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Believing in Santa

December 8, AD 2011 21 Comments

About this time of year, moms in all corners of the blogosphere pull out their boxing gloves and prepare to battle to the death to defend or decry Santa Claus. Here in the Catholic corner of the blogosphere, the “to Santa or not to Santa” battle takes on a different twist: Santa vs. St. Nicholas.

Last year was my first time experiencing this not-so-jolly holiday blogging past-time. I merely accused the Santa detractors of being communists, unaware that this mild accusation would bring the heat of holiday anxiety down on my head. The whole conversation wrapped up with a post by the Political Housewyf, who is one of my blogging buddies, which I think nicely captures the major arguments against Santa from Catholic moms. Bonnie, another blogging buddy of mine, wrote a post here at Ignitum Today last week which expresses basically the same sentiments.

Over the past few days, I’ve read two other articles on the pro-Santa side which have given me much to consider. I was raised by parents who followed the “we don’t lie to our kids” path, so Santa was never a big part of the holidays for us. I, however, have always loved the myth of Santa. I love everything that surrounds it. I don’t see Santa as just another part of the crass commercialization that surrounds the Christmas holidays in this country; sure, he can be twisted to be a part of it, but I believe that the story and legend of Santa is the one aspect of Christmas that our culture has actually not polluted. I also don’t think that conflating Santa with St. Nicholas does anyone any favors.

Let me explain how we celebrate the holidays. First, there is St. Nicholas’ Day. One of my eldest daughter’s middle names is Nicole, so this is a doubly special day for our family. One of the coolest parts of being a convert and being married to the child of adult converts is that we have no liturgically-related traditions in place. Every year, we get to create our own traditions around the liturgical celebrations. Sometimes we do a good job with them; sometimes I forget about them entirely; and sometimes we just throw out a hasty, “oh yeah, happy name-day, Charlotte” when a facebook friend happens to remind us that it’s the feast day of St. Charles Borromeo. But St. Nicholas’ Day is a different matter.

On the night before St. Nicholas’ Day, we read the children the story of St. Nicholas. We remind them to leave out their shoes and include a special petition for his prayers in our evening prayer-time. That evening, my husband writes the children a letter from St. Nicholas in which he addresses specific areas of improvement in their behavior, areas in which they still need to grow in virtue, and asks them to share their chocolate coins with others, since being able to share is in itself a great gift of God. We read the letter at breakfast, then we usually make some sort of St. Nicholas Bread (this is the one we made this year) and then we take the coins somewhere to share them with people. Last year it was the grocery store; this year it was a basketball game. It’s so lovely to see how excited the girls get about sharing their coins. This year, Sienna was so eager to share that she gave all of hers away before eating even one herself.

When I choose the stories to read on the night before St. Nicholas’ Day, I always skip the ones that explain how St. Nicholas is the inspiration for Santa Claus. That may be true, but the two have become so distinct that I see them as two different entities entirely. We do the Santa thing as well, heartily. Our kids write letters to Santa. We take them to get their pictures made. We always bake cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, and leave them on the fireplace with a big glass of milk. The kids each get one or two special presents from Santa.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, our nightly reading swings between stories of the nativity and stories of Santa. We read Who’s Coming to Our House? and The Night Before Christmas. We read The Clown of God and The Polar Express. We talk about the Annunciation, Mary and Joseph’s journey, Santa’s reindeer, the birth of Christ, and the North Pole. And although I’ve been accused of it, I’ve never once felt that I am lying to my children.

For many years, I considered Santa part and parcel of the world of fairy-tales and magic. I defended the need for fairy-tales on my blog. I threw Chesterton quotes at my detractors with triumph. This year, though, my thinking on Santa has shifted a little.

