumulated as childrens’ books of songs, and poems added to the Santa mythos. Then, beginning in 1931, a generation-long series of Coca-Cola ads solidified modern-day Santa’s image in the American mind. Other retailers caught on, and by the 1950’s Santa was ubiquitous in his support of various products.
Thus, what began as a Christian celebration of saintly generosity became a secular advertisement for American consumption. One can, of course, keep Santa while avoiding sales. After all, even modern-day Santa makes real toys (not cheap plastic crap) in his workshop (not China) to distribute to good children with the help of magic elves and reindeer (not WalMart or the internet). But isn’t this picture dishonest as well?
We taught our kids early on the difference between stories that are true, fictional, or false. And yes, those are three categories!
- True stories are usually defined as those that are historically true, but they often communicate moral truths as well.
- Fictional stories are not historically true (sometimes they are not even possible!), but they are not necessarily contrary to moral truths (e.g., fairy tales, cartoons, fables, tall tales, parables).
- False stories communicate falsehood – things contrary to (not just different than) historical or moral truths. So long as a story is not used to assert historical or moral falsehood, we’re not lying when we tell it.
This distinction (one made famous by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis) explains how pagan elements could be converted for use in Christian holidays (like “Yule” itself!). Christians can celebrate truths wherever they are found – even by reinterpreting stories and symbols to align with the truth (although some are more difficult than others!).
So, when we talk to our kids about Santa Claus, we don’t lie. We tell them the true historical stories of Saint Nicholas, including the true morals attached to them. We also explain that many people celebrate the life of Saint Nicholas by giving gifts in his honor, and make up stories in his memory. So, yes, Santa is real even though some things said about him are fictional.
We love our kids too much to lie to them about anything – including Santa. But a literalistic-materialistic worldview is a lie too. Like telling our kids that they “came from mommy’s belly” is not a lie, we can tell them that “Santa gave us presents!” We can explain this in a qualified way that they will likely ignore as children, but grow to understand and appreciate in adulthood. No loss of Christmas wonder, no schoolyard arguments, and no fear of shock or feeling of betrayal that might come when lying is discovered.
Because of his anonymous and generous giving, St. Nicholas inspires generous, anonymous gift giving. We Christians can refer to the stories of the real St. Nick at Christmas, and even use receiving or giving “presents from Santa” as teachable moments. While Saint Nicholas doesn’t really live in the North Pole with magic reindeer and elves, or fly around in a sleigh giving presents to every kid in one night, the true Santa Claus stories are truly more inspiring.