It’s Time to Kill Santa

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. 

I. Lying to Your Kids About Santa is Sinful and Dangerous

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.

II. Santa Detracts from What is Good About Christmas

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.

25 Comments

  1. Dear Joe–

    You may not be aware that the Catholic faithful are permitted to hold that the Santa Claus “mythos” is not an example of lying, and since the teaching on lying in the CCC does not originate with the Magisterium itself, but is the “common teaching of Catholic theologians”, parents who do opt for the “Santa mythos” cannot necessarily be characterized as “lying” to their kids….God bless and Merry Christmas!

    Deacon JR

    1. Hi Joe–thanks! This is a particular topic I’ve done a lot of research on over the last few years. It boils down to the understanding that some of these “special cases” of speaking falsehood (with in this case a quite *non*-malicious “intent to deceive”)have long been debated by theologians in the Church who opted not to take such a rigorous view of things as did Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas…Fr. Boniface Ramsey did a great study of this in his work “Two Traditions on Lying and Deception in the Ancient Church,” which I highly recommend. This is indeed why the “common teaching” on lying has never been “magisterialized”–a less rigorous theological opinion on what constitutes “sinful” lying has been around since before the Church and throughout its long history. Just a thumbnail sketch–but ask whatever questions you think of! Gotta go take care of some Christmas Eve duties–I’ll be back in a while though!

      God bless

      Deacon JR

    2. Deacon JR,

      I’m familiar with the dispute on what constitutes lying.  In the 1997 updates to the Catechism, there was an important modification to paragraph 2483.  Where it previously read, “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth,” it now reads simply, “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” That seems to be a deliberate confirmation of the Thomistic position over the more liberal position.

      But on a more fundamental level, it would seem that lying about Santa Claus would be lying under either definition.  Surely, children have a right to know the truth about Christmas from their parents?

      I.X.,

      Joe

    3. Hi, Joe–actually, what you refer to as the “important modification” was indeed important, precisely to bring the CCC 2nd Edition into full conformity with the existing *common teaching* on lying–the irony here is that the 1st edition language you cite above actually belongs more to the *less* rigorous theological opinion (variations of which include the “right to the truth” concept, whereas Aquinas/Augustine doe not). So the “confirmation” intended by the editors still does not “magisterialize” the “Thomistic” (or Augustinian) view on lying–rather the modification was because catechisms by definition (and according to all the pre-CCC documentation from the CCC writers and editors)do *not* “settle” teaching at all–they merely *repeat* teaching–including (absent any magisterial sources)the “common teaching of Catholic theologians”.

      In fact, in approving the 2nd edition for publication, the Holy Father made clear that the second edition actually merely *repeats* the content of the first, interestingly. So the view that the 2nd ed CCC “settled” a previously unclear teaching is untenable. Catechisms are never designed to do that. Does that make sense to you? CCC ed 2 more correctly adheres to the “common teaching”–but “common teaching of Catholic theologians” (cf. Ott’s “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma”)is by definition non-magisterial, so Catholics may form their consciences differently on whether something like the “Santa mythos” constitutes the sin of lying.

      If you have more questions about all this, keep firing away!

      [BTW, ironically, my wife and I do not really celebrate the “Santa mythos” in our large-ish family–but not because we’re afraid we’d be lying to the kids and sinning–but rather because of many of the other reasons you’ve raised.]

      God bless you,

      Deacon JR

    4. Hi, Joe–just thought of one more point worth mentioned about the CCC and lying and the modification from ed. one to ed. two. We must also keep in mind that *both* “teachings” on lying–both the original with the “right to the truth” phrasing and the modification *without* the phrasing–were equally approved and published as “sure norms” for teaching the faith. That is, the modification was never made as a correction to something “erroneous”; both “definitions” of lying were offered as legitimate expressions of what constitutes lying. So in this sense the fact that the modification was made gives more credence to the view that the Magisterium is tolerant of *both* views–the “common teaching” expression now in ed. 2 *and* the “less rigorous” position first expressed in ed. 1. I think it’s good to remember that the Pope did not approve and publish “error” in ed. 1… God bless you, Deacon JR

    5. Interesting discussion about lying. The matter is, however, dependent upon too many variables.

      1. It is possible to present the truth about Saint Nicholas to children in a manner compatible with the legend, without lying. Much of Scripture is passed down to us in parables and metaphors, myths and legends. Saint Nicholas is Santa Claus. Santa means Saint. Claus is short for Nicholas. The mythos is based upon his actual deeds and many examples can be pulled from history show our children how people honor great heroes by exaggerating their exploits. But we should always emphasize that any power which St. Nicholas wields during the Christmas season is given him by God.

