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How Santa can be part of a Christian celebration of Christmas

POSTED: December 10, 2017 5:19 a.m.
An Irish priest recently urged Christians to abandon the celebration of Christmas because the holiday has been hijacked by Santa Claus and his eight tiny reindeer.

But many Christian families embrace Santa while keeping the focus of the season on the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ.

The key is how Santa is presented, say Christian parents who welcome Santa into their home every year. When Santa is a small part of the celebration, not its pinnacle, children are less likely to fixate on gifts and the secular aspects of the season.

And when parents connect Santa to the Turkish saint whose legend began many of our holiday traditions, a visit from St. Nicholas can nourish, not undermine, a child's religious faith.

"The American Santa Claus can be a minor, fun part of the Christmas holiday. There is no need for Christians to reject him," said Carol Myers, founder of the St. Nicholas Center in Holland, Michigan.

"Because the Incarnation is such a wonderful and amazing event, it makes sense that it would be celebrated in all kinds of ways, including ways that just add to the joy of the season. However, it all depends on where a family puts its own focus and emphasis," she said.

Bad Santa?

According to a 2015 poll, 7 in 10 American households with children 10 or younger have at least one child who is expecting a white-bearded man to show up with gifts between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

And according to research conducted by two developmental psychologists, those children are likely to reside in families who profess religious faith. Thalia Goldstein, an assistant professor who teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, is the co-author of a study that examined types of Santa promotion by parents, such as taking their children to see Santa at the mall.

"Our research shows people who are not religious are not going to be doing this at the level of somebody who also perhaps has an Advent calendar, has a Nativity, and who is taking their children to church and to religious pageants," Goldstein said.

There is, however, a subset of Christians who celebrate Jesus' birth, but shun any association with Santa.

In Ireland last month, the Rev. Desmond O’Donnell made headlines worldwide when he said Christians should stop using the word “Christmas” and leave the holiday to secular society. The Dublin priest said he wants a separate celebration “for believers for whom Christmas has nothing to do with Santa and reindeer.”

Some Christian families shun Santa because they believe he is the antithesis of what Christmas is about. They note that “Santa” is an anagram of “Satan,” and say that Santa eclipses Jesus, or worse, makes children skeptical of God when they become suspicious about Santa. They also worry about losing their children’s trust by propagating something their children will eventually discover isn't true.

But Keri Wyatt Kent, a Christian author and mother of two, said “we steal something precious” from our children by shutting the door on Santa and not allowing them to indulge in a tradition that is not just part of American celebrations, but cultivated worldwide.

“I’ve had acquaintances who said we don’t do the Santa thing because if we tell our kids there’s a Santa and they find out there isn’t, and then we tell them about Jesus, they won’t believe us about that, either. I thought that was silly. There’s not really a Goldilocks and the three bears, but parents read it to their kids,” she said.

“They need to understand stories. On a literal level, they’re not true, but they communicate truth, just like Jesus’ parables," she said. "Technically, there was no Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is a made-up character in a parable — by definition, not a true story — yet it communicates a truth.”

Maturing in faith

Kent's children are now 21 and 23 and matured without accusing their parents of lying or losing their faith, despite having parents who carefully cultivated Santa, to the point of having a secret stash of wrapping paper.

Similarly, Christopher and Linda Fenoglio of Nashville, Tennessee, raised three children in a home that welcomed both Christ and Santa, as evidenced by their fireplace mantel, which always has both stockings waiting for Santa to fill, and a creche just above them.

Christopher Fenoglio, who recently wrote a book that helps parents negotiate Santa as their children mature, said that, done properly, Santa can help a child grow in faith. The family in his story, "The Secret of the Santa Box" come to understand that everyone has a role to play as Santa, reflecting the goodness, generosity and mercy of God.

The original St. Nicholas did just that, said Myers, the founder of The St. Nicholas Center. She believes that a thoughtful presentation of St. Nicholas leads children away from relentless commercialism of the season and toward an ethic of giving.

"I first became interested in St. Nicholas when our children were small. I wanted them to understand that there was a person of faith behind Santa Claus — a real person who served God and gave gifts to help others," Myers said.

"We hoped that understanding who Santa really was, Saint Nicholas, would help them connect faith and giving. And, just maybe, it would help avoid some seasonal greed," she said.

