|Thomas Nast, Santa Claus (1881)|
Today is Christmas Eve, and we’re at a turning point in the year. For Catholics, the Christmas season begins tomorrow with the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. For secular culture, the Christmas season ends tomorrow, having begun last month around Thanksgiving. At the heart of this debate over the meaning of Christmas lie two men, one real, and one imaginary: Jesus Christ and Santa Claus. And it’s time to kill Santa.
The Santa mythos is particularly problematic when, as it typically does, it involves parents lying to their young children. Remember that parents “have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (CCC 2223), including, in a particular way, the religious formation of children. These years are a golden opportunity: a few fleeting years in which children trust their parents, hunger for knowledge of the outside world, and aren’t yet inundated with modern (often anti-Christian) culture.
|The German version of Santa is terrifying.
But not as terrifying as his companion, Krampus.
It’s bad enough for parents to lie to their children under any circumstances. Even a lie meant for the well-being or amusement of another (an officious or a jocose lie, respectively) is sinful, as St. Thomas explains. But this lying is particularly troubling in the context of passing along religious traditions, like the meaning of Christmas. As the Catechism explains (CCC 2226), “Education in the faith by the parents should begin in the child’s earliest years.” This is the perfect time to describe why we celebrate Christmas: to present, at least in basic terms, the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. When we instead (or also) present Santa as a real person, we’re exchanging the truth of the Nativity of Christ and the true St. Nicholas for a lie.
The only defense of this practice that I’ve heard is that it allows kids to be innocent. It seems to me that the opposite is true: it abuses that innocence. As psychology professor Jacqueline Woolley explains in the New York Times, kids are surprisingly adept at discerning truth from fiction. Why then, the belief in Santa? Because they trust their parents:
My view is that they are exhibiting their very rational and scientific cognitive abilities. The adults they count on to provide reliable information about the world introduce them to Santa. Then his existence is affirmed by friends, books, TV and movies. It is also validated by hard evidence: the half-eaten cookies and empty milk glasses by the tree on Christmas morning.
In other words, children do a great job of scientifically evaluating Santa. And adults do a great job of duping them. […] So maybe this holiday season, when the children come rushing in to see what Santa brought, we should revel not in their wide-eyed wonder, but in how sophisticated and clever their young minds really are.
Why exploit that parent-child relationship? Kids aren’t going to suddenly stop enjoying Christmas without some lies about Santa. In fact, something nearer the opposite is true: lying to your kids about Santa leaves them vulnerable to the needlessly painful experience of finding out the truth in embarassing ways from their peers.
It almost goes without saying that in lying to your kids about Santa, you undermine your testimony to those same kids about Jesus Christ. Most Christian kids first learn about Jesus Christ from their parents. If those same parents are intentionally mixing in falsehoods to the story of Christ, it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t risk undermining their kids’ faith.
Put another way, if your parents lied to you about the guy on the left of this picture, how likely are you to trust them about the Baby on the right? Certainly, an adult can understand why we believe in Jesus and not Santa, but that’s not neccessarily true of children.
And consider the cultural context. We now live in a society in which this is a real thing: Camp Quest, a creepy atheist summer camp “for fun, friends, and freethought for kids ages 8-17.” Around the same time that your kids are learning from their friends that Santa is a myth, they may well have friends telling them Jesus is a myth, too. Lying about Santa hardly seems like the best way to prepare them for this challenge.
Besides parents lying to their kids about religion, the Santa mythos represents the worst of the secular celebration of Christmas. Brantly Millegan has an insightful post pointing out that our material culture needs Christmas to justify the month-long consumerist spending binge. You can’t get consumers motivated to drop hundreds of dollars on things that they don’t need, things that nobody needs,without having a connection with ritual, and a generic “winter celebration” won’t cut it. So secular culture leeches off of Christmas in a parasitical fashion to make a buck.
So there’s not a “war on Christmas,” per se. Secular culture wants Christmas. What it doesn’t want is Christ. And that’s where Santa is useful: he serves as the central figure of Christless Christmas. Anti-Christians groups like American Atheists get this. They spent $20,000 to put up the sign pictured on the right in midtown New York. Ignore the irony that they argue we should “dump the Myth” by getting rid of the historical figure (Jesus Christ) in favor of the mythical one.
Hollywood gets this: there are a handful of Christmas movies that at least mention Christ, but the majority are now firmly fixed on Santa, instead. It’s no longer surprising that entire Christmas movies can be made without a single reference to Christ.
Focusing on Santa also turns the focus towards gift-giving, and (more particularly) gift-receiving. Thanksgiving, once about expressing our thanksgiving for all of the blessings we have, is increasing about the opposite: shopping to get more stuff we don’t need, and aren’t particularly thankful for. Advent, once about our spiritual preparation for receiving Christ, is now about reckless materialism. Instead of offering us a break from the rest of the year’s materialist consumerism, the weeks leading up to Christmas are materialist consumerism in overdrive. By the time the Christmas season actually begins on December 25, secular culture has worn itself (and its wallets) out, and doesn’t bother with that whole “Twelve Days of Christmas” thing. I’ve written on this before, and won’t rehash it all here, but understand that Santa epitomizes that. We ignore the creche as we wait in line to meet shopping mall Santa.
Worse, we don’t need any of this stuff. Left to its own devices, the true meaning of Christmas is compelling: the King of the Universe becoming Incarnate as a poor Child born to a young Mother in a very dangerous world, all out of love for us. His Birth is a fountain of grace, with angels singing His praises to a group of startled shepherds (Luke 2:8-20), and wise men from afar come and bestow gifts upon Him (Matthew 2:1-12). This Christ inspires generation after generation of Saints to give up everything to follow Him, including men like the real St. Nicholas.
So this Christmas, my appeal to parents is to reconsider the impulse to pass along the legend of St. Nick. Skip the legend, and give them the truth instead – it’s better in every way.