By Aaron Earls
The most pressure I ever felt in seminary to adopt a certain viewpoint had nothing to do with a theological issue. It was over Santa Claus.
A professor argued that teaching children to believe in Santa could make them less likely to follow Christ as adults. Several classmates chimed in and explained how they weren’t going to be leaving cookies out for jolly old St. Nick, either.
Seeing no one stand up for Kris Kringle, I meekly raised my hand and said I grew up believing in Santa, but somehow I managed to trust Christ and even come to seminary.
I even dared to acknowledge that Santa would come by our tiny seminary apartment and leave presents for our children. No one else defended him in class.
Only after class did a few of my fellow students come up to me and confess that they too would be doing Santa with their kids. We were like a secret group of reformers (or heretics, depending on your perspective) huddled together around a shared unpopular belief.
Are there issues with the way culture over-emphasizes getting, as opposed to giving, and focuses on Santa and not the Savior? Clearly.
But I think with one small, but fundamental change to the common Santa routine, parents can actually use him to draw attention to the gospel. Santa can point to Jesus, not away from Him.
What Santa has been
Why does Santa bring gifts according to most traditions? The kids have been good. Children “better be good for goodness sake” because Santa Claus is coming.
Parents use anticipation of Santa as a leveraging tool for enticing their children to listen and be kind. You’d better be good. You know Santa is watching you.With one small, but fundamental change to the common Santa routine, parents can actually use him to draw attention to the gospel. Santa can point to Jesus, not away from Him. — @wardrobedoor Click To Tweet
When we do that, we are explicitly tying blessings to behavior. If you are good, Santa will give you gifts. They are earning their gifts with good behavior.
There is nothing inherently wrong with earning things. Working hard and earning a wage from your job is a good thing.
If gifts, however, are the reward for good behavior, they are not gifts; they are wages. They are not given. They are earned. This distinction is even more crucial in our understanding of the gospel.
Salvation is not tied to our works. That gift will not be ours because we behaved a certain way or made all the right moral choices. It is only by His grace that we are saved through faith.
What Santa should be
With that in mind, here is my proposal for a tweak to the celebration of Santa. Unlink the gifts from behavior. The presents under the tree have nothing to do with avoiding a “naughty list.”
Children do not earn gifts or lose them because of their behavior. They have them because they are loved. Santa brings gifts of love, not payment for behavior. The kids need only to accept those gifts and be grateful.
That much more closely resembles the gospel, which is, to use a worn-out cliche, “the reason for the season.”Instead of being part of attempts at mere behavior modification, Santa can actually help bring about Christ-centered character development. — @wardrobedoor Click To Tweet
Teach our children to be grateful for the gifts that are given, even if they wanted something they did not get.
Teach them to be thankful to the giver of the gifts, which will transition from Santa to parents to—hopefully, ultimately—God.
Perhaps you can use the story of the original Saint Nicholas. Maybe tell them that Santa wants Jesus to receive the attention at Christmas, which is why Santa only comes when they’re asleep.
Let them know Santa wants children to understand that God gives us the gift of salvation even when we didn’t deserve it, because we all have messed up.
Yes, this removes from the parent the ability to use gifts as a threat to coerce behavior from their children. But, if we are honest, that doesn’t work anyway and it only reinforces poor choices by both the children and the parents.
This obviously doesn’t mean every Christian parents needs to incorporate Santa into their Christmas celebration. But for those who do, this tweak to Santa’s motivation provides a way to support the message of the gospel.
What Santa can do
It brings to mind a Neil Gaiman paraphrase of a G.K. Chesterton quote: “Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
To turn the quote even more to our discussion: Santa is more than true—not because he tells us gifts exist, but because he tells us a Giver exists.
Having a gospel-centered idea of Santa, one that lovingly gives gifts even when we don’t deserve them, can soften a child’s heart to the idea of Christ being the ultimate gift we did not deserve.
Hopefully, that’s our ultimate desire for our children—not that they have a memorable Christmas filled with all of the gifts they ever wanted, but that they live a committed, Christ-filled life recognizing all the grace they never deserved.
Instead of being part of attempts at mere behavior modification, Santa can actually help bring about Christ-centered character development.
See, Santa’s not so bad after all.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.