It is the most wonderful time of the year. For many, the most wonderful part of the most wonderful time of the year is Santa. As the story goes, the jolly old man decked out in his Christmas red rides his flying-reindeer-powered sleigh on Christmas Eve to deliver gifts to children all over the world. So the world awakens on Christmas morn to enjoy the evidence of his visitation. It is a story that has captured the imagination of children throughout the generations and has created a nearly trillion dollar industry (in the United States alone). But how should the Christian relate to Santa Claus? There is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all answer to the question, but it is a question the church cannot afford to ignore. Ignoring it means we are engaging Santa Claus with assumptions that are most likely untested by biblical standards. Consequently, the church is in danger of adopting a Christmas narrative that is informed more by popular culture than the Bible.
The purpose of this article is first and foremost to simply ask how the Christian (and Christian families) should engage the Santa Claus of popular culture. In light of who Christ is and who we are in Him, can we “redeem” or “Christianize” Santa? Should we reject Santa? Is there some middle ground? Secondarily, it is to provide some framework to answer that question. To that end, I want to offer a few thoughts in the prayerful hope that we, God’s redeemed people, can approach Christmas in a way that exalts and enjoys Christ above every other thing.
SANTA AND SHADOWS OF THE GOSPEL
Popular culture’s Santa Claus narrative has its roots in the life of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas inherited a great deal of wealth from his parents who died when he was still a young boy. He used his wealth to help those who were in need, and he desired as much as he could to do so anonymously. His propensity to selfless generosity and gift-giving became the inspiration for Father Christmas who later became Santa Claus.
We see in Santa Claus (more accurately the actual person of Saint Nicholas) a shadow, or picture, of the gospel and the generosity it produces. Saint Nicholas models the paradoxical truth that it is better to give than to receive. He teaches us what it looks like to leverage what we have been given for the benefit of others just as Christ used all He had for the benefit of others. Therefore, the Christian can “redeem” Santa Claus by recovering the historical narrative of Saint Nicholas and employing it as an opportunity to point to Christ, the ultimate gift giver, the One who leveraged his life, death and resurrection for the salvation of others.
God’s giving the world His Son was motivated by joy. It pleased God to gift the world His only Son.
Further, the Santa Claus narrative provides opportunity to practice the discipline of giving and to discover the joy of giving away. Often, Santa is reduced to the means of our (or our children’s) receiving. But there is occasion for parents and children alike to shift the focus away from receiving to giving. Perhaps it is Santa who receives the greatest gift—the joy of giving. Here we see another shadow of the gospel. God’s giving the world His Son was motivated by joy. It pleased God to gift the world His only Son. Therefore, we can both reflect and enjoy the Father’s own joy in our giving.
SANTA AND DISTORTIONS OF THE GOSPEL
While there are shadows of the gospel in the Santa Claus narrative, there are also significant and dangerous distortions of the gospel. The first of these dangers relates to the ethic espoused by the Santa Claus narrative of popular culture. In the ethic of Santa Claus, one’s worthiness to receive gifts is predicated on one’s behavior. Good behavior yields a pony, and bad behavior yields lumps of coal. This is a problem for the Christian. The merit-based ethic of Santa is in direct opposition to the grace-based ethic of Christ. The Santa ethic encourages behavior modification and conformity to an ambiguous standard of “nice.” The ethic of Christ demands dying to self and announces that no one can conform to the unchanging standard of God’s holiness. Where the ethic of Santa leaves one to rely more on self, the ethic of Christ offers one to rely completely on Him. As popularly espoused, the ethic of Santa has no place in the life and home of the Christian. We all are without merit when judged against the only real standard of worthiness. Even so, Christ died for us and granted to us the merit that belongs only to Him. Such grace should mark the whole of the Christian life—including Christmastime.
The merit-based ethic of Santa is in direct opposition to the grace-based ethic of Christ.
Further, the Santa Claus narrative sets Santa up as the all-satisfying end of Christmas. In this narrative, the great anticipation of the Christmas season is the unwrapping of gifts we receive from Santa and others. The consumerism and individualism of American culture have found a welcoming home in the Santa Claus narrative. Christ is reduced to an add-on, perhaps even an inconvenience, in the Santa narrative. We can read the Christmas narrative and display the first Christmas in our nativity scenes and yet the dominating narrative of Christmas is not Christ but Santa. One marker of this is if our expectation (as children) and announcement (as parents) of the coming of Santa exceeds that of Christ’s. Another is if our joy on Christmas morning would be reduced if there were no gifts under the tree and we gathered our family to read God’s Word. If Christmas is any less joyful without Santa Claus or gifts or cookies or family dinners, our Christmas is not Christian. The orbit of the Christian’s Christmas (and whole life) is Christ. He alone is the blazing center whose glory shines so bright that all else, including Santa pales in comparison. The Christian would gladly forfeit the whole world—including Santa—to have Jesus.
If Christmas is any less joyful without Santa Claus or gifts or cookies or family dinners, our Christmas is not Christian.
Finally, the Santa Claus narrative tempts one to claim as true what is really false. Santa Claus is fictional. He is not real. Yet there is a temptation to deny the truth in favor of perpetuating the lie that he is real. Here again is a problem for the Christian, especially Christian parents. We are called to be trustworthy for our children. We are called to picture for them the trustworthiness of their heavenly Father—to demonstrate to them that they can trust God. At every point we should be aiming to give our children every reason to trust us, to believe that the words we say are true. To articulate the Santa Claus narrative requires we say words that aren’t true, take actions to support words we know aren’t true and put winning the trust of our children on hold. To articulate the narrative of Christ requires no such thing. As Sally Lloyd-Jones says in the Jesus Storybook Bible, the best part of this Story is that it’s true. We will never grow up and find out it’s a lie. Our Father is trustworthy, and what He tells us about His Son is utterly and entirely and forever true.
And what is true about His Son changes everything for the Christian—including Santa Claus.