Parenting Challenges

Santa Claus And Jesus – A Christian Perspective

Much of what this blog focuses on is building children up in the character and person of Jesus. As Christian parents, I think a good question to ask is: Does what we say and teach in regards to Santa Claus and Jesus honor our values?

Does the Santa story and our participation in it help or hinder our message as followers of Jesus? If you’re wondering about this, it’s great that you are thinking deeper. I’ll share with you my story of coming to terms with what it means to me below, and hopefully it’ll be helpful to you.

Jesus and the Santa Claus story

Is Santa Claus Real?

As parents we are all in on the big secret. And that’s where the problems begin. Is keeping secrets and covering up lies something you want to teach? Don’t forget that more is caught than taught, so “Do as I say and not as I do” won’t get you very far.

It’s important to consider the role secrets play in your household. And consider what makes a good reason to hide the truth.

What I was taught about Santa as a child

For your context, I think it’s best if I share my experience with the Santa story. I grew up without Santa because my mom was still upset about being lied to as a child. Also my parents were very religious and “Christmas not about Santa.”

While I recognize that these are legitimate objections, I still felt robbed as a child. Among my peers, I was alone in my knowledge and therefore lack of excitement surrounding this “magical” part of Christmas. There was no wonder or mystery to contemplate.

I realize now that it’s not the magic of Santa I missed in childhood, but the true magic of Christmas – the miracle of Christ on Earth.

Doing Santa with my own kids

So I started to “do Santa” in my own way, but in light of my heightened awareness in recent years, particularly regarding predators and grooming, I decided to lay the Santa story to rest.

What does Santa have to do with grooming? Well, the Santa at the store is actually a man who pretends to be something he isn’t. In order to get in his good graces to receive gifts, a child is often asked to violate the norms of how we would want our children to engage with any other stranger who beckons our child to sit on his lap.

This man holds all the power and promises to give you gifts if you’re “good” or cut you out if you displease him. Maintaining his power and position are a web of lies, manipulation, and even spies.

What does Santa have to do with Jesus?

Jesus and the Santa Claus story - what does Santa have to do with Jesus?

Lessons of the Santa Story

Of course, Santa isn’t in the Bible. The mythological character of today is based off of a man who lived over 1,000 years ago himself! What we can examine is how we apply the Santa story and what it teaches our children. Is it in line with the way Jesus lived and taught?

Trust

For me, one of the most important things for my relationship with my kids and my ability to have influence over their lives in the long run is my trustworthiness. You only get unwavering trust from your children for a very short while before they start to question you. Then it’s up you to prove your are worthy of their trust.

Taking advantage of their natural trust as a young child tells them that you can’t be counted on to tell the truth. What’s more, they learn a great deal about deception and just how far you will go to deceive them. It betrays your integrity and does not reflect the person and character of Christ.

If I go to great lengths to deceive my child in the name of “fun” what does that say about what I value most? What kind of example is it? Is having fun a good excuse for lying?

If I lie to them about Santa, what’s to keep my from lying to them about Jesus? My words have lost worth.

Not only does the current Santa paradigm undermine our authenticity and integrity, but it undermines it in our kids. I want to know my kids, really know them. And I want to talk about uncomfortable truths with them.

Authenticity

I’ve done some personal work to stop myself from using negating talk like, “Don’t cry,” “It’s not that bad,” and “Calm down.” Even though it may make me uncomfortable to see them cry or be angry, it’s important to me that they learn to identify and accept their feelings. How else will they learn to be authentic with themselves and others?

Santa says “you better not cry,” but the Psalmist says of God, “You number my wanderings. You put my tears into your bottle. Aren’t they in your book?” And John records that Jesus did not hold back his tears, but in even in public Jesus wept.

Santa says "you better not cry," but Jesus wept. #YouBetterNotCry #ThingsNotInTheBible Click To Tweet

While the threat of Santa’s ire may convince your child to comply in the holiday season, it’s teaching them to behave for the wrong reasons. It’s teaching them to behave for a reward or for fear of judgement. It’s the same practice predators, fascists, and cults depend on to get compliance.

Obedience that pleases God is done out of love. I want my kids to do what I tell them as an act of love and trust, not to please some judgmental old man who’s holding all the cards.

With the rise of the Elf on the Shelf has come increased leverage to control children’s behavior. Ever present is the lingering threat of losing out on “gifts”and having a sad and shame-filled Christmas day.

Discernment

I want my kids to trust their gut, to speak up when something feels wrong, and to question the stories they’re told. I’ve heard of parents silencing an older child who was figuring it out by telling them if they don’t believe in Santa, they get no gifts. This invalidates a child’s trust in his own discernment or thrusts them into the world of keeping an open-secret. It values keeping up the charade over truth.

“Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2, HCSB).

I’ve gone to great lengths to shape and educate my children that no other person has a right to their bodies. I don’t force them to hug or touch anyone, especially not strangers. But, I’ll admit, I have laughed at the photos of kids crying in Santa’s lap. The subtext is, “Silly babies, don’t they know that this strange man is safe and here to bring them good things?”