      2. However, it is also possible that some parents do lie to their children in the manner in which they present the story. When you have the legend of Santa Claus mingled with New Age characters such as weather witches and other such nonsense, it is obviously no longer compatible with Catholic Teaching.

      Sincerely,

      De Maria

    6. As for the difference between lying and not lying, the difference is clearly set forth by Jesus Christ Himself when He was asked if He was going to the Temple festivities.

      His response was a flat, “No (John 7:8-10).”

      Then, as soon as his questioners left, He headed directly to the Temple to participate in the festivities.

      Jesus did not lie.

      Those who asked Him the question had no right to know what He intended to do. Therefore He answered the question as it suited Him. He was not on His way to the Temple when He was asked the question. But He went to the Temple when it suited Him and it suited Him to do so when they were unaware of His departure.

      Did Jesus intend to deceive? No. God neither deceives nor is deceived.
      But did Jesus want them to know His whereabouts? Obviously, He did not. And therefore did not give them the entire truth but only the facts to which they were already privy.

      Sincerely,

      De Maria

  2. Joe, I would echo the concerns of Deacon JR, who questioned whethor or not instilling a belief in Santa Claus is lying. Cannot truth be communicated through myth? The truth of Santa Claus is not that there is some man in the North Pole who travels around the world giving gifts to Children. The truth of Santa Claus is that there is a being who gives me what I do not deserve, and who loves me very much. For this, I will allow G.K. Chesterton, in his “The Other Stocking” to explain:

    “What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

    As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good–far from it.

    And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still.

    I have merely extended the idea.

    Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

    Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now, I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea.

    Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.”

  3. Bah humbug! I never thought I’d disagree with you, Joe. My experience with very faithful Catholic adult children (who loved Santa!) is very different from what you present here. Anyway, Merry Christmas! I still love you (and Santa).

    1. I stand with Chesterton: “Personally, of course, I believe in Santa Claus; but it is the season of forgiveness, and I will forgive others for not doing so.” 😉

  4. That is a tough one. In my family when I was young, we exchanged gifts on St. Nicks day. If you look at what Santa looks like in some countries (an actual Catholic bishop with cross, crozier and mitre) its not so bad, because there is an explicit connection. But kids do not have the right to the full knowledge possessed by their parents. They are under the charge and care of parents. Even Jesus used parables to communicate Truth because the recipients were not ready for it in explicit detail.

  5. Joe, there is a flip side to the trust issue. I have a baby and a tiny tot. I never taught either about Santa Claus, mostly because I don’t have nostalgia over it since I was brought up with the South American legend that the 3 wise men deliver presents.

    But despite this, both my kids know about Santa…its in the air. One can either be a grinch about it and teach children to be sceptics and that magic does not exist and that myth has no reality and try to teach a 3 year old about concepts that even a confirmed child doesn’t fully grasp. In short, prepare your child to be a materialist atheist.

    Or one can let the myth be without encouraging or discouraging it, let magic exist, let curiousity for the truth overcome scepticism, let myth evolve into a more glorious story that is beyond anything anyone could understand, and tell the true story of Christmas.

  6. Never thought I’d disagree with you, Joe. But I believe you’re terribly wrong on this issue, to the extent that this issue ought to be taken on a case by case basis by parents. I believed in Santa Claus as a kid, and it never did me any harm at all. I might say it contributed to my sense of wonder at the world, which influenced my Catholic faith today.