Saint Nicholas, according to the St. Nicholas Center, lived in the third century in a village on what is now the southern coast of Turkey. He inherited his parents' wealth when they died in an epidemic and vowed to use the money to assist the suffering and needy, often anonymously.

The custom of hanging stockings for Santa to fill is associated with a story about Nicholas, who later became a bishop in the Christian church. In that story, Nicholas secretly gave bags of gold to a family whose daughters lacked a dowry to be married, and when he tossed them in the house, the gold landed in newly washed stockings hung by the fire to dry.

Santa's role, of course, is specific to every American family. Some have him deliver both presents and a decorated tree on Christmas Eve; others let him fill stockings but leave the gift-giving to members of the family.

In Myers' home, when her children were small, St. Nicholas visited on the evening of Dec. 5 and filled shoes left by the fireplace with candy, small toys and other small gifts. Then Santa visited to fill stockings on the evening of Dec. 24, a small part of the family's Christmas celebration.

"We always talked about how many days until Christmas, until Jesus’ birth, not how many days until Santa Claus comes. If Santa is portrayed as bringing everything, whether he is real or not becomes a much larger question," Myers said.

Likewise, Kent kept her family's celebration focused on Christ's birth, not the visitor from the North Pole; even making a birthday cake each year for the newborn king.

'A good foundation'

While there is no substantial research on whether belief in Santa later undermines religious faith, Jacqueline Woolley, chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, says that belief in Santa can be good for children, helping to develop their imagination when they are young, and even later, as they mature and use their developing reasoning skills to separate the fantastic from the real.

Children typically start fervently believing in Santa around 4, and this belief grows up to about age 6, Woolley said.

“The average age of disbelief is around 8. In most cases, the disbelief process is gradual, and the kids are actually doubting a long time before their parents know that they are. They’re maintaining a façade because I think they’re actually afraid that if they stop believing they might not get the presents," she said.

Regardless of whether or not parents actively promote Santa, it’s difficult to suppress belief in a culture so saturated with Santa that even some Jewish children profess belief.

Woolley's research has shown Santa belief in American children to be as high as 83 percent. Goldstein, of George Mason University, says she's surprised it's not 100 percent.

“It’s been found that it's much easier to induce a child to believe in a character than it is to prevent them from believing in a character,” Goldstein said.

Santa is everywhere: He’s in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade; he’s sitting in the local mall, there’s an elf on the shelf that’s going to report back, all your friends are writing letters and lists. It’s really difficult in the face of all that evidence, of all that cultural pressure, to not believe in Santa.”

When Fenoglio’s three children were little, he and his wife were so committed to Santa that they did not clean up the little bits of ribbon and wrapping paper that fell into the fireplace when Santa came down the chimney.

“And at least on one occasion, one of us snuck outside and rang jingle bells in the dark,” Fenoglio said.

For Fenoglio and many other parents, warm childhood memories of their own spur their promotion of Santa as adults. Fenoglio remembers waking up as a child to find a section of newspaper in front of the fireplace with ashy footprints on it. (Santa is very neat.) And he will likely continue the tradition now that the stockings on the mantel include one for his 2-year-old granddaughter.

“I know that there are some Christian denominations that don’t even want to mention the word ‘Santa’ because it’s not related to the true meaning of Christmas, but to me, there’s nothing wrong with believing in a magical Santa who is very benevolent and loves to give gifts,” Fenoglio said.

“It’s grounded in historical fact, and Santa Claus came from many different cultural traditions. The core elements — living a good life, spreading love and giving to others, is so important now, more than ever, in this day and age," he said.

Keri Wyatt Kent, the writer in Chicago who has defended Santa in Christianity Today, has two bits of advice for Christian parents who want to have an appropriate amount of Santa in their family's Christmas celebration. For starters, leave out the "you better watch out" part of the tradition.

"Santa was part of the fun of Christmas, but I never used it to manipulate my children’s behavior, and I think that’s important," Kent said, adding that Santa's gifts are representative of generosity and grace, whether or not we are deserving.

Kent also says that she wishes that when her children were young, Santa had been a little less generous, doling out gifts in small portions like he did at the Myers home in Michigan.

"One thing I wish we’d done is to say you can get three gifts: Just like Jesus got three gifts on his birthday, you get three gifts at Christmas," she said. "Definitely some kids can get very wrapped up in it; they become little consumers really quickly."

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