Santa Shaming



It’s the final week of Advent, and we’re into the O Antiphons during Vespers, which means Christmas is nearly here!

It’s very exciting, and this year I have managed to keep Advent pretty well. We held off on Christmas music until last Saturday morning, we only had Jesse Tree ornaments on our tree until last Sunday, and I only just finished decorating our home Tuesday afternoon. We’ve prayed Lauds each morning before we started school for the day.

When the girls were younger, I didn’t keep Advent this way. My tree went up the day after Thanksgiving, the Christmas carols started the same afternoon, and it was Christmas, Christmas, CHRISTMAS!! until the new year. We didn’t really think much of it back then. My faith wasn’t what it is today, and Nathan wasn’t even Catholic yet.

Hello, Santa! Come on in!

One other thing we’d always do was that we would visit Santa, and talk about when he would come to visit us on Christmas Eve. Even back then, Santa didn’t just bring you whatever you wanted, and the reason he brought gifts at all was to celebrate the birth of the Savior. Christmas was most definitely about Jesus first. Santa was like a side dish to the main course of our Newborn King. We would track Santa with NORAD, hang our stockings up for him to fill with little presents, and I’d use a different handwriting to put “Love, Santa” on gifts from him.

I didn’t use Santa as a way for my kids to behave, because we were already raising them to understand that God wants them to be good and that He can see everything we do, even if Mommy and Daddy never find out. (Really, God is far more effective than Santa for this; even
if the creepy Elf on a Shelf was around when my girls were little, I wouldn’t have done it.)

Because Santa wasn’t some magical wish-granter who brought all of your heart’s desires, we were able to make a transition ten years ago when we moved to Virginia from Florida. Money was extra-tight, and we told the girls that Santa had contacted us to talk about Christmas presents. Too many children were forgetting that Jesus was the reason for Christmas, not Santa, and he was asking parents if he could please start bringing only three gifts (plus stocking goodies) for Christmas. This would symbolize the Wise Men; if Jesus was happy with 3 gifts, certainly children could be, too! So Mommy and Daddy still gave presents (often clothing and necessities), and Santa brought 3 fun gifts.

When each of my children discovered the truth about Santa – and more about Saint Nicholas in the process – they were disappointed, but not angry. It had been a fun game for everyone. (Exception: When a girl told my younger daughter Santa wasn’t real – she was about 9 – she told me that she thought Santa had stopped existing, not that he never existed in the first place. She laughed about it with me the other night as she related the incident.)

Saint Nicolas, mosaic, Grgeteg monastery, Fruška Gora, Serbia

I have friends who haven’t ever “done” the Santa thing. They’ve always focused on Jesus instead, and they often held a celebration on Saint Nicholas Day. They also celebrated Saint Lucy Day, plus patron saints of each family member. They asked their children to be kind about not telling other children what they knew about Santa Claus. But one thing they never did was shame other parents who did play Santa for their children.

Yes, I said shame. The articles I’ve been seeing this year do far more than make a case for not doing Santa with your family. Many of them are venturing into reprimands and scolding. Instead of explaining why their families don’t have Santa and leaving it at that, they are written in a way that makes most parents who read it feel pretty crappy about it if they do play Santa. My kids haven’t believed in Santa in years, and they make me feel like crap.

I’m certain this isn’t the intent behind the articles, but without the authors watching their tone, it is definitely the vibe I get from them. For example:

We like for our kids to have imaginations, but Santa has nothing to do with imagination. When you imagine, you conceive a thing that isn’t. With Santa, a child is simply duped into believing a thing that isn’t. Santa is a mythology that we force feed down their throats, and then go to great lengths to preserve. Again, it’s called “lying,” not “imagination building.”

Lie: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.

He’s an entertaining, fanciful, merry ol’ lie — but he’s a lie all the same.

I’m often informed that Santa isn’t a “lie,” per se, because he’s “just for fun.”

Well, he might be, but the opposite of “lie” isn’t fun — it’s “truth.”

Is Santa true? No. Do you know he isn’t true? Yes. So what do you call it when you attempt to convince someone of an untruth? Fun? OK, but it’s a fun… what? A fun lie.

Look, my own mom and dad “did the Santa thing.” They’re great parents and fantastic people, so I’m not making any judgments about parents who “do Santa.” You could be perfectly wonderful, loving, and caring, and still participate in this holiday fraud.

But I think it might be time to reconsider the practice.

And there’s this:


The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “[a] lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.”