Santa is a particular creation of the American culture. Other cultures and countries have different traditions, and some have even adopted ours, but Santa, as he is known today, in his red suit, with the big belly, white beard, sweet wife and multiple reindeer is a particularly American construct. Over the years, the true meaning of Christmas has indeed slipped away. Our country is no longer a Christian country. We are pragmatic and scientific and factual and ever so dull. We no longer believe in God, fairies, or anything that we can’t see, touch and prove. Christmas has become a time of hideous materialism, wild over-indulgence, and gross consumerism.

But Santa, to me, says something about the American people. His persistent presence in our holiday traditions and the love that we as a people have for him says that Americans have not lost the capacity to believe in something more. Movies like Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Claus, and The Polar Express capture what Santa really is to us. He is an intangible, fanciful expression of our buried and almost forgotten belief in the goodness of the human person. He is an expression of our longing for something beyond what we have in front of us. He is an expression of our deepest desire, the desire to believe.

The legend of Santa Claus, as Americans know it, gives me hope for the future. It gives me hope that we, as a country, can once more begin to see that there is more to life than presents and libations. It gives me hope that one day we will indeed recover our belief in Someone greater than ourselves, Someone who makes life, and Christmas, truly meaningful.

Santa Claus is the St. Nicholas for those who have lost their faith, and those who never had it. Instead of gold coins tossed into the window of maidens with no dowry, our Santa drops a tantalizing glimpse down our chimneys of the hope and joy that comes from believing in something, and Someone, greater than ourselves. That’s reason enough for me to not discount the tradition of Santa. It’s a unique thing, one of the only unique myths that America has created, and I see no problem with embracing it as fully as we embrace the legend of St. Nicholas. It doesn’t detract from the meaning of Christmas, but adds to it; it gives a new layer of depth and magic to the season in which we celebrate the wondrous birth of the Christ Child, the hope He brings us, the generosity and kindness of the Bishop of Myra, and yes, even the jolly old elf who gives children who believe the desires of their youthful hearts.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Calah Alexander was born and raised Evangelical Christian and converted to Catholicism in August of 2007. She is a married mother of three whose husband is finishing his doctorate in English Literature at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, while she is homeschooling, writing, changing diapers and remembering to turn the oven off. Her website is Barefoot and Pregnant.[/author_info] [/author]

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  • This could be the best blog post I have ever read addressing this topic. Well done!

  • I agree with Michelle. Awesome post!

  • Bonnie Engstrom

    This is a beautiful post and I am especially moved by the last paragraph. I want to shout out, “YES!” as I fist pump the air.
    But that’s just not what Santa is like in my neck of the woods. (Please note this is not me picking a fight – I am sincere and hope you give me some more food for thought!)
    Maybe it’s because I’m sandwiched between two cities with world headquarters for money making companies, but where I live Santa spoils kids with toys. Preparing for Christmas isn’t about being nice, it’s about making lists of expensive gifts. That’s what I saw as a child and what I see now as a parent.
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you do with that part of Santa.

    • It is what value we choose to attach to it as parents. What morals and lessons will we transmit to our children. Making lists is part of our Christmas as well, but so is celebrating Christ’s birthday. Christmas is Christ’s birthday. That takes the forefront of the festivities, and that is up to me, as a mother to ensure that message remains of the upmost importance. Paricularly in the realities you described of momey making companies wanting us to spend money. Perhaps that is what the negative elements of nature would want us to do to take away from the real meaning of Christmas. It is up to us to put into perspective what is important and what experiences we wish to have our children grow up with, not the money grubbing companies.

      I rather have my children value kindness, hope, warm welcomes, helping each other out than materials good. So hold on to your fist pumping joy, and pass it on to your children and let it spread! :o)

  • Yay for St. Nicholas! He still leaves candy in gold wrappers in our shoes at my parents’ house.
    Have you thought about when you will let your kid find out the “truth” about Santa? I feel like Yuletide innocence was too much of a sacred cow in my family, and most of us kids went through a depressed pre-teen phase when we realized the terrible reality that we would not get whatever presents we wanted if we just wished hard enough.

