Christians and Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick

I love Christmas. Personally, I greatly enjoy the lights, the trees, the scents, the cookies, the giving and receiving of gifts, the cold, the snow (if it comes!), the Christmas movies, the time with friends and family, the delicious and usually huge meals, and so much more.

Yeah. As I’ve stated not a few times – I love Christmas!

And, of course, even more, this is the day the church celebrates the coming of Christ into our world. Light stepping into darkness. The servant king born as a lowly child. The creator coming to commune with the created. I don’t see this as a little add-on to Christmas. But what I’d like to argue is that it is also ok for people to celebrate Christmas for all the other great things I mentioned above, things I also believe bring actual joy to the heart of God.

But the biggie seems to be what to do with modern day Santa Claus (or Father Christmas, as my British wife would call him)? Isn’t he and the whole Christmas gig too heavily wrapped up in western consumerism? Should Christians celebrate those aspects of Christmas and tell their kids about Santa Claus? Isn’t this lying?

Well, I would start off by agreeing that the tidal wave of consumerism that has hit the west in the past few decades has gone way overboard. In many respects, this time of season has become a marriage of gluttony and greed. I have no problem with the exchange of gifts at Christmas time, just as I don’t mind it when celebrating birthdays or milestone wedding anniversaries. But what happens on Thanksgiving eve (it used to be the Friday after Thanksgiving) is a representation of something gone greatly awry in our land. Good deals – fine, great. Yet what happens is a bowing to the gods of consumerism like maybe no other culture and people have done in the history of humanity.

But let’s get back to jolly ol’ Saint Nick. I personally do not have a problem with celebrating Christmas nor of telling the story of Santa Claus. It is interesting to note that the story of Santa Claus is based upon the real historical figure within church history, Saint Nicholas. But, of course, most are not aware of the man, Nikolaos the Wonderworker, bishop of Myra. I’m not throwing that in there as the trump card to give a pass on Christmas festivities. I’m just making it known.

Why doesn’t the Santa story bother me?

Simply stated: I believe God takes great delight in the amazing opportunity of drawing children into magical tales of “otherworldy” accounts. Those stories that begin with, “Once upon a time….,” are the stories that capture our hearts, our children’s hearts. And I believe there is something truly magical about the whole setting of Santa Claus and Christmas. Or I there should be. If you don’t think so, watch The Polar Express. An absolutely fantastically magical movie! My wife and I just watched it with our kids the other night and I loved every moment of it.

You see, this is what drove someone like C.S. Lewis in his writing of stories such as The Chronicles of Narnia (and there are many others). None of it was “real.” However, they did speak of reality. In these we find remarkably enchanting tales telling us of something greater, giving us a taste of another world, reminding us there is more than meets the eye.

Now, people might be quick to argue that the spiritual overtones are quite obvious in The Chronicles of Narnia. But, with Santa Claus, we have crossed the line. Yet, for the average person who has never read the Bible, I don’t think things are so obvious in some of Lewis’ works. But here is a series that has captivated the imaginations of millions, teaching them something of the eternal (and magical) drama taking place, if only they were able to see slightly past the parted curtain of our own world into the next.

So, just as in The Chronicles of Narnia, all magical tales can carry a sense of divine undertones, drawing people in to the greater redemptive story of God. This is true in works like The Lord of the Rings and in non-Christians fantasy fiction and science fiction books. I’m captivated by Hogwarts myself. God is quite capable of such, even if an author had no such intentions. John Eldredge reminds us of this in his book, Epic: The Story God is Telling.

You see, I find no harm in letting children be drawn in to the marvelous stories available to us. Let it be The Lion King or Aladdin or whatever other story (in book or film). But they captivate children (and hopefully us). And I think God meant it that way. In that amazement, I believe children are getting a touch of their creative Father and the age to come that will be beyond anything we could think or imagine. John’s Revelation was written as imagery to explain what is to come. Not the exact, detailed and complete science of it all. But imagery, pictures, a drama.

And so, with good ol’ Saint Nick, or Santa Claus, here is a character who stands as a magical draw into something more than we see here in this world, something special and otherworldly. I believe we don’t have to be afraid of such. Rather we allow children, and even ourselves, to be captured by such a character and story, reveling in the fact that this calls us into the greatest story and character of all time.

Now, to where the rubber meets the road – Is this lying?

