The Death Of Santa

SantaAs 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 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 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 December 2008.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. We didn’t tell our kids Santa is real for the same reasons you state here (mainly, “If we lied to them about Santa, why weren’t we lying about Jesus and the resurrection?”). As you said, “expressions of doubts are met with rebuke and exhortation.” I had to encounter the fury of a mother after my five-year old son told her daughter “Santa is not real.” Critics of other religious systems are often more tolerated than Santa-deniers.

  2. We told our kids that Jesus is real but that Santa Claus is “make believe.” One evening I loaded up a jar of pennies and headed out side the window with a red flashlight. Precisely because I wasn’t “quick” as a wink, my 6 year old and 3 year old spotted me and would have none of it! They laugh about the incident to this day.

  3. I can remember my fifth grade teacher talking to the class about not making the mistake of thinking, when we learned that Santa wasn’t real, thinking then that God wasn’t real. Great post. We always told our children Santa was make believe.

  4. On a similar front it is interesting how orthodox Reformed Christians will tolerate a whole host of inaccuracies and outright fables in their hymns and carols this time of year.

    The same folks agitating for “Reformed/Regulative worship” against the broad evangelicals in and out of reformed denominations the other 11 months of the year will consciously allow an innumerable amount of Normative practices, including the religious lighting of candles, worship services dominated by special choirs without the preaching of the Word, etc…

    Nostalgia and kitsch are powerful drugs.

  5. Santa Claus is not part of the Christmas celebration in our family, but since it is part of the broader culture, we have told our kids that Santa is a fun pretend person. A problem arose when our literal-minded eldest daughter went around telling the other kids in the neighborhood that Santa wasn’t real. We sat her down and explained that there was a Christian man named Nicholas who lived long ago and secretly gave money to help other people and that over the years the memory of this man developed into the character of Santa Claus. Then our eldest daughter went around and told the other kids that Santa was a real person, but now he’s dead…

  6. We opted out of the Santa narrative for many of the same reasons stated here. However, we were not careful in telling our daughter to be careful about what she said about Santa on the school bus to kindergarten and first grade.

  7. Fifty years after I should have stopped believing, presents directly from Santa still show up under the tree every year. Now I know what’s really wrong with me.

  8. We often speak about the “Satan Clause” – if you do good deeds all year round, you will be showered with gifts at the end of the year – a reward for good behavior!

  9. One more anecdote: one of our friends in our church completely ignored the Santa Claus mythos, but clearly they taught their kids the Scriptures. Their oldest was four years old when he first heard about Santa in a preschool program. The teacher was explaining about a man who sees everything you do, judges it as good or evil, and magically appears in every house on the same night to reward good behavior with gifts. Only, she added, it’s important that you believe in him, or else…

    …and at that moment the young theologian jumped up and shouted, “No! That’s a false god!” Chaos ensued.

  10. This reminds me of a little cousin of mine that recently took a picture with a Santa. The little guy was scared (I think he cried) while on Santa’s lap; I should console him by telling him that Santa is dead.

  11. You mean the strain of Reindeer Flu is NOT H0H0H0? and that we have to believe that Cupid ONLY shoots arrows into people’s hearts and doesn’t moonlight as a reindeer?

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