A few weeks ago a well-meaning adult asked my youngest child, “What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?” She said, “Oh, I don’t believe in Santa.” I observed an uncomfortable silence, a nervous laugh, then came the question in that tone. “Why wouldn’t you teach your children about Santa? Don’t you like Santa?” Followed by: “Aren’t you concerned that they will ruin the fun for other children” and “Are you using some crazy psychological theory?” as well as “Your children must miss out on so much fun.”
Similarly a pastor friend encountered a strong reaction when he accidently revealed Santa to be a myth in a small group of Christian middle school students. A young girl became emotional and her parents were angry. Until that moment she had believed that Santa provided gifts for all children and her family had intentionally preserved that belief in service of imagination and wonder. I wonder if her parents were aware that had she grown up in a less financially comfortable situation, she would not have been a believer of Santa in middle school. That kind of “innocence” is available only to those with resources to isolate their children from the realities of the world.
We have chosen to say “no” to Santa based on our faith, our understanding of social psychology, and commitment to economic justice. Our decision is not driven by some “trendy theory” about pushing children into a world of reality or disapproval of imagination. I’m quite fond of promoting childhood expeditions into fantasy (and believe it’s good for their developing brain and spirit). We aren’t anti-Santa because of anger. The jolly old elf brought a lot of joy into my life when I believed, but as an adult I have discovered Santa’s magic is a poor imitation of God’s grace and his mythology brings joy to only a privileged few.
Church tradition teaches that St. Nicolas was a Christian man of privilege and wealth who was so moved by the poverty of his community that he gave away his inheritance and devoted his life to service. St. Nicolas took seriously the message of a savior who emptied himself of power and wealth and sought to replicate that message in his own lifestyle. In contrast, his alter ego Santa has become the symbolic face of holiday excess and a reward-punishment cultural orientation. The mythical Santa is said “to find out who is naughty and nice” and reward accordingly. In a culture that worships wealth, celebrity, financial productivity this message is not subtle. Children of privilege and wealth wake up to gifts, and children of economically struggling families are forced to either stop believing in the myth or grapple with the implication that they are somehow less worthy. In part due to this Santa-driven consumerism, some of my children’s peers experience Christmas as a time of loss and pain.
Historically the church has adapted and changed many cultural practices in service of Christian faith. Christians across recent centuries have honored the message of Christ by giving gifts in the name of Santa. However, I propose that it may be time for us rethink the usefulness of perpetuating “the reality” of Santa. What began as a Christian practice to honor the life of a saint has become a cultural celebration bordering on wealth worship.
I acknowledge that my position is controversial and our way is not the only way. In efforts to be thoughtful, our home is not free of Santa imagery, but we work to make sure his position is neither prominent nor deified. He has always been openly acknowledged as pretend. We teach our daughters of St. Nicholas, regularly discussing the realities of their undeserved privilege and others undeserved poverty.
The real message of Christmas is that “onto us a child is born” — the liberator of captives and the one who blesses without prejudice toward financial means. The Christmas story is much greater, more mystical and awe inspiring than a magical elf bringing gifts to every child in the world. It was of this mystery that C.S. Lewis once wrote: “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” A fact worthy of our sacrificing our allegiance to Santa in its service.
Tara C. Samples is a professor of counseling and psychology and is currently completing her postdoctoral residency in clinical psychology.