  7. Don’t let the negative commenters get you down, Joe! I’ve never understood the motivation to do anything more than what Mark Shea describes (that is, tell about Santa Claus as a fairy tale http://www.ncregister.com/blog/mark-shea/the-perennial-santa-question). It seems that kids would enjoy the make believe just as much without the baggage, and if you tie it into the real St. Nick’s story (as Shea does), this seems like a positive thing. And although I haven’t read the article closely, it seems clear that Chesterton was noting his affinity for fairy tales, not telling you to lie to your kids.

    1. Hi, Latenter–

      Mark Shea and I have a bit of an unfortunate ongoing debate on this topic, as he embraces the erroneous view that the CCC’s definition of lying is somehow “magisterial”, with the resulting consequence that those who accept the less rigorous theological view on lying are somehow denying magisterial teaching, which is demonstrably false. But the fact that the Church’s Magisterium tolerates the view that the Santa “mythos” does not amount to “lying” to your kids should lead the rest of us to embrace a similar tolerance regarding other faithful Catholics who, as expressed thus far in many comments on this post, accept in conscience the application of the Santa “mythos” in their families.

      God bless and Merry Christmas to you!

      Deacon JR

  8. Thanks for the post, my brother and sister are deciding whether to raise their daughter with Santa. The three of us read and have come up with few comments. Firstly, why can’t Santa be along the same lines as Frosty and leprechauns, a fictional character that children pretend is real? The hoops that parents go through to prevent their children from knowing the truth (debateably lie) may not even be necessary. Secondly, the poetic mind of Chesterton nutured in a late 19th century is not an accurate depiction of the common child today. The reality of our time is, like you said, materialistic, securalist, and it seems historically inaccurate. There are people touting Christ as a myth, which makes a Santa conversation quite awkward. Someone shared a story about telling their child the truth about Santa; they asked, “Do you know who else is not real (referring to the Easter Bunny)?” The child responded, “God?!”

  9. Joe, I respectfully dissent. You are basically saying it’s a sin for our crazy uncle to pull a quarter out of ears when we were kids. Santa is a giant prank society plays on kids, that’s entangled with a moralizing element. Be good, and you’ll win the prize.

    Pranks aren’t sinful. Moralizing myths are good.

  10. I disagree with Joe (a first, actually). But not for the reason that it’s a harmless prank. It’s because I believe Santa Claus is real. He does not exist (any more) in the way that you and I exist, but he exists in a similar way to that by which charity and selflessness exist. Those concepts require human beings to believe in them as virtues and then create means and methods of carrying them out in the real world. I have begun teaching my kids about Santa. And as they get older they will learn the difference between the way Santa exists and the way mommy and daddy exists. And I believe they (and the world) will be better for it. There’s nothing wrong with making Santa an embodiment of giving in our culture, nor is there anything wrong with making St. Valentine an excuse to send romantic cards or to encourage husbands and wives to go on dates.

  11. When I was two years old, I gleefully announced that Santa didn’t bring presents, Mommy and Daddy did. And was deeply pleased that there wasn’t this strange man barging into my home in the middle of the night while I was asleep.

    Believing in Santa is not a wonder and a delight to all children.

  12. Merry Christmastide!

    In Hungary Santa comes on December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas and on Christmas Eve the little baby Jesus brings the gifts according to tradition; just like in South America.

  13. Simply put, you’re wrong. There are no ill effects for children believing in Santa Claus. I believe in Santa and my wife believes in Santa and my children, two of which are now adults, believe in Santa.

    Without reading your article in its entirety (ugh), I assume that your problem lies with the English language which does not understand that Santa is not a first name, but a Title. It means Saint. Therefore, English speaking Catholics are overly influenced by the myth, especially since they are in such close proximity to the Protestants who have rejected all Saints.

    All a Catholic has to do is remember to distinguish the legend from the historical and canonical Saint Nicholas. Our secular friends keep the mythos alive. That is there business. I won’t deflate the hopes and dreams of their children.

    At the same time, I won’t do that to mine either. Nor will I put my children in the position of being harbingers of depressing news to their secular friends.

