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 Santa 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 do not actually remember apostatizing, nevertheless, when it came time to decide what to tell our children about Santa, we opted out of the Santa story.

It was not because we were or are Christmas haters. It was not because we did not have much money for presents (we did not). 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 is not 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 is 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 from 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 is just it. At some point we learned that the Santa faith is not really a true faith at all. It was a complex hoax, a conspiracy even. Santa cannot live in your heart if he does not 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 were we not lying about Jesus and the resurrection? 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 does not really fly through the air, then perhaps Jesus did not ascend? If Santa did not really eat the cookies, then perhaps communion is just a thing we do; it does not really mean anything.

In its own way, the Santa myth tells children (and grown-ups) that this really is a closed universe, that there is really no 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 of the death of Santa? Poetry is a way of talking about transcendent realities. If there are no transcendent realities, then poetry is ultimately hollow. There is 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 is because, having implicitly accepted the modern notion that it is no longer possible for rational, modern people to believe in a tri-personal, transcendent God, or that Jesus is God the Son incarnate, we have turned to a new, more credible, more manageable, and less demanding deity? After all, he only asks that we be good. The only punishment for failure is possibly that we do not get that new flat-screen. Perhaps Christmas is commercialized not because the Scroogey old capitalists have ruined it, but because they are giving us our hearts’ 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 is 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, we and our children are all on the same page.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2008.


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  • 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. It seems to me that Macy’s is as responsible as anyone for the continued propagation of the Santa myth at it’s current level. Commercializing Christmas was a brilliant stroke of marketing genius, and in the era of television advertising (and the Sears “Big Book” strategically released each year two months before the holiday season) we all marched willingly into the abyss of Christmas deficit spending. Wonderful article Dr. Clark….just enough snarky humor to balance the seriousness of the subject. Thank you and Merry Christmas!

  2. How did you first discover Santa wasn’t real? I read a Heidelblog post by Dr. Clark! ho ho ho! 🧑‍🎄
    Thank you Dr. Clark for another year of great essays. Merry Christmas…grace and peace!

  3. We followed the same path you describe. However, the transition came after the birth of our three eldest daughters. Prio to that time, we were not Christians. In my own experience, I recall the day my mother and sister told me that there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. I was crushed. I still remember the hurt that I felt. After we became Christians, we decided not only was the Santa lie a real lie, but that we were lying to our children. How would they ever believe in Christ if I lied to them about Santa. The stakes were just too high. Thank you for the post.

  4. So, I’m working the nightshift Christmas Eve with the Police Department. I stop by my house to get some gear out of my personal car about midnight. On a normal night no big deal. On that night the wife is up doing all of the Santa stuff secretly, silently and alone. She sees the headlights of my patrol car pull into the drive. Then she hears a car door close. My cell phone rings. Upon answering, seeing my home number come upon the screen, I hear my wife’s quivering voice whisper, “There’s a burglar outside, what do I do?” My response, “Don’t shoot him, its just me!” Boy did I catch grief for that. This was last Santa charade we played. Bah humbug.

  5. I personally do not celebrate Christmas as a holy holiday but keep it as a fun colorful time of lights, Christmas characters singing ect.
    It’s why I appreciate Advent. Advent is a total focus on Christ. I try not to blend the two.

  6. For those who still think Santa is a good idea, take a deep dive into La Befana, the Italian “Christmas Witch” from northern Italy. La Befana has acquired some trappings of Catholic Christianity over the centuries, but it retains clear markers of its origins in not only pre-Christian paganism but even pre-Roman paganism.

    The details don’t matter. What does matter is that this is an ancient pagan deity that rewarded children who had done good over the previous year and punished those who had done bad. It migrated into Christian practice in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages and spread widely as part of the Roman Catholic Church’s efforts to bring Germanic pagan tribes into the fold of the Church by identifying non-Christian deities and religious practices with Roman Catholic saints and parts of the biblical narrative. The idea of a spirit who rewards or punishes children who have been good or bad over the previous year was a great way to teach works-righteousness to young children of barely Christianized parents who knew little of the Bible.

    We happen to have a group of neo-pagans in our community who were **VERY** surprised that I not only knew the Italian origins of “Santa Claus” but also knew its pagan antecedents. When I explained that my ancestors came from the part of the Italian Alps where the tradition of La Befana originated — a region that only was Christianized in the 500s due to its isolation and the persistence of truly ancient pagan traditions that predate even Rome itself — I got some knowing nods from people who never expected that a conservative evangelical in the Missouri Ozarks would know that sort of thing.

    I’m the first one to say that a lot of American fundamentalist and charismatic attempts to find a demon under every bed are nothing but bunk.

    This one isn’t.

    Whatever we may say from a Reformed perspective about Christmas and the holy days in general — and I’m well aware that in the Dutch Reformed tradition, they’re mandated, not optional — the “Santa” part of the Christian tradition definitely has pagan origins and should have no place in our churches or in Christian homes. At best, it teaches works-righteousness. At worst, it brings literal doctrines of demons into our homes and churches.

  7. My husband, when he was a young boy, looked up the chimney and said to his mom “that’s impossible, because then he would be like God”. True story!

  8. My mom never taught us about Santa, and in fact she avoided anything with Santa on it (such as Christmas wrap) because her parents taught her about Santa and she felt like they had lied to her. It was as simple as that. We understand that our classmates might believe in Santa and that we were not to be rude and tell them Santa wasn’t real, but that he wasn’t real. I never felt we missed anything at all–and I think I was an adult before I realized anyone at all believed in the Easter bunny.

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