We ignore their rightful distaste for being placed in the hands of a complete stranger. Has every man who plays Santa been background checked and his only intentions for wanting to handle children been proven pure? Even so, are all the predators in the system?

Regardless, forcing a child into a stranger’s lap for a photo op or to whisper wishes betrays their body boundaries.

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Jesus and the Santa Claus Story

Gratitude

The current model of Santa bringing gifts is contrary to the very meaning of a gift. Merriam-Webster defines a gift as “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.”

Santa’s gifts are dependent on behavior. Why should a child be grateful for gifts from Santa? They are compensation, not gifts. Do they write thank you letters for his generosity or do they feel entitled and relieved that they have been deemed “good enough”?

And here’s another reason why. One year, a friend shared that after spending a great deal of money on a very nice gift “from Santa” for her child, it was almost immediately broken. When the mother got upset, the child responded, “Why do you care? You didn’t pay for it.”

A definitive part of having gratitude is recognizing and valuing the kindness of the giver. Santa gets his toys from enslaved elves and magic. Alternatively, the kids could receive gifts that based on the kindness of those who love them. Sharing the beauty of this truth gives them a taste of unearned grace and an opportunity to experience genuine gratitude. 

Contentment

The Santa paradigm places all focus on the child, their wants, and their behavior. It encourages self-contentedness.

Every interaction becomes about them being good enough to earn their gifts. They are told to make a list, not of what all they are thankful for, but of all their wants and desires. Their focus is turned away from the good gifts that they may have just spent Thanksgiving being thankful for to getting their parents ready for the big shopping day.

Not only does this breed discontentment with what they have, but also with themselves. They are being watched and judged at every turn. One wrong move and they might be declared “bad” and lose all that they wished for or they might be perfectly “good” and feel self-righteous and entitled to their “gifts.”

Generosity

Your parents who’ve told you no throughout the year are about to be overridden by Santa. Be good and he’ll give you what your stingy parents won’t. Of course, as mentioned above, these gifts are dependent on behavior. So they aren’t really gifts, but compensation.

This conceals the example of generosity. Not even Santa is generous. He is not giving freely out of his own kindness.

Additionally, all their self-focus leaves little room for considering how they might give generously to others. If they have not freely received, why freely and abundantly give? 

What Happened When I Told My 6 Year Old

I told him that Santa is pretend. My then 6 year old had been asking questions quite directly and I decided the jig was up.

I asked my older daughter, who has known for a few years now what her thoughts were on Santa in hindsight. She said it didn’t bother her much, except that looking back knowing she was sitting on some strange man’s lap kind of creeped her out. I felt bad about that.

After I told him, my son asked why people dress up as Santa and I said it was kind of like Halloween – for fun. I also told him that we want him to know that we are giving him the gifts because we love him and want to be generous and thoughtful. That it is better to get gifts from people who care about you, than from Santa judges whether you are good or bad, then decides if you get gifts. 

We don’t make him “earn” his gifts. He didn’t remember the gifts “from Santa” so he thought Santa “didn’t know about me” and that’s why he only gave him a candy cane and coloring book (the Santa who drives thru the neighborhood does this – ha!). 

He asked why we give gifts at Christmas. I told him it is because we are celebrating Jesus coming to earth and being born and when someone has a new baby, you give them gifts. 

I also told him about the real St Nicholas, who lived a long time ago in a galaxy (ahem, country) far away. I gave him a brief overview of how this man wanted to help the poor, who had no presents on Christmas.

He took it really well, seemed relieved even.

So You Want To Keep Santa

There are good things to be said about the Santa Claus story. Truth be told the original Santa Claus story had more in common with Christian virtues than our modern tales. In fact, the real St Nick was a generous Christian monk, but the details of all his work aren’t entirely clear.

Sharing the real story surely has value. Breaking the news might sound scary, but truth really is better, in my opinion.

Just because I kicked Santa to the curb doesn’t mean it’s the right way to go for everyone. Here’s some suggestions on how do Santa in a way that doesn’t betray Christian values.

Protect The Value Of Truth

Don’t preach Santa. It’s not needed. The kids will hear lots about it from their friends.

Don’t discourage questioning. 

Thinking through and questioning things is an important part of development.

Don’t fight the truth. 

If they figure it out, if they say “this just can’t be true,” then concede the jig is up. Doubling down makes you doubly untrustworthy. It models fighting for a lie.

Be the one who tells them.

When there’s an important question, when it’s unclear what’s right and true, teach them that you are the one they trust to be truthful.

Don’t lie. 

There’s a way to keep the kids guessing without lying. A few phrases:
 – What do you think?
 – That IS hard to believe.
 – I’m not going to tell you. It’s up to you to figure out.
 – What are your friends saying?
 You get the idea, be dodgy. Respond with questions. Help them talk and work through it. Always have qualifiers like “maybe… it could be… I wonder if… “

Affirm Healthy Boundaries

Encourage Their Discernment

Tell them you appreciate their insights and questioning. Remind them that it’s good not to just take everything at face value and that they shouldn’t always trust whatever their friends say.