  • My husband and I still struggle to find middle-ground as he doesn’t want to “lie to the kids” and I just want them to “allow them to be kids”. I agree with you that Santa is one of the last acceptable things to allow faith in in our culture. It’s just too bad that many children who are led to believe in Santa will never forgive the let-down of learning he wasn’t real and may apply a stronger skepticism toward religion later in life. I’m just thinking out loud here….still no strong opinion from me on this one I guess. Thanks for your post!

  • Bonnie Engstrom

    I guess what I really want to know is this: How do you not get swept away by the cultural tide? Keeping Santa about magic, joy, wonder, goodness and not letting greed and a sanitized holiday take over seems really, really difficult. I confess it is in part because I feel I cannot do a good job of NOT being swept away by the tide that I have kept St. Nick but gotten rid of the Santa you love (and the Easter Bunny!). So again, I’d appreciate anyone’s insights into how they keep Christ at the center while allowing Santa a bit of the spotlight.

  • Hey Bonnie, sorry I’m just now writing you back. Honestly, I find it easy to not get swept away in the cultural tide, as you put it, for one reason: my kids almost never watch TV. I feel that most of the “Santa spoiling kids with toys” thing comes from TV and commercials. I mean, Target and Wal-Mart and the Mall do their fair share, but to be honest I refuse to shop at Wal-Mart and I never take my kids to the Mall. If we visit Santa, we do it at Half-Price Books or some place like that. Most of the information my kids have about Santa comes from carefully chosen movies and books and things I tell them. When we do go to my parents house and the girls get to watch cartoons or whatever, I do shudder at the commercials, but that’s not something that is in our everyday life. I also do most of my holiday shopping online, or I make the gifts, because I really despise the commercialism and greed in the stores at this time of year. I guess I just make sure that, particularly during this time of year, my husband and I are the ones shaping the holiday spirit in our home. We don’t really let the culture determine how our kids see Santa, mostly because there isn’t much of the culture to be found in our home. Does that make sense? Sarah, personally I kind of think that the whole “children are scarred for life when they find out the truth about Santa” thing is overblown. I’ve never known anyone who was actually scarred by finding out Santa wasn’t real. One of the links I provided in the post is to a letter a mother wrote to her daughter about that very idea. I love the way the mother handled it. I also still believe in Santa. I mean, if the Polar Express showed up at our door I would honestly not be surprised. So I don’t think that children must necessarily grow up and face disillusionment at some point in the future. But as far as kids being disappointed to learn Santa isn’t real and then being skeptical of religion, that argument doesn’t even really make sense to me. I mean, Santa is an idea. He’s an icon. A way of explaining what Christmas is. Much the same as many of the stories in the Bible. I mean, it’s the rare person who actually believes that the world was created in seven days. It’s a way of telling the story so that we can understand. It’s not the facts that matter, it’s the truth the stories convey. Right? So in that sense, I guess I think that Santa and the belief in him would strengthen a child’s faith in religion. It’s the same idea.

    Oh, and Bonnie, don’t even get me started on the Easter Bunny. That’s one stupid and moronic symbol or whatever. We do not do the Easter Bunny. Gag.

  • Karen

    Calah, in your comment above you said that you personally have never known a kid to be disillusioned about Santa and becoming skeptical of religion. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I have a nephew who, when he found out Santa wasn’t real (he was 8 years old), said to my husband, “I don’t know if I can believe anything my dad tells me now. He lied about Santa.” Yes, some kids DO see it as “lying.” And you just don’t know what kind of kid you have when you start out doing Santa. They’re so young. Granted, this kid had other issues at play, but personally neither I nor my husband wanted to take that chance.

