The Death of Santa


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 from 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 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.

Originally published on the HB 22 Dec 2008.

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  1. We also told our kids the truth from the start. It’s been funny to see the reaction of others. Sometimes my kids blurted out in public that Santa is not real, and other parents looked at me as if I had just destroyed their children’s future.
    Santa is a very interesting topic to discuss with non-believers. It puzzles me how rational people, who politely dismiss my belief in our revealed God and our historical religion, would never think of depriving their children of the story of Santa. Someone explained it to me as a belief in “magic”. It provides a great springboard to discuss myth and history, as well as our inner need to believe in some external source of goodness and hope.

  2. I know of one Jewish commentator, Dennis Prager, who encourages people to tell their children the Santa myth (at least for non-Jews ). I guess this is pretty odd for a Jew, but it seems Prager is an eccentric Jew in many ways.

    I noticed what I guess is called a meme with a depiction of St. Nick on Modern Reformation’s Facebook page which says, “I came to give presents to kids and punch heretics. And I just ran out of presents.”

  3. But the triune God really is real and the Holy Spirit testifies to this through Word and Sacrament to little children as well as adults. We as parents must do our best to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, but Lord help us if their salvation depends on not ever doubting or being cynical about their parents and what they do or say. The distance between my confession and my life, which my children often see, is cause for doubt, as are hastily made promises that are forgotten the next day. See, Daddy promised this, but then didn’t do it, they might think, according to your analogy about belief in Santa/belief in God–a very weak one, I think–so when Daddy tells us that God promises things, then how can we believe it. I worry much more about my own self-righteousness or hypocrisy turning my kids away from the faith than I do about a jolly old guy they think about a couple of weeks out of the year. This is anecdotal, but I have never met anyone who doubted or turned away from the faith as a child or adult due to believing in Santa. It’s hardly the devastating, earth-shattering, cynic-inducing experience you say it is in most cases. I and most friends I know just shed the Santa thing like you do a lot of childhood notions, without much fuss. Even the ones who were upset by the minor revelation got over it quickly without much trouble. And if my trust in my parents or my kids’ trust in me is so weak that such a small thing like Santa–which I think they see and I certainly did and do that is intended for their fun and excitement–can break that trust, well then I think there are other deeper issues that need to be addressed.

  4. As a boy I was a big Santa believer. I remember how distressed I was when one winter day on the school bus coming home from school some of my classmates cast doubts upon my Santa faith by disputing the existence of the jolly old saint Nick. To me that was heresy, and I offered a noble apologetic for Santa against the Santa skeptics. It wasn’t too long afterward that I discovered, to my embarrassment, that the Santa skeptics were right, and felt a bit foolish for my naive childish beliefs.

    I don’t know how many post-Christian atheists became atheists due to a cynical reaction to the discovery that their parents misled them about Santa Claus, and thus their conclusion that their parents must have misled them about Jesus Christ as well. But I suspect that such cynicism is at least one factor in leading some to abandon the faith. Best to teach our children from the start that the Santa story is make believe, and that the Gospel story is factual history.

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