The Death of Santa

santa-12Originally published on the HB 22 Dec 2008.

As a young boy I certainly believed in Santa. We made the annual cookie oblation and went to bed under the conditional covenant that he would not come if we did not sleep (or at least stay in bed). Nevertheless, I think I began to doubt the faith earlier than some. We did not have a fireplace and the idea of someone, even Santa, coming through the front door in the middle of the night was a little creepy. I don’t actually remember apostatizing and I was more traumatized by discovering a childhood toy in the cedar chest than from the loss of the Santa fe. Nevertheless, when it came time to decide what to tell our children about Santa we opted out of the Santa story.

It wasn’t because we were or are Christmas haters. It wasn’t because we didn’t have much money for presents (we didn’t). We told our children that the man in the red suit was the “Christmas clown” (thank you Vern Pollema) on the premise that, while pretending is fun and necessary, the Santa story isn’t quite the same thing. When we were reading pretend stories to our children they knew the convention, that we were making up stories and that we were temporarily entering into a make-believe world, that we were exercising our imaginations about possible worlds. That’s why make-believe stories begin with conventional lines such as “Once upon a time….” This language is a verbal wink. It signals to the participants: “please place your tray in an upright and locked position, turn off your cell phones, and stow your carry-on bag. The flight is taking off.”

In the Santa faith, however, there is no such convention. The story is told earnestly and even passionately. Expressions of doubt are met with rebuke and exhortation. Evidence is presented and a defense of the faith is offered. The cookies and milk are gone in the morning. New presents appear. There are other rituals. In my family we opened some presents on Christmas eve. Dad always worked on Christmas eve. As the time approached for him to come home for work, time began to slow. After dinner he would take a nap.  While he napped each present was checked meticulously and shaken one more time. Time came to a halt in the annual demonstration of the theory of relativity. The energy of a concupiscent child is equal to the mass of presents under the tree times the length of my father’s nap squared. The rite never varied, at least not while we believed.

That’s just it. At some point we learned that the Santa faith isn’t really a true faith at all. It was a complex hoax, a conspiracy even. Santa can’t live your heart if he doesn’t really live at the North Pole. At that moment, in a small but sometimes painful way, we learn that people lie. The pain of the truth is buffered by presents and Christmas cheer but things are never the same. We become just a little bit cynical, perhaps for the first time.

We decided not to tell our children that there was a Santa because we we did not want our children to suspect that we were liars. If we lied to them about Santa, why weren’t we lying about Jesus and the resurrection? Why weren’t we? After all, they had never seen Jesus. They only had a book, a story, and a story teller. Who can blame them for doubting? If Santa doesn’t really fly through the air then perhaps Jesus didn’t ascend? If Santa didn’t really eat the cookies, then perhaps communion is just a thing we do; it doesn’t really mean anything?

In its own way, the Santa myth tells children (and grown-ups) that this really is a closed universe, that there isn’t really any such thing as transcendent reality, that Christmas is really about being nice to one another and thus so is Christianity. Perhaps modern people believe so easily in the “death of God” because they learned a long time ago in the death of Santa? Poetry is a way of talking about transcendent realties. If there are no transcendent realities then poetry is ultimately hollow—there’s nothing to communicate or worse, the message communicated is that there is no message, not really.

Some cultural historians tell us that the Santa faith has become more intense in the modern period than it ever was, e.g. in pre-modern times. Perhaps that’s because, having implicitly accepted the the modern notion that it’s no longer possible for rational, modern people to believe in a tri-personal, transcendent God, that Jesus is God the Son incarnate, that we turned to a new, more credible, more manageable, less demanding deity? After all, he only asks that we be good. The only punishment for failure is possibly that we don’t get that new flat screen. Perhaps Christmas is commercialized not because the Scroogy old capitalists have ruined it but because they’re giving us our heart’s desire?

Presents and eggnog are great fun. We buy the tree and give presents. Remembering the incarnation of God the Son is a fine thing. It’s great to receive the annual Christmas cards and letters, even if I fail to reciprocate properly. Whatever we do around the holiday, let us remain grounded in real history and let us make sure that when we pretend that we and our children are all on the same page.