    Yes, Santa is an “icon” and an “idea” to you, ss an adult, but to a child, he’s very real as long as Mom and Dad pretend he is, by leaving out cookies and finding the ocokies eaten in the morning. That’s a lot of tangible proof there for the “existence” of Santa. We have less tangible “proof” of the existence of God, comparitively. So a kid might look around and think, however nebulously, “I don’t see any tangible proof of the existence of God, the way I did for Santa. But Santa’s not even real. What assurance do I have that GOD is real?”

    It’s a slippery slope in my opinion. And I grant that millions of people grew up believing in Santa and weren’t scarred by it. Personally, when I found out and accepted he wasn’t real, I felt like a real dope. Like I’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book. It was so obvious, once I realized that handwriting on the presents was the same as my mom’s. I felt like a real fool.

  • Sarah

    Karen – I used that “lied” line on my dad too. But you know what? Within a year, I was totally over it and “got it”. I am so thankful my dad instilled that “spirit of Christmas” in us through Santa! I think some kids just need to grow into the adult joy of Santa, but they will not be scarred for life most of the time. I am sure a lot has to do with the approach too.

    Calah – I think our biggest struggle will be that my Dh loves his TV and all that stuff haha. I am the type who could never turn it on again, but not him. Then again, I just have to learn to trust… he was raised with all the Santa hype as well as the media hype, and he never wavered from his faith. Somehow, he got the true Christmas message through both Mass and Santa. So thanks for the post… gives me much to think about.

  • Old Line State Dad


    Very nice post. I think the way people react to hearing the news often reflects how that news was presented. For me, I heard the whole spirit of Christmas bit, along with the classic “Yes Virginia” poem. My wife and I plan on using that approach with our children, with the added twist that one you become old enough to know the truth, you get to become Santa Claus. That way, the oldest will become co-opted into the post-bedtime Christmas Eve preparations. The important lesson to be taken away is that there is joy in giving, far more so than in receiving.

    Like anything else in life, too much Santa can be a bad thing, more a reflection on Madison Avenue and commercialism than on adding some fun to a joyous religious celebration.

    I truly do not understand those people who not only detest Santa, but feel they have to spread their “joy” to others, as in those recent stories about schoolteachers speaking out to their students. As you point out, “pragmatic, scientific, factual and oh so dull.” There is something to be said for maintaining a healthy sense of wonder, especially in this overly cyncial age.


  • Niki

    Sarah — Kids don’t just “get over it.” This stuff gets lodged deeply into their psyche and plays out later in life. This is Child Development 101.

  • Sarah

    Niki…my minor in college was psyc and child development. There are plenty of things I get about having childhood scars especially considering I am a child of divorce and fit into all those studies that show how damaging divorce is. But sorry, Santa is not something that scarred me. I love the tradition to this day.

  • Ink and Quill

    Old Line State Dad,

    I like that idea! But my mom won’t let me help be Santa because Santa still comes to the Big Kids… however, I am the Tooth Fairy.

    Also, I believed in Santa until sixth grade, and I’m not exactly scarred for life. I like playing the game now–it’s great to be the oldest sometimes.

  • Niki

    Kids are born deserving the truth. It is their birthright. It is not our right to determine when they should have the truth and when they shouldn’t. We are not above the truth, more clever than truth, or better than the truth just because we are parents. Neither is Santa.

    I think many of us believe this. Yet, we continue to lie to our children. Why? Mostly, I think it is because we lie to ourselves. I think many of us never got over the trauma and disappointment of knowing that Santa wasn’t real. Those of us who can acknowledge this move on. Those of us who believe that the lie was not a big deal try to relive the lie through our own children in false hope that there might really be something there.

  • Ink and Quill


    Do you have kids, little siblings, or small cousins (or all of the above)? Do you or your parents read them fairy tales? How old are they? Are they allowed to read Artemis Fowl? (That was a HUGE influence on my theories of fairies and the like for a very long time.)