Affirm their body boundaries.

Don’t force them to sit on Santa’s lap. Offer to let them stand beside him or avoid Santa all together.

Tell them you are proud of them for speaking up about not wanting to sit on Santa’s lap. Remind them they never have to accept unwanted touch in order to get presents.

Foster Gratitude and Contentment

I like the idea of Santa only giving small gifts leaving the good stuff to be from friends and family. I think it makes a better opportunity for gratitude. You can say or write thank you notes to people you know and see.

Don’t trigger discontentment by putting a lot of emphasis on their “Christmas list.” Bring it up one time, if you must, take notes and drop it. If you’re unsure what to get I’ve found that fun family activities are an awesome gift. One year we asked all our family to contribute towards Disneyland tickets instead of sending physical presents. It was awesome. Last year a good friend bought us a family membership to a museum.

Give them no more than 3 presents. Downplaying the Christmas list helps with how this turns out. I know that may sound crazy to some of you, but consider that they are likely to get presents from many aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. My kids have yet to complain that they didn’t get enough presents.  Last year I spent $20 per kid, this year I went all out and spent $30 per kid.

Clear out your stuff. Before or after presents make sure that you keep the same amount or less space allotted for their possessions. Emphasize that they have plenty to share with those who would have a lot of fun with the toys they no longer want.

Differentiate presents from rewards. If you want to keep the reward aspect, spell it out. Perhaps Santa gives gifts because he is kind and generous, but likes to gives extra rewards to those who their best to do good.

Encourage Generosity

If you do let Santa have all the credit, then credit the kind of character you value. Say something like “Someone traveling around the world to bring presents? Sounds like a lot of work. I think it would take a very generous and kind person to that.” Point out the thoughtfulness and effort family and friends went to in order to give.

Tell the origin story of Saint Nicholas and his concern for the poor.

Help them to buy gifts for others – friends, family, and especially the needy. Focus on how giving to them might make their lives more joyful.

Foster Authenticity and Integrity

Don’t use Santa to manipulate your kids, especially if that means keeping them from expressing their feelings. If they “better not cry” does that mean it’s not OK to feel sad? Does not crying make sadness go away? Encourage them to be who they are and to express what they feel in healthy and acceptable ways.

Drop the gestapo elf and spy Santa. If you want your kids to have integrity, they need to find the value of doing what’s right because it’s right. This is part of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is more powerful and long-lasting than extrinsic (rewards). Manipulating them to get them to behave can make our lives as parents easier in the short term, but in the long term risks making them into hypocrites.

Prioritize Jesus

If building a faith in Christ is important to your family, then show it. Talk more about Jesus than you do anything else during the holiday season. Tell them how Jesus is better than Santa.

Whatever you do, be mindful of the impact of your words and actions. Your witness of Christ is your most important duty as a parent.

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Christina Dronen

Christian mom who practices gentle parenting. Author of the Parenting In Christ Bible study discussion guides.

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4 Comments

  1. Hi Christina, I very much agree with your post. I have a big problem with the lying part. Parents are pretty much teaching their kids it’s okay to lie. So many kids later on feel betrayed and honestly heartbroken when they discover the truth. It’s one of the 10 commandments not to lie and yet some Christians seem fine with it when it comes to Santa. But for our children it can be a sign that you don’t fear God that much, so why should they? My 3 year old knows how Santa works, she knows he’s ‘not from God’, she knows he’s not real and that parents buy the gifts. Thank you for sharing this and hopefully reach some more Christian parents.

    1. Thanks Ann! I think the manipulation on top of the lies might be what bothers me most… and also all the wrong things doing the dance around the lie teaches. I guess actually there could be lots of lessons here (listen to your instincts about getting close to strange men, don’t keep secrets, real gifts don’t come with conditions… etc. But those are best taught from a distance, not from putting the kids through it themselves. Honestly, with the whole #metoo movement in recent years, it’s made me think a lot. Men like Harvey Weinstein pull Santa-like tricks.. secrecy, gifts w/ strings attached, violating body boundaries, lying… I just can’t see putting my kids through that for the “fun” of the Santa Claus Story. Jesus story is full of more wonder, love, hope, and all the things that are truly “magical” mysterious and fun… and most of all true, worthwhile, and encouraging. I do hope this post encourages parents to think… I did a lot of thinking (and observing) over years to get to this perspective!

  2. Christina, I love this. Love it! I was raised a Christian but with Santa. I raised my kids with Santa but a watered down version. The “lying” to your kids was always an issue for me but the other points you bring up – specifically authenticity, obedience and discernment – just hit me right in the face. Makes so much sense! My kids are young adults now — too late — but when the grandchildren eventually show up, these are some thoughts I will share with them. I wasn’t expecting to read this tonight! Thank you for sharing. xx

    1. Hi Michele,

      Thank you for the encouragement and sharing your experience! I hope it’s helpful & encouraging to your kids as parents now. I think when you examine the Santa Story in the context of Jesus, and the kind of relationships he calls us to, it helps. Our relationships with our kids are more important than traditions!

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