Most will look at Exodus 20:16, quoting the 9th of 10 commandments – You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

There can be a lot of discussion around the preposition “against” in this verse and whether it should be translated as “to” or even another word. You can see how the preposition in English can change the meaning of the statement. Hopefully I won’t bore you to death, but for those interested, I’ll lay out some exegesis points here.

As I glance at the Hebrew for “against your neighbor” in Ex 20:16 (bərê‘eḵā), this combination word is used only one other place in the Old Testament, in Prov 24:28. The same translation of the combo word comes through that verse: “Be not a witness against your neighbor without cause, and do not deceive with your lips.” Quite clearly, the call is to not participate in intentional acts of deception against others.

Still, let’s consider the larger context of the 10 commandments. Most people note that the first 4 commandments have to do with loving God, while the last 6 deal with loving your neighbor. And I would say, outside the command of honoring one’s parents, the final 5 have to do with things we are called to not do against our neighbor. For example:

  • You shall not commit murder [against your neighbor]
  • You shall not commit adultery [against your neighbor]
  • You shall not commit thievery/steal [against your neighbor]
  • You shall not bear false witness [against your neighbor]
  • You shall not covet [against your neighbor]

Again, the message comes clearly through these commands. It’s a charge of what not do against one’s neighbor, especially with intent. In particular, bearing false witness has an intent to deceive – and deception is sinful.

Therefore, I am convinced that, to tell the story of Santa, as if it were real, is not “bearing false witness against” the person. Just as I am not bearing false witness against or deceiving my two sons when I don’t tell them that every story I read at bed time is just a story. Rather, the intent is to stir the beauty, creativity, excitement, amazement and magicalness of our Creator through both the stories I make up on the spot and the stories of old written in books.

It might also come up that, if we tell our children Santa is real, and then they find out he isn’t actually real, they could end up paralleling that false reality of Santa with Christ and the Christian truth. And that could lead to a faith crisis.

First off, it is a noteworthy concern. And, of course, anything is possible. I am sure there are stories of such, though I’ve yet to meet many in that boat. How I’d answer that is to say, if anyone does pull the card of equating Santa and Christ, I’ve seen it usually come in a kind of Richard Dawkins-esque way. Such an argument can be left to itself. It doesn’t need much. Really, Christ synonymous with Santa?

Now, if we wanted to consider things from a more psychological standpoint, I’d be pretty certain that this narrative of equating the validity of Santa with the validity of Christ actually doesn’t begin in the mind of a 10-year old. Something like this: “Hmmm. Santa isn’t real. That was a made up story mommy and daddy told me. I wonder if this Jesus account is the same? Could it be just as made-up as Santa?”

Here’s how I believe it really happens: You’ll find people that might doubt the Christian faith at some point, as a late teen in college or whenever, and once they make the jump to abandoning the faith, they then start to formulate the concept that the Christ account is about as true as the Santa account. Put simply: it’s a formulated argument post-de-conversion. Meaning: I’ve abandoned the faith, this silly Christian story. I’m really angry at what those Christians did to me. It’s a sad narrative and it happens frequently (though the equating Santa and Christ not so frequent). But all sorts of arguments that don’t hold water begin to form in the minds of such faith-abandoning folk. Still, equating Santa and Christ is not an argument that carries any weight. Fundamentalist atheist arguments are problematic even for most atheists.

Now, each parental couple must guide their kids as they know best. I can’t tell you how to parent your kids in telling them stories, including the Santa story. But what I am trying to do is relieve the fears that I find amongst many Christian parents (unhealthy fear is never a good driver for decisions). And I think the fear that their child might equate Santa and Christ is an unhealthy fear to embrace. If your child abandons the faith, it won’t be because they saw Christ and Santa in the same boat, and that it’s all your fault you told them the Santa story.

I’m also looking to encourage those parents who don’t participate in the Santa story to not create a major uproar over those who do participate in it. Combat the American idols of consumerism, yes. But the Santa story at its base is not necessarily part of that narrative. That’s what we are trying to teach our own 3 and 5-year old as best we can even now, while we also enjoy the Santa story.

In the end, I am convinced that the Santa Claus account is beautiful, magical, amazing. And I don’t mind if my children see it this way as well, getting caught up in the story itself. If they ask if it’s all actually real, inquiring with concerning minds (and my 5-year old is pretty bright already), I will have that important conversation. I’ll tell them that the Santa story does remind us of real-ity. There is another world at our fingertips. And we might just open the wardrobe (we actually have a Narnia-type wardrobe in our bedroom) and find a secret entrance into another whole world.

Happy Christmas!

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