    These sorts of traditions make the world more magical, just like fairy tales. They feed into the extravagant and wild imagination of small children, who eat up whatever they can get. Kids are, actually, a lot smarter than you give them credit. Plus, eventually they’ll grow out of it naturally–it happens just like that. Provided no annoying little kid shatters a child’s dreams before their time, of course.

    I have a lot more to say on this topic but I think it’ll need to go into a follow-up post to the one Quill and I just wrote a few days ago.

  • Niki

    Ink — Fantasy and fairy tales and myths are absolutely essential to a child’s growth and development. Absolutely. Kids get to work out all sorts of important issues — scary feelings, aggression, being a hero — through something outside of themselves. However, with fairy tales, rarely is there an adult who says, “Child, this story is true.” This is the difference. With fairy tales, myths and fantasy, the child is operating somewhere between the belief that this is true and the wish that it is true. It is called magical thinking. Our job as parents is to help usher our kid to the next stage of development where the ratio become less belief and more wish. But Santa Claus. In many families, Santa Claus involves parents who are working overtime to turn the myth into reality. They are no longer supporting a child’s natural magical thinking but rather something else that has more to do with them than the child.

    When I hear about parents who use different wrapping paper and handwriting to trick their children into believing that the myth is not a myth but some kind of bizarre reality, wow — what is that?. When we lie to a child, we are not just being bad role models. We are suggesting that they cannot always trust what we tell them. And in many cases, we are telling them that they cannot trust themselves. Many children see, hear, smell, feel that Santa is not true. You are right, Ink, they are brilliant, these little children. And we don’t give them enough credit. Instead, we tell them that they are wrong about what they know.

    I think at the end of the day, this issue will never be resolved. I think some people find fantasy so useful to their lives that they are willing to pay whatever price.

  • Sarah

    Hmmm. I can see your point, Niki, but the thing is: Christmas is truthfully about the joy of gift-giving, belief in the miraculous etc. The Christ Child is, of course, the ultimate Gift and about as miraculous and awe-inspiring as it gets. And the original St. Nick literally gave gifts to the poor anonymously (“magically” or miraculously appeared in their homes). Kids often benefit from concrete examples of abstract concepts, so imitating St. Nick’s “magical” gifts makes sense to me. A lot depends on how parents go about executing these concepts as to whether their children grow into a mature understanding of the mystical and the miraculous, as well as true charity. I personally am one who doesn’t like to make a big to-do about Santa, especially if it in some way obscures the truth about Christmas (not everyone who defends Santa is gripping so tightly to him as you seem to believe). But when done well, Santa – yes, even the fantasy – isn’t always “lying.” This is what my father personally explained to me once I was “of age,” and from there I loved Santa even when I knew Rudolph wasn’t literally landing on my roof.

    This year? I watched my niece and nephews listen to their mom read Luke 2 and then sing happy birthday to Jesus followed by opening presents both from Santa and the family. The transition was obvious and seamless to the tiny tots: It’s the miracle baby Jesus’ birthday, and it’s time to open miraculous presents and celebrate. It can really be that simple.

  • Niki

    Sarah — I agree. Santa is full of amazing messages for our children and executed correctly, Santa can be a beautiful thing. I understand that a lot of people don’t take the Santa myth to the extreme. I guess in my posts I am addressing the people that do. I still am not sure if my version of extreme and your version of extreme coincide. I still draw the line at anything that is not truthful in the most literal sense of the word.

    I have spoken about Santa to my children in the following way: “Some people believe that Santa is a real man who comes down the chimney and rides reindeer through the air. What do you think?” I openly encouraged my children to ask questions. They pretty quickly came to the conclusion that Santa was not real, though they fully play it out every Christmas, leaving cookies out for Santa and awaiting his arrival. What we do talk about as real is this: “St. Nick was a real man who helped many people. Through the story of Santa, we celebrate this great man and his deeds. We remember him by giving to others in his spirit.” This part is very very real. My hope is that my children keep this message with them as they grow. I am not convinced that we need to make Santa real in order to give children this gift.

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