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33 comments

  1. I appreciate your discussion of Santa myth here. Good stuff. But is the problem with parents lying to children chiefly that children might become disillusioned or that parents might lose some credibility?

  2. I still remember where I was when I realized I had been lied to for six years. But I take it as a growing pain more than being unduly scandalized.

    Taking after her father, my cold, sober and skeptical oldest has never been sold on the Santa thing any way; she made it easy. My youngest, taking after her more playful and imaginitive mother recently inquired if Santa were real. I liked her mother’s response: well, let’s just say it’s enormously fun to pretend that he is.

  3. We call him “Satan Claus” in our house, even the three year old, and we call the Christmas tree the “Ashtoreth Pole.”

    If we’re concerned about lying let’s remember that Christmas is not a holy day commanded in the Bible, that Jesus wasn’t necessarily born on December 25th, that it is OK for businesses to wish people, “Happy Holidays,” rather then, “Merry Christmas,” or say NOTHING at all without condemnation, and that people are free to abstain from it in good conscience.

    For the record, advent candles make me angry too!

    How can Christians force pagans to practice myth?

    Once upon a time…Scrooge

    • Vic,

      Sure, the E. B. is more obviously pagan than S. Claus. One can at least see glimmers of Christian tradition in the claus figure but the EB is about procreation not resurrction.

  4. Scott,

    I recently read an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal about the Santa myth. Here’s the link:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122963990662019887.html

    My mom recalls an incident several days before Christmas when I was around 6 or 7 years old. I asked her, “Mom, is there an Easter Bunny?” She quickly figured out what I was up to and answered in the affirmative to keep the Santa myth alive.

    Below is a short excerpt from the WSJ article that got me thinking about not only Santa but myths and fiction of all types:

    “New research from the Université de Montréal and the University of Ottawa indicates that children aren’t overly troubled upon learning that Santa is a myth. But the researchers remained puzzled because while children eventually abandon Santa, they keep believing in God. Lewis would say this is because God is real, but Mr. Dawkins fears it is the lasting damage of fairy tales. While Mr. Dawkins stands ironically alongside Puritans in his readiness to ban fairy tales, Christian apologists like Lewis and Chesterton embraced them, precisely because to embrace Christian dogma is to embrace the extrarational.”

    I wasn’t raised in a Christian home. Mom believed but we never attended church. We did the whole Santa thing but I remember that our tree always had the manger figurines beneath it. I knew there had to be something special about that little baby, but didn’t really find out what that was until I was in college at the age of 18.

    While I wasn’t permanently damaged by the myth of Santa, my wife and I now have to determine how to explain this fat man in the red suit to our 2 -1/2 year-old son.

    As always, thanks for your great weblog and may you and your family enjoy this holiday season!

  5. Nice post!

    Santa can’t live your heart if he doesn’t really live at the North Pole.

    So true; and because of this, perhaps Santa deflation can be useful; just as faith in Santa vanishes when it is revealed that it has no grounding in history/reality/truth; by contrast, we can have faith in Jesus Christ, because the word really did become flesh, live in the middle east, die, resurrect, and ascend. (1 Cor 15)

    We have kind of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy on Santa in our house. We abandoned the cookies, all of our presents are out a few days before Christmas (no sudden influx over Christmas Eve), nothing is labeled “From Santa”, etc. Mostly I don’t want to explain to my kids that Santa is a hoax, because of what might happen in other families when they go tell other kids!

  6. The display of manger, or nativity, scenes is another interesting phenomenon that Christians foist off on there own, and pagans, alike as though this practice God himself established. I hear many Reformed folks up in arms because somebody somewhere has banned the display of a nativity scene. Why are they up in arms when their own confessions condemn pictures of Jesus? What about figurines? Is the ban, by pagans, of the display of a nativity scene a rejection of Christianity? If it were a part of ‘The Faith’ once for all time delivered to the saints, I would say yes, but it is not, it is a TRADITION of MEN. Since it is a commandment or tradition of men it ought rightly be rejected by pagans, and Christians, as a necessary element in pleasing God.

