‘Tis the season’ … for parents to decide if they will tell the truth about Santa. I really mean that. When it comes to cultural issues (like Santa) Christians have historically gone three different ways: 1) reject it, 2) receive it, or 3) redeem it. The Powers chooses to redeem culture almost always, and especially for Christmas. Why?
Santa is pervasive in our culture, thus it’s nearly impossible to reject Santa as we walk through the with our son and see other kids sitting on his lap taking photos. But, as parents who care a lot about not lying to our children we don’t feel we can 100% receive and partake in the entire story of Santa because of some of the nonsense. So we tell our son the truth.
I am honestly very mixed in my opinion of the recent Mark Driscoll debacle, but his opinion on this matter is one I agree with:
I am concerned about lying to our children. We teach them that they can always trust us because we will tell them the truth and not lie to them. Conversely, we ask that they be honest with us and never lie. Since we also teach our children that Jesus is a real person who did perform real miracles, our fear is that if we teach them fanciful, make-believe stories as truth, it could erode confidence in our truthfulness where it really matters. So, we distinguish between lies, secrets, surprises, and pretend for our kids. We ask them not to tell lies or keep secrets, but do teach them that some surprises (like gift-giving) and pretending (like dressing up) can be fun and should be encouraged. We tell them the truth and encourage them to have fun watching Christmas shows on television and even sitting on Santa’s lap for a holiday photo if they so desire.
What do we and what will we continue to tell our kids in the future? That Saint Nick really was a real person who did live a long time ago, who really did love Jesus a whole lot and because of his love for Jesus gave children presents and sometimes even hung socks on mantles full of goodies. We explain that just as we do on Halloween, some people dress up as Santa and pretend to be him for fun. We do not demonize Santa. Dressing up, having fun, and using our imaginations is something we all should do more. It is very difficult to find out for certain the exact details of the real historical Saint Nick, but I’ll tell you the common consensus.
Nicholas was born in the third century in Patara, a village in what is now Turkey. He was born into an affluent family, but his parents died tragically when he was quite young. His parents had raised him to be a devout Christian, which led him to spend his great inheritance on helping the poor, especially children. Nicholas grew to be a well-loved Christian leader and was eventually voted the Bishop of Myra, a port city that the apostle Paul had previously visited (Acts 27). Nicholas ‘reportedly’ also traveled to the legendary Council of Nicaea, where he helped defend the deity of Jesus Christ in A.D. 325.
Following his death on December 6, 343, he was canonized as a saint. The anniversary of his death became the St. Nicholas holiday when gifts were given in his memory. He remained a very popular saint among Catholic and Orthodox Christians, with some two thousand churches named after him. The holiday in his honor eventually merged with Christmas, since they were celebrated within weeks of one another.
During the Reformation, however, Nicholas fell out of favor with Protestants, who did not approve of canonizing certain people as saints and venerating them with holidays. His holiday was not celebrated in any Protestant country except Holland, where his legend as Sinterklass lived on. In Germany, Martin Luther replaced him with the Christ child as the object of holiday celebration, or, in German, Christkindl. Over time, the celebration of the Christ child was simply pronounced Kris Kringle and oddly became just another name for Santa Claus.
The legends about Santa Claus are most likely a compilation of other folklore. For example, there was a myth in Nicholas’ day that a demon was entering people’s homes to terrorize children and that Nicholas cast it out of a home. This myth may explain why it was eventually believed that he came down people’s chimneys.
Also, there was a Siberian myth (near the North Pole) that a holy man, or shaman, entered people’s homes through their chimneys to leave them mushrooms as gifts. According to the legend, he would hang them in front of the fire to dry. Reindeer would reportedly eat them and become intoxicated. This may have started the myth that the reindeer could fly, as it was believed that the shaman could also fly. This myth may have merged with the Santa Claus myth, and if so, explains him traveling from the North Pole to slide down chimneys and leave presents on fireplace mantles before flying away with reindeer.
These stories of Santa Claus were first brought to America by Dutch immigrants. In the early twentieth century, stores began having Santa Claus present for children during the Christmas season. Children also began sending letters to the North Pole as the legends surrounding an otherwise simple Christian man grew.
In sum, Saint Nick was a wonderful man who loved and served Jesus faithfully. So, we gladly include him in our Christmas traditions to remind us of what it looks like for someone to live a life of devotion to Jesus as God. Our kids thank us for being both honest and fun, which we think is what Jesus wants.