When I was 4 and 5 years old, my parents hung our stockings up at the beginning of Advent. Each morning, my younger sister and I would run down to the rec room to see if Santa had left us anything during the night. Finding an empty stocking was a huge relief, because the only reason Santa would leave us anything before Christmas was if we had been bad. Bad children would get a warning, you see. An onion or turnip swelling the stocking’s toe meant we were on probation and we had better shape up before Christmas or we’d end up on the naughty list.
This put the fear of God, er, Santa in me, I can tell you! When it happened to me (and it happened a lot — I reigned over my younger sister with the zeal of a tyrant!), I would rack my brain to figure out what I had done the day before that had garnered Santa’s judgment. Sometimes I knew what it was and I’d apologize for it and promise to do better, but sometimes I didn’t know what I’d done wrong and that was the worst of all. How can you fix something when you don’t quite know what needs fixing? I would worry and fret until Christmas morning. My stocking filled with candy and the presents under the tree were a relief, tangible evidence that in Santa’s estimation, I was a good girl. At least good enough to stay off the naughty list!
I tell this story because when I became a parent, I didn’t use this strategy with my own two children. We didn’t avoid the famous song “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why! Santa Claus is coming to town,” we just didn’t dwell on it. But in some Christian households, the naughty/nice list is important because it shows that Santa and God are kindred spirits. They believe that God does “see you when you’re sleeping and he knows when you’re awake” and all that watching is to see if you are behaving properly, like a good person. And for these Christians, God uses the threat of punishment in the form of hell to convince us of the benefits of being good. In this view of God, it’s not that God is eager to punish us, but he does so to teach us that goodness and evil reap their own rewards. And so the naughty-nice list fits neatly into their theology.
But not so for me. I don’t think God motivates us with punishment. As you can see, my own experience with the threat of punishment didn’t help me be good as much as produce anxiety. A God who punishes is like a Santa who punishes — not someone you can trust to be on your side through thick and thin. I just don’t think God coerces good behavior out of us but sort of nudges us into being better people by loving us. A good example is the way my daughter is responding to being a mom. Her baby is 6 months old and she is finding herself transformed by loving and being loved by her little girl. Gracie makes her want to be a better mom and a better person and the task doesn’t feel burdensome at all. For my daughter, longing to be a better person is a joyful response to loving and being loved. I think that’s how God’s love works in us and on us, too.
I suppose I could have gone the path of some Christian households that eschew Santa altogether. I toyed with that (pun intended) when my children were little. Santa did seem to be a spokesperson for Madison Avenue and a symbol of a consumer identity with very little to do with the reason for the season, as they say. But the use of Santa in this way didn’t fit his modus operandi as far as I could see. Santa doesn’t seek to consume anything himself. He never asks for gifts, he only gives them. But you can’t give without someone getting, so that’s where children come in. It seemed more accurate to think of Santa as a model to imitate: He gives gifts for the joy of it and so should we. That Madison Avenue corrupted his good example for its own pecuniary gain, well, heck — that’s not Santa’s fault.
So I couldn’t quite see my way to ejecting Santa from the season though I also couldn’t figure out how to connect him directly to God’s love. I wanted my children to know that God doesn’t love them because they are good, but that God loves them because God is good. I wanted them to feel as confident of God’s unconditional love for them as the Apostle Paul:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
So I talked with my kids about Santa’s unconditional gift giving on the one hand and God’s unconditional love on the other, but not in any way that provided a meaningful connection. I think I have some ideas now about how to do it which is a good thing since my daughter is already asking for my advice!
So here’s my attempt to connect Santa to the season for 2 to 5 year olds, like my sister and I were. I suggest telling this story about God and Santa to preschoolers:
Santa has one wish every Christmas. He wishes all the children of the world would believe that God loves them.
As you can see, this is a very short story so you can tell it often during Advent as the opportunity arises. And then, at various other times, maybe during prayers or after reading a Christmas book or watching a holiday movie or hearing the story of Jesus’ birth, try asking your children some genuinely open ended questions. Because these questions have no right or wrong answers, I call them wondering questions. Your children can respond in words, stories, or pictures and you can join in, too. So pull out the crayons or puppets or fingerpaints and choose a question to wonder about together:
What does God’s love feel like?
How does the baby Jesus show us what God’s love is like?
How does Santa show us God’s love?
How does it feel on Christmas morning to be loved by Santa?
Do you believe that Santa loves you? How do you know?
Do you believe that God loves you? How do you know?
How can you be like Santa and help people believe in God’s love?
As you and your children dwell on this connection between God’s love and Santa’s love, you may rediscover the joyful anticipation you felt as a child waiting for Santa to come. A miracle of love entered the world on Christmas Day and is waiting to be born anew in our hearts this year — I can hardly wait!
Hasloo Group Production Studio/Shutterstock