  7. I’ve never really bought into the whole fear of a kid saying, “if my parents lied to me about Santa being real then maybe they were lying about Jesus.” Deception is wrong (even well-intentioned, “harmless” deception), and in my opinion parents certainly should not tell their children that Santa is real. But a Christian family should be centered around Christ day and night, every day of the year. Santa is a silly once a year thing, who is barely mentioned, relatively speaking, even during the Christmas season. To make the leap from one to the other is silly. It is so outrageous that I find it odd that Christians so frequently mention that as one of the reasons why they “don’t do Santa.”

    Even if a Christian lied to his child about Santa, it should never even occur to the child that perhaps the parent lied about God as well (assuming he really is in a christian home), because God is sovereign and Lord over their family. If God weren’t sovereign and they talked about Santa all the time, prayed to Santa, read the tenets of Santianity, went to North Pole observances every week, thanked the elves every day of their lives for providing all their needs, and so on, then maybe that would be a valid point. Otherwise I think it is just ridiculous.

    Now in a pagan home where Santa is perhaps give as much or more time and devotion than God Almighty, then that might be different. But of course God is still sovereign, and sinful man will grab any excuse conceivable to reject God and not believe.

  8. What I find disturbing now as an adult trusting in Christ – in relating with your adult coming of age about Santa – was how readily I sang the lyric “He knows when you’ve been bad or good” as a child and didn’t think anything of it. We attritute the omniscience of God to a human being, and that in a singalong jingle.

  9. He knows when you’ve been sleeping? He knows when you’re awake?

    In the words of Calvin and Hobbes, “Santa: jolly old elf or CIA spook?”

    Scott, good post, thanks. My parents never told us the Santa stuff, they saw it as being dishonest with us, and of course wanted to emphasize the fact that it was Christ’s birth in whatever small way they could. Plus we always did a scavenger hunt for our presents, and it would be difficult to picture Santa hiding all those presents through our house and then coming up with clues…

  10. This seems only to be a problem in those quaint homes where parents still read to their children. In these new-and-improved times, children get their stories from the television. And, in that regard, Santa is presented in the same way as Dora and Sponge Bob. No real fear that they actually believe that they exist. It’s not until our children are teenagers and adults that they start to look to the TV for truth.

    It’s adults, not children, who don’t know that you can’t believe what you see on TV!

      • Of course they do. I was acting obtuse to say the credulity of the average American adult is similar to that of a child who believes in Santa.

        Whether it’s Burl Ives narrating Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at 8:00 or Katie Couric narrating the CBS Evening News at 9:00, the viewer sits back ready to be told an interesting, entertaining, and true story. If we see a little bit of video footage or hear about scientific research, we are as convinced as the child who sees an empty plate where the night before he left cookies for Santa.

        Sure, kids believe in Santa. Everyone believes in everything.

  11. I always thought that the myth of Santa, aka “Saint Nick,” originated with the Nicolaitans. Hence, “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans.”

    Now, however, it appears that this can’t be true.

    How disillusioning.

  12. Thanks RSC. This year our eldest daughter was oldest to notice the “man in red” (she’s 3 1/2) and we decided to explain who he is (or who he isn’t). I couldn’t reconcile lying to my girls (sin is sin) and no amount of “it’s only fantasy” justified it in my mind. We’ll still be exchanging gifts and having a nice time with our extended families, it’s just that our girls will know who bought them their gifts; their mummy and daddy, and not because they’re good and deserve it but because we love them.

  13. I don’t necessarily agree. In my childhood Christmas with Santa was some of the best memories I have ever had. I wouldnt change them for the world and want my kids to experience the very same joy and excitement. Besides it instills the concept that someone is watching at all times, it almost makes the same illusion to God watching.

    • Attributing God’s omnipotence to a creature is idolatry – at least it is in Scripture. I don’t see how an idol is good preparation for Christian faith.

      Sent from my iPhone

  14. I do not agree either, my fundy parents did Santa with my brother and I ,and it was the best!!! I now have 4 children of the covenant 12,9, 6, 1.
    3 of 4 are geeked for Santa’s arrival, the oldest is the best, playin’ along. But, I guess that’s what you get from a PCA music director…

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