If a young child figures out the truth about Santa Claus, he typically is instructed not to tell other children for fear of spoiling the story for them. But if a child believes in Santa, she is never instructed to keep the story to herself. This does not appear odd, until you consider the children of parents who intentionally choose not to introduce the Santa story in the first place.
Among these children are those whose parents may have figured that it already is so difficult to form children’s imaginations according to the mysteries of the Christian faith that spending a half-dozen years or so perpetuating a story that the kids would eventually discover to be untrue (and then having to reshape the Christmas narrative for the purposes of their religious education) ... well, maybe that is all just more trouble than it is worth. Christmas is one of the prime times for sparking the imaginations of children, and the ubiquity of Santa Claus makes it far more likely than not that his figure and myth will play a leading role how Christian children’s imaginations are formed year after year.
Santa Claus is not evil, but the dominance of his image is unhealthy for the Christian imagination. This isn’t a “Christians against the secular world” sort of thing. Instead it is a recognition of the fact that the enthusiasm and affections of children shape not only what they think about and wish for, but also what they want and believe to be true.
Though more could be said, I would like to offer three observations as to how the figure of Santa Claus inverts traditional Christian belief and thereby slowly, subtly and simply by default teaches our children a set of counter-assumptions that, in the end, actually make the Christian faith more difficult to receive.
Santa Claus and the image of God
We sing a lot of songs this time of year, and we teach our children to sing them. Among these cherished songs, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is the one that captures the essential image of Santa Claus in just a few short verses:
“You better watch out / You better not cry / Better not pout / I’m telling you why / Santa Claus is coming to town. / He’s making a list / He’s checking it twice / He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice; / Santa Claus is coming to town. / He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake / He knows when you’ve been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake!”
Let’s state the obvious: The idea of someone — anyone — watching you all the time is alternately creepy and deeply unsettling. And yet, this is precisely what the psalmist confesses about the God he praises:
“Lord, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. You sift through my travels and my rest; with all my ways you are familiar. Even before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it all” (Psalm 139:1-4).
If there is someone who sees all and knows all — seeing you and watching you all the time — the really important question is: Who is this?
In the Christian imagination — flowing in continuity with the Jewish imagination — the God who sees all and knows all is the one whose seeing is always mercy, and whose mercy always works. In the Book of Exodus, beginning in the second chapter, God is the one who sees suffering and moves to respond, in person. With Santa Claus, the one who sees all and knows all is a moral arbiter who rewards vaguely conceived right conduct and punishes vaguely conceived wrong conduct. We must therefore ask ourselves: Whom do our children imagine is watching them and knowing them, fully and completely?
This is not an either-or matter, as in “Santa Claus or God.” It is much more a matter of Santa Claus shaping and reinforcing a predominant image of God, and this image bears a weak resemblance to the God whom Jesus teaches us to call Father. In fact, the image of Santa Claus nicely lines up with the image of God that the sociologist of religion Christian Smith has described as operative in what he calls the default religious system of modern Americans, especially American youth.
Moralistic therapeutic deism is a religious disposition built on basic assumptions such as that there is a God who watches over the world; this God wants people to be good, nice, and fair; that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself; that God is not particularly involved until needed; and good people receive rewards, like going to heaven (see “Soul Searching,” Oxford University Press, $40.95).
Santa Claus is basically the image of God that this attenuated version of Christianity conceives of. The problem, then, is not with forsaking Christianity outright, but with settling for far too little. Since Santa Claus plays such a large role in the imaginations of most American (Christian) children, he functions to confirm the default assumptions about God that our modern culture is likely to communicate to them already. In the end, we may be unintentionally teaching our children that God is, for all intents and purposes, like Santa Claus.
Santa Claus and the image of St. Nicholas
The image of Santa Claus impacts the image of God, but it also impacts the image of the saints. In particular, Santa Claus is almost the complete inversion of the image of St. Nicholas on whom our modern seasonal character is presumably based. While we might assume that Santa Claus practically does what St. Nicholas did in bestowing gifts, what we miss is just how far apart the two figures are in terms of their essential characteristics.
In a recent public lecture on St. Nicholas, the University of Notre Dame’s Gabriel Radle pointed out these discrepancies with good humor:
“What we have here in the United States, which for better or worse is spreading throughout the world and wiping out centuries’ old St. Nicholas traditions, is really ... a watered-down St. Nicholas who no longer comes on his feast day but instead lives with magical reindeer on the North Pole and seems to have thrown off his life of abstinence and gotten himself a wife. He also seems to suffer from gluttony and the lack of self-control in front of chocolate-chip cookies.”
Nicholas himself was formed in the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, but the modern image of Santa Claus, who is purported to represent the saint, undoes those characteristic markers. In fact, much of the image of Santa Claus is not derived from the legend of St. Nicholas but rather from “The Life and Adventures Santa Claus” by L. Frank Baum, the creator of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Just as the image of Santa Claus confirms the image of God that has become commonplace in contemporary American life according to moralistic therapeutic Deism, so does Santa Claus replace the saint he loosely but unfaithfully represents as the one worthy of imitation. Santa Claus approves of rather than critiques the habits of modern excess with which we have become accustomed, while St. Nicholas himself would challenge these habits and even provide remedies to them through his particular example of holiness.
Santa Claus and the Magi
In the movie “Elf,” Will Farrell tells the department-store Santa who “smells like beef and cheese” that he sits “on a throne of lies,” because Farrell’s character — Buddy the Elf — knows the real Santa. There is a different kind of fallacious enthronement with Santa Claus in the modern world, who usurps the authority of three other monarchical figures: the Magi. What happens in the shift from the travelers from the East to the jolly man from the North is simply this: The three wise men make a journey to the Christ Child in the manger, while Santa Claus makes a journey to us bearing gifts.
For the Magi, Christ is the goal; for Santa, we are.
What changes between the Magi and Santa is the focus of attention and the journeys that are undertaken. The Magi traveled long distances to present not only their wealth but also their adoration to the infant who relativized their own power and corrected their deficient wisdom. They went to him.
By contrast, Santa comes to us. Each of us — each of our children — is the end of the journey. There is nowhere for our children to go, nothing for them to long for, no one for them to seek, because what our children wish for comes to them where they are ... so long as they are “good”.
The difference in moving the focus of attention from the Christ (to whom the Magi point) to ourselves and our children (to whom Santa Claus points) is a subtle but decisive thing. It is not unlike how the observable differences between the sun being the center of the solar system and the earth being that center are at first negligible, but ultimately determinative for the whole astronomical narrative. Moreover, one narrative is true and one is not. The Magi show how Christ — the gift given to creation, to all of us — is someone to be sought, to practice being open to and to offer all we have, including our hearts.
Changing cultural practices
We Christians are well aware of how challenging it is to raise children in the Faith and to help them set their hearts on the God who loves them in Jesus Christ. We know we need all the help we can get: every saint and angel, and every other good influence besides. So while it is not everything, something we can do for our children and for one another is to seriously consider giving up Santa Claus. It’s time.
In the space that Santa would vacate in our children’s imaginations — or maybe, as is more likely, in our children’s children’s imaginations — the wondrous and merciful God whom the psalmist knows may find broader welcome.
By sacrificing a story we have held for too long now, the jolly indulgence of Santa that has come to entertain our children may yield to the beautiful and challenging witness of St. Nicholas that would nourish them.
And when our children think year after year, whether idly or actively, about how they ought to orient their lives, perhaps they will shift from the false wisdom of sending up wishes and worrying about behaving in order to get what they want, toward a more challenging but true desire of seeking to adore Christ, who is the reason in every season.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at Notre Dame.