    We instructed our children from the time they could understand. “Santa Claus” is real, he is Saint Nicholas, a Saint of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church believes in him. So do we. Let your friends believe in flying reindeer if they want to. Santa Claus works by the miraculous power of God.

    And every Christmas we would say a special prayer to Santa on his feast day and send him a letter. we told our children this letter was just like the special prayer requests we stuff into the box at Church.

    Now that they are grown up and no longer await Santa’s gifts on Christmas morning, Santa’s presence in our house is growing less. But I hold a special place in my heart for the Saint to whom God has given so much influence to spread love and good cheer to so many people in so many parts of the world.

    As for the true meaning of Christmas. Our children have always known that Christmas is not CHRISTmas without Christ.

    Some were mentioning the different traditions of Christmas. Our cousins in Mexico await the Magi (Reyes Magos; Epiphany) on January 6th to exchange gifts.

    Sincerely,

    De Maria

  14. I’m glad for this post because I haven’t found anything in your previous posts to disagree with, and disagreement is the spice of life. First I would quote GK Chesterton: “Pretending is not deceiving”. Second, I would question the point that pretending about Santa can also cause our children to question the existence of God. Rather, I would question the existence of anyone who upon finding that Santa was not real jettisoned their belief in God also. I would also argue that Santa and even the presents (!) are part of what makes Christmas such a special time of year. The fun, the pretend, the lights, the presents, the Christmas eve Mass, the songs, the t.v. specials, It’s A Wonderful LIfe, all go to make an incredible time of year. All of these things, the profound and the base, leave a lasting mark on us. That’s why even the hardest adult feels some nostalgic longing at Christmas more than any other holiday. This sense of longing and deep feeling creates a special atmosphere where it seems evident that people are warm and open to the message of Christmas. Far from distracting from this true message, Santa is part of the fun and excitement of this time of year when we are reminded that “God is near”.

  15. I’m late to this party, but have to chime in…

    I’m pleasantly surprised by your boldness with this post, and also a little disheartened by some of the comments. Most especially, I’m shocked by the implications of some comments that Santa could absolutely have no ill effect on children. When I learned that Santa was not real, the very next thought in my head was “Wait…then is God real?” Over time, I justified my childhood and teenage atheism with the idea that Santa motivates children to behave and God motivates adults to behave. I felt brilliant for discovering this. As for my parents, I never really trusted them again. In some ways, the Santa scam was a launching pad for my anti-Catholicism. While some folks would like to insist that Santa is “harmless fun,” I sure hope they’re right. Perhaps my children would not be so strange a thinker as I was, but it’s not a gamble I’m going to take.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Hi Christina,

      You said,

      Most especially, I’m shocked by the implications of some comments that Santa could absolutely have no ill effect on children.

      That is a complicated statement frought with presuppositions.

      1st. I’ve also heard that “a few” children are scarred when they hear that Santa “isn’t real”. But that is the lie. Santa is real. He’s Saint Nicholas. The real, historical, person who did the exploits which led him to be canonized a Saint of the Catholic Church.

      2nd. You are reflecting your experience upon all children. I personally was not scarred nor was I disappointed when I found out that my parents were buying my toys.

      Again, I know that a few kids were disappointed. But to claim that this disappointment leads children into atheism, I believe that goes beyond the pale. Unless someone can produce some numbers to substantiate this purported problem.

      3rd. I not only believe that the legend of Santa Claus is harmless fun. I believe it is beneficial for the upbringing of our children. Not only did we keep the true story of Saint Nicholas alive. We also brought our children up believing in the tooth fairy.

      4. How does the story of Santa Claus benefit the children? It is an opportunity to read to them, every year, the wonderful life story of Saint Nicholas. His personal character is something which any child should be taught to emulate and admire.

      5. The toot fairy, on the other hand, that was just fun for my wife. She had to figure out a way to sneak the tooth out and put some money under the pillow without waking up any of the children who all slept together. Confession is good for the soul. I had fun, too.

      And finally, as a Parent, it is your responsibility to raise your children in the manner you see fit. If you believe that teaching them the truth about Santa is not good for them, so be it.

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