My friends and I have an annual discussion that hovers around one central theme. How do you “do Santa” with the kids? They do the traditional Santa-leaving-presents-under-the-tree approach, while I’m a “Santa Truther.” This year, my friend sent me a hyperlink to Matthew Warner’s article titled “Are You Lying to Your Kids about Santa?” I took the bait, read the piece and realized people repeatedly use the same arguments about us “Santa Truthers” that are simply off-base. Let me take a moment to explain and debunk the myths about my kind.
One typical refrain is that people like me simply aren’t as imaginative. Warner begins by comparing Santa to a game he plays with his kid, which involves catching a gigantic imaginary fish.
“Now, is the existence of the fish in this goofy game a part of an elaborate lie? Of course not. We were just using our imagination and teaching our son to do the same. We also showed him how using our imagination lets us have a lot of fun with very little.”
I’m all for, as Mister Rogers called it, “make believe” but it’s not pretending if the kids believe it’s true. For example, my 5-year-old daughter doesn’t believe I’m the Queen of England when I put on a fake British accent, a crown and order her around during playtime. A fake accent or a pretend fish is a far cry from the elaborate half-eaten cookies, the sitting-in-Santa’s-lap photo ops, and cutting the UPS man off at the door so the kids don’t see the box marked “Legos.”
Warner seems to believe the biblical nativity story takes the fun away from the month. “A child’s wonder should be kindled to flame,” he writes, “not stamped out with the cold hard facts as quickly as possible.”
However, the gospel account of the birth of Christ is not cold or hard. In fact, it’s one of the most wonderful and warm stories of all humankind.
The Christmas story is this:
God gave us the perfect gift even when we did nothing to deserve it. (And, in fact, deserved a lot worse than a lump of coal.) Instead of looking at us in our sin and putting us away, God was overcome with love for us. He didn’t hold our wrongdoings against us. Instead, at great cost, He gave us a way to be forgiven and reenter into communion with Him. That gift was His son, in the form of a baby.
The Santa story — other than the tales associated with the historical St. Nick, who’s simply a footnote in this commercial age — is this:
There’s a jolly, wonderful, magical being called “Santa” who is watching you. If you do something wrong, your name will be crossed off the “nice list” and put on the “naughty list.” Want good presents? You had better behave.
Which story is actually better and more comforting? The one that has the added benefit of being true.
Warner, however, believes we should partake in the Santa story in order to remind people of the “reason for the season.” He writes that we should “… join in the drama rather than opt out … We’ve become boring story tellers,” he writes. “Our modern scientific minds have turned us into impotent story tellers. Telling stories is an art performance, not a repeating of scientifically verifiable facts.”
Again, he mischaracterizes us “Santa Truthers.” Rather than “opting out of the drama,” we are choosing to tell a much better story. Parents who tell their kids about the fat guy in a red suit coming down the chimney if they’ve been “good for goodness sake” are actually opting out of the most dramatic story ever recorded in human history. I write stories for a living and understand the need for flair. But the Santa story adds more than flair. It adds elements that, in fact, directly oppose the “good news” of the gospel.
Of course, things are not as clear cut as I make them out to be, according to Warner. For example, “When we read a good bedtime story, we read it like it’s real because it’s more fun and impactful that way … But at the end, when your kid asks, ‘Is that really real, Daddy?’ the answer is rarely as simple as a yes or no. Do princesses and castles exist? Yes, honey. Does princess Jasmine? Well, no. Or maybe she did exist, but this story is only partially true about her.”
But let’s be honest. Have your kids ever asked if Cinderella is real? No, but they would if you told them she was, planted glass slippers in your home during the night and tied their ability to receive copious amounts of candy and gifts to their belief in her existence.
We read a story “like it’s real.” We don’t have to go the extra step and say it’s real. For example, this week, my 14-year-old read to me an alternative ending she wrote to George Orwell’s 1984. How much fun it was to listen to her imagine her own response to a mind-controlling, totalitarian regime. Being able to step into a scenario, knowing full well it’s not happening, is even more of a fun talent than simple trickery.
The bottom line is this: I try not to lie to my kids. I ask them not to lie to me. I certainly am not going to trade the greatest story ever told for the guy in the red suit. That doesn’t mean I shove Santa to the sidewalk.
At lunch on Saturday, an authentic and kind looking Santa Claus sat in a chair, waiting for children to crawl onto his lap and whisper their secret wishes for the big day.
The waitress came up to my kindergartener. “Are you going to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what you want for Christmas?”
My daughter looked up at me expectedly.
“Is he real?” she asked, pointing to the man in the red suit with the white beard. In spite of all of our conversations, she wants him to be. Naomi, like the rest of us, is sure she’d be on the “nice list” if there were such a thing. Convinced of her own goodness, she is happy to embrace the idea of a benevolent Santa rewarding her good deeds.
Which is exactly why we need to always encourage our children to apply the truth of the gospel message to their little hearts.
If you wait just a few minutes, Naomi’s stubbornness or pride will invariably cause her to get into trouble, which is what happened at the restaurant shortly after she sat in Santa’s lap. In that case, I corrected her, swooped her into my arms and loved her.
After you’ve messed up, the “you better watch out, you better not cry” message is cold comfort indeed.
Thankfully we have a better story to tell — one of redemption and forgiveness. How dramatically poetic that it all begins with a virgin, a census, wise men, a cattle stall and the savior of the earth.
That’s the kind of drama that can really invigorate our kids’ lives!