The Santa Dilemma

Q. My husband and I are in a debate about how to celebrate Christmas with our children. We’ve always focused on Advent and the coming of the Baby Jesus, but we also have allowed them to believe in Santa Claus. My husband now worries that the idea of Santa and the commercialization that comes with the furor of pre-Christmas advertising is taking over our children’s attention. He thinks that by removing the tradition of Santa, it will refocus their attention on Jesus as the reason for the season. I think it will break their little hearts! Is there a way to promote our children’s appreciation for the significance of the birth of our Savior while still allowing them the fun of Santa at Christmas?


A. I think we can all agree with your husband that the commercialization of Christmas makes it very difficult to appreciate and enjoy the season of Advent and the spiritual anticipation we’re meant to experience in the weeks before the solemn celebration of the birth of our Lord.

Let’s be serious. “Holiday gift” ads have been running since the end of the back-to-school advertising cycle. Even if you do a great job of sheltering your children from the media, it’s nearly impossible to keep a lid on the hype that now defines our secular “holiday” season.

But busting the Santa story seems too drastic. The childhood season for Santa doesn’t last long, and you can use it teach lessons of generosity, love, and goodwill—all of which affirm the real message of Christmas. Speaking from experience, it’s entirely possible to allow the fun of Santa while also teaching about and celebrating the birth of Jesus. We did, and you can, too.

Our Santa act peaked in 1997. That year, with four children under eight, we pulled out all the stops to convince our young brood that a bearded man in a red, fur-trimmed suit had, in fact, magically popped down our chimney to reward their good behavior with toys and treats.

Santa used his own special gift wrap—hidden away from the rest of the wrapping paper to foil any deductive reasoning (not that the children employed any, but we took no chances). He filled out the gift tags in his characteristic penmanship—very different from Mom’s handwriting, to be sure—with a pen that could not be traced to the top drawer of her desk.

Best, and most convincing of all, he and his reindeer left pieces of some carrots on the roof above our front porch—evidence that the jolly elf had taken them up the chimney and fed them to his hungry team.

In 1997 if you had tried to convince our children that Santa Claus was simply a charming myth, and that the role of Santa was, in fact, played by their loving, if slightly compulsive, parents, they’d have pummeled you with sugar cookies.

They knew better. They had proof.

But in the years that followed, we incorporated other traditions as well. As soon as our children were old enough to stay awake for midnight Mass, we made Christmas Eve the centerpiece of our religious celebration.

We shifted our focus from presents to presence—talking about and planning for our time together, including the meals we would prepare and the movies we’d watch once again.

Most importantly, we created a family tradition of Christmas charity that our children now declare is their favorite aspect of gift-giving.

Fast-forward 16 years. Christmas morning is still a few weeks away, yet our four children already have debated what time they will get up to enjoy the fun of Christmas morning. Some think 10:00 am is too early. One thinks we should wait for the last person in the house to awaken on her own, but I’ve nixed that idea on the assumption we’d be holding off until late afternoon.

It’s worth noting that much about the way we celebrate Christmas has changed. Obviously, I no longer set foot in a mega toy store, and I don’t purchase value packs of batteries. I know what my children want and need, but I still try to slip in a surprise or two to prove that I simply know them.

And proving that their Santa years didn’t do any harm, our grown children now ask if Santa would like them to leave out milk and cookies or a beer and some pretzels before they head off to bed.

On Christmas morning, there will be surprises under the tree—but no more than three gifts for anyone. If three gifts were enough for Jesus, it’s certainly enough for my children!

It seems impossible that, in a matter of a few years, we went from the squealing, Santa-filled “magic” of an early Christmas morning to one that requires a full pot of coffee and several cups each. And yet, I’m not nostalgic because, despite the fact that we permitted the Santa story, we have always celebrated something far beyond mere “magic”—something that is truly a mystery of love.

Through all those years when my husband and I played Santa, we taught our children that Christmas celebrates God’s love for us—a love so insuperable and inexplicable that he took our human form and then suffered and died for our sins to assure our redemption.

If we only gave our children one, most precious gift, it’s the faith in a Savior born on Christmas Day. That’s so much more than “magic.”

Children and Faith
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