Monday 6 December 2010

St. Nicholas or Santa Claus?

Today is St. Nicholas Day, a day to commemorate the selfless fourth century bishop and honour his gifts of generosity and charity.

It was from this giving spirit that the legend of Santa Claus arose. Sadly, this "new and improved" version of St. Nicholas misses out on the most important aspects of the saint's character. This article on The Real "Santa Claus" describes exactly my thoughts on how we have turned "a classic tale into a shallow, sentimentalized version for mass consumption":
"Somehow, the power of modern culture turned him into something quite different. A human saint was replaced by a jolly old elf. A patron of the poor became a judge of who’s naughty and nice. A church bishop became the CEO of the world’s largest toy factory. A man who walked among his parishioners and served the people in his community became a cosmic delivery man who visits everyone everywhere on one night during the year in his magic sleigh. A saint of the church became an icon of popular culture and a vehicle for commercialism. A story rich in human experience became a modern fairy tale we trot out every year to try and put some magic in our children’s eyes during the season."
It is precisely this discrepancy that has prompted us to leave Santa Claus out of our Christmas celebrations. There are no gifts from Santa, no threats of naughty lists and nice lists, no trips to the mall to ask for presents.

Instead, we talk about St. Nicholas. We celebrated St. Nicholas Day by buying an Angel Tree gift for a child, commemorating the saint's reputation for secret gift giving and charity.

St. Nicholas can help us draw our hearts to Christ. He reminds us of the life that Jesus commanded us to live, caring for the poor and orphans, showing compassion to our neighbour, not needing recognition for our charity.

Santa Claus asks what we want, not what we can give. He asks if we've been good enough to deserve a gift, not offering it freely to all. He tells us that he's watching us, not God.

He's actually kinda creepy.

I understand the desire to make Christmas a magical time for our children. I hope that I am doing that myself, that Christmas will be a time of wonder and delight for them, full of good memories and strong traditions. I believe I can do that without Santa, without magical elves, and without the external pressure to "be good or Santa won't leave you any gifts".

But most of all, I cannot bring myself to mislead, or outright lie, to my child. I won't tell him that Santa left him a gift, because it's not true. I won't tell him the mischievous elves turned the milk green, because they didn't. I won't sit him on Santa's knee, because it's not Santa. It's a cheap representation of the richly generous life of a godly man.

I can't reconcile sitting with my child as we read our Jesse Tree devotional over breakfast in the morning, with telling him elves came to do mischief in the evening. I can't reconcile telling him about the gift of Christ coming down to save us all with leaving gifts from Santa under the Christmas tree. I can't reconcile telling him later that yes, Santa was just a pretend game we played with praying that his faith in God lasts and grows through the years.

Perhaps my hesitance is largely because the effects of Santa hit a little too close to home for me. My sister remains without faith in God to this day because when she was finally forced to accept that Santa was a lie, after holding tight to that belief through the early years of her life, she concluded that the same was true of God. It was just a story to make people be good, just a nice hope to hold on to in the face of death.

I know many wonderful Christian families who are able to include Santa Claus and even elf magic in their Christ-honouring Christmas celebrations. I know many strong Christians who have fond memories of Santa traditions and whose faith wasn't at all shaken after discovering that Santa was a game. But for us, I cannot do it. I cannot cheapen the memory of St. Nicholas. I cannot use Santa as one more external motivator for good behaviour. I cannot encourage additional materialism during a season already rife with it. I cannot lie to my child.

I cannot assume that he will understand that one story is pretend while another is the most wonderful, beautiful Truth in this world.

I cannot.

How do you approach the idea of Santa Claus in your Christmas celebrations?


  1. I think this sums up perfectly my misgivings about Santa (and the Easter bunny, for that matter). I've been on the fence for a long time--since before my son was born--about whether or not to include Santa in our celebrations. Your post has definitely given me a push in the "not" direction. Thanks for the wonderful insight!

  2. I'm doing a version of the Elf Magic this year with the teenagers . . but if I had young children I wouldn't do that or Santa for the very reasons you mentioned. The teenagers know it's just the adults being silly and it's just an excuse to do something fun and holiday related everyday.

    I grew up talking about St. Nicholas and knowing Santa was not real. My Christmases were still pretty great :)

  3. Nicole, I always appreciate hearing that, thank you. It's a nice change from the usual "what?? You'll ruin Christmas for your poor child!"

    I'd definitely do Elf Magic with a house full of teenagers. That would be so fun!!

  4. I like the way my best friend explains it. She says, "We teach our children that Jesus is the giver of all gifts." Amen to that! There are very few people around here that don't do Santa. My brother thinks I'm horrible for robbing our kids of the Santa experience. But their eternal souls are much more important than a few years of lying to them...

  5. This sums up our feelings about Santa and I agree with you wholeheartedly, particularly regarding the lying factor. Our children will be bombarded with enough lies from the world. I think that as a parent, I have a responsibility to be a source of truth to my children. I feel that telling my kids that Santa is "real" would be to compromise that trust.

