As we have moved into December we enter another “holiday blitz”. One of the most beloved figures in American Christmas celebration is Santa Claus. From coca cola bottles to community gatherings, the man in the red suit with the white beard appears all over our society. The jolly old man who is said to visit the homes of young boys and girls and drop off gifts at Christmas time is one of the most well-known figures connected to Christmas.
You may be surprised to learn that the inspiration behind the modern Christmas tradition of Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop (pastor) in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). His life of love and generosity have inspired generations across the globe to follow in his footsteps. There are many stories of Saint Nicholas’s life, but one is particularly well known. Nicholas saved three girls from a destitute future of slavery. At that time, young women needed a dowry (some money) in order to marry, and the family of these three girls had no way of raising the funds to secure their future. Before the oldest was to be sold, Saint Nicholas crept to their house while the family slept and left a bag of gold in the young woman’s socks that she left hanging to dry by the fireplace (the actual placement of the gold is debated, perhaps it was thrown through a window). Regardless of how the money got there, this money covered the dowry she needed. The next night, the same thing happened for the middle daughter. The father anticipated this secret benefactor would return the next night to help the third daughter, so he stayed up to learn the person’s identity. On the third night, Saint Nicholas returned, and the father spotted him and thanked him profusely. Nicholas instructed the man not to tell anyone and to direct his thanks to God.
Each culture, country, and family has their own rendition of this tale, but at the heart of it is a man who chose to embody the message that Jesus gave his disciples long ago: “So when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” (Matthew 6:3-4).
Our American, commercialized Santa Claus comes out of St. Nicholas’s tradition. There are a few similarities. The man comes at night and gives gifts. But there are some differences. The emphasis on the giving to the poor has often been eliminated. Certainly Nicholas’ desire to give thanks to God has been swept under the rug. It can be difficult for Christian parents to wrestle with the modern traditions surrounding Santa Clause. Well meaning parents may not want to have their children so tangled in excitement about modern-day Santa if it means ignoring the true reason for seasonal celebration. God, not some commercialized figure, gave us an opportunity for eternal life. The greatest gift is the Christ child. Parents might also find that Santa seems to bring out more selfishness and discontent in their children than love, generosity, and care for the poor. There is also the challenge of equity. Why does Santa, with all the Christmas magic and elf labor at his fingertips, give rich kids Nintendos and poor kids socks and toothbrushes? Then there is also the whole fact that Santa is not real, and trying to explain why you would lie to your kids about one thing (Santa) and not about another (Christ) can be difficult.
While there are some valid arguments for keeping a Santa tradition, such as fostering imagination and family tradition, parents have good reason to have reservations about jolly old saint nick.
Here are some practical suggestions:
From: Mom and Dad: Make it known that the most expensive gifts are from Mom and Dad, not Santa. Perhaps Santa will only bring gifts that your children find in their stockings.
Honesty from the Very Beginning: If you are thinking about these things early in your parenting journey, you could opt never to do Santa gifts. As with any parenting decision there are pros and cons. Even if Santa doesn’t bring your kids any gifts, the narratives are strong around our culture regarding Santa so you will revisit the conversation every year.
Tell the Story of the Real Saint Nicholas: This is perhaps my number one suggestion. Consider ways to sprinkle in the story of the real Saint Nicholas (the day that the Church remembers him is December 6th). Introduce your child to the virtues Saint Nicholas was known for by having them participate in some sort of secret gift giving especially to those in the most need. There are plenty of opportunities at St. Paul’s to donate to Swaddling Clothes, the hat/mitten tree, or toy drive through Sunday School offerings. There are also opportunities in the community at New Opportunities or other various organizations to help those in need during the Christmas season.
If you need help finding resources to tell the story of Saint Nick a good place to start is the organization Voice of The Martyrs. They offer a great kids book about the real Saint Nicholas in a set that contains other Christian stories. Here are a few others: Legend of St. Nicholas, Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins, Saint Nicholas: Real Story of the Christmas Legend
Lutheran Hour Ministries have a 25 minute video and bible study hosted by Rev. Dr. Ken Klaus that discusses St. Nicholas/Santa Claus. The Real St. Nick: Leader, Legend, or Lie?
Have an Exit Strategy: If you child is getting to the age where they are thinking most critically about Santa, you could consider getting out ahead of it by initiating the conversation. Also be ready to talk about the difference between Santa (imaginary, fairy tale) and Christ (historic figure). Once again, maybe speaking of the real Saint Nicholas could help in this endeavor.
The tradition associated with Santa is fun and may be done in good faith but when the truth surfaces, it requires an explanation for years of deception. May the Lord God grant you joy in the truest gift this Christmas season, Christ, the babe, who was born to die for your sins.
As always, I am ready and willing to give advice and counsel as we navigate a world of myths and truth. Merry Christmas.