  6. Outstanding! Wonderfully said. With the holidays approaching yet again my husband (being the diplomatic, peace loving and somewhat conflict-fearing man that he is) has once again told our parents, "We haven't quite decided how we're going to handle the Santa Issue." I don't think anyone thinks we are going to ruin Christmas anymore (except maybe my Grandma), but just for clarity's sake I think I'll forward them all a link to this blog post. Thank you!

  7. I grew up believing in Santa but I also didn't have a strong Christian background. I was taught to believe in God and I was raised in a different faith. I was very crushed and angry at myself for believing something like Santa once I found out but it honestly never made me question God.

    I haven't decided what we'll do although after I learned the truth of Santa my Mom explained that it was based off a real man (St. Nicholas) and that seemed to make me happier. I think I could be inclined to give a present to my child in remembrance of St. Nicholas but that is how the tag would read.

    Thankfully I have until next Christmas (or even really one more after that) before I have to worry about it too much.

    I like Santa (movies) and I think if we always are open with our kids and explain St. Nicholas and how people have changed it over into Santa Clause they might be able to enjoy 'Santa' without believing he's real.

    This is a great post. One for me to save for later for sure!

  8. Kate, I must admit I'm still being a coward when it comes to sharing our choice with my parents! My in-laws know and understand, but I know it'll be quite the thing when I finally "come clean" to my parents. So far we've managed to avoid the issue every year. I'm right there with your conflict-fearing husband!

    Korey, once my kids have a firm grasp on the person of St. Nicholas, we'll absolutely go on to explain the character of Santa Claus. I have fond memories of the Island of Misfit Toys, for example, and would love to share that with my children at some point. But it will be entirely fictional and fun, the same way they know that when we watch VeggieTales, the talking tomato isn't real. I think forbidding any mention or appearance of the "jolly fat elf" would backfire in the end. There's certainly room for fun and for imagination, as Nicole mentioned in regards to doing Elf Magic with her teenagers (I could have so much fun with that when my kids are older, in the "oh Mom, what do you have those elves doing now??" sense).

    CML and Christina, I can't even imagine lying to my children that way. The way my son asks questions about every little thing, it literally would be either straight out lie, or acknowledge that it's all pretend right from the start. I know a lot of parents who include Santa in their celebrations get offended at the idea that they're lying to their kids, but I honestly don't understand how it's not.

    Samantha, right there with you on the Easter Bunny too! Although if he has anything going for him, it's that at least he's not a cheap representation of a saint known for his compassion and charity. Regardless, he's definitely not a part of our Easter celebrations.

  9. I don't like Santa neither, I don't like consumerism and I don't include it in our celebrations.
    We just dinner together, I made (hand made) a gift for my son, and for our loved ones and we see what we can give to others.
    Thanks for sharing.

  10. Thank you so much for this. My husband and I are trying to decide what to do about the Santa issue, and we keep going back and forth. I hate how consumerist Christmas has the point that now, sadly, I dread all of December. We have some time before we need to decide on this, but thank you for giving us more to discuss.

    This may be a stupid question, but what is Elf Magic?

  11. Angie, I completely agree about the consumerism. It's gotten so bad that I've had some serious reservations about Christmas as a whole this year.

    You can read more about Elf Magic here, but basically some miniature elves "arrive" one day in December, sent from Santa. Each morning the child wakes up to see what mischief the elf has gotten into the night before (maybe turning the milk green, or bringing a little gift, or pulling out the Christmas decorations). I think it would be a fun way to have some silly fun in December with much older children (those who are old enough to know that it's just Mom and Dad being silly again), but for younger children I don't feel comfortable with introducing yet another aspect of fantasy as something "real". I definitely encourage imagination and fantasy play in my children, but only as a play, not "look what those elves did last night!" And especially for us as a Christian family, I feel it confuses the central point of Christmas as a celebration of Christ's birth. Along with the idea of Santa, I don't feel comfortable assuming they will make the distinction between Santa and elves being a fun game we played, and the birth of Christ being a very real Truth in our lives.

  12. I stumbled upon your post when I googled "How to reconcile Santa and St. Nicholas". I don't like how everyone assumes all families have Santa in their traditions, though I grew up with gifts from Santa. After a while, I figured it out, but the thought of a man coming into our house and bringing gifts made it hard for me to sleep those Christmas Eves, even if I enjoyed the result. I don't want to cheapen the meaning of Christmas and emphasize any more of the commercialism that bombards us all. Perhaps next year we can celebrate St. Nick's day as many of my friends do with their children.

    Thanks for your thoughts, it's nice to hear I'm not the only one worried about all this :)

    Kristy in Kentucky

  13. that second last sentence really hit home with me... oh how I could really use more courage in doing away with the whole santa business... i don't believe in it.. and yet i find myself getting sucked in to following along with this tradition because its something my family (and husband )has always done...