Leaving to one side the issue of mental reservation and the, ‘if-a-Nazi-was-at-your-door’ dilemmas, it seems obvious to me that telling a child—who does not yet have the cognitive ability to discern the truth of the matter, and who trusts you to tell him the truth about the world, (and at the very least, not to deceive him about it)—that Santa exists; that he ‘knows if you’ve been bad or good,’ that he can be tracked on ReindeerCam, etc. etc. is a lie: a falsehood told with the intent of deceiving.

For this reason we don’t lie to our children about Father Christmas.

Much of this phrasing is pretty uncharitable, especially considering the Church does not discourage us from “playing Santa” with our kids. For example, at The National Catholic Register, Mark Shea (never one to flinch on questions of the Faith or mince words) discussed the question, as well, and while his family does not “play Santa,” he also does not condemn it outright:

I’m not going to try to adjudicate the question of sin here, and I’m skeptical it’s very helpful to try.  I can pretty much guarantee the Church will *never* give you an official answer, because it’s just not what the teaching office of the Church does, any more than the Magisterium issues encyclicals on whether you should get the creamed or whole kernel corn.  The Church’s teaching office exists to give us basic principles of the Tradition and some general guidance on how to apply them.  But then it’s up to us to form our consciences and act accordingly.  Parents who tell their kids about Santa are typically carrying on a beloved tradition in which they themselves were raised.  Accusing them of sin seems a rather harsh approach to me.  That said, I think my reader’s point is basically well-taken that there is, at the very least, a real danger involved in teaching our children to seriously believe in the existence of Santa Claus since the disappointment of discovering they were deceived about him can be an almost irresistible temptation in our post-Christian culture to conclude they were also deceived about the existence of the Christ Child.  We are, like it or not, no longer living in a Christian culture where the natural reinforcers to assist faith in Christ are there to help children deal with the disappointment of finding out Santa is not real.  I’m not altogether convinced, myself, that it was ever wise to make children believe the Santa story, but I also recognize that the vast majority of people who do so are trying to give their children a little experience of wonder at Christmastime and that they have in mind their own experiences of wonder that they treasure despite their own experience of disappointment at losing Santa. [emphasis mine]

Catholic Answers, too, tackled the Santa Question:

The stories commonly told today about Santa Claus are based on legends surrounding the life of a real person. St. Nicholas of Myra was a fourth-century Catholic bishop in Turkey. He participated in the First Council of Nicaea—where he was famously purported to have slugged the heretic Arius for denying Christ’s divinity—and has been considered a patron of children for his generosity to them during his lifetime. For example, he is said to have provided dowries for three girls who would have been sold into slavery if they could not make good marriages. Over the centuries, the legends of St. Nicholas’s life have been supplemented with Northern European myths, eventually culminating in the children’s story A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore, which imagined St. Nicholas as a “right jolly old elf,” traveling the world on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, distributing gifts to children.

(Nota bene: It is worth considering that the name “Santa Claus” is not merely an imaginary moniker arbitrarily affixed to a jolly elf wearing red. The name is an Americanization of the Dutch Sinterklaas, which translates to “Saint Nicholas.”)


So, what can children learn about their world through belief in Santa Claus?

Well, for one thing they can learn that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished, not just because their parents say so, but because there is something larger than their parents that requires us to act rightly. The other day while my sister was driving with her children, another driver blew through a red light. My older niece, age ten, wanted to report the man to the police. My younger niece, age four, agreed with the idea but offered an additional suggestion: “And Santa Claus too! He’ll put the man on the bad list!”

Children can also can learn from the Santa Claus legend that we are part of a larger universe, and that we are watched over and cared for by good spirits whom we cannot yet know empirically. This can be considered groundwork for introduction to the communion of saints. And, because Santa Claus is based on a real person, they need never stop believing in him; they need only mature in understanding of how St. Nicholas answers their requests.

Does this mean that Catholic parents must allow their children to believe in Santa Claus? Of course not. If a parent does not feel comfortable taking this approach to Santa Claus (or the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy) the parent is free to leave out such stories from his child’s formation. I do think that Catholic parents should teach their children not to spoil the innocent fun of other children by telling those children that such characters are Not Real.

Again, I don’t see Catholic Answers as an organization that would be looking to comfort parents into justifying sin, either.

My answer isn’t a pat one, either. As I said before, my faith isn’t the same today as it was when we had our first child 15 years ago. If we were starting now, there’s a chance we might not “play Santa” the same way we did before, or at all for that matter. But it’s a decision each family has to make on their own, to the best their consciences can muster. It’s not a sin to believe in Santa or tell your children about him. But the judgmental posts to other parents are treading on dangerous territory, if you ask me.

If your family doesn’t “play Santa,” that’s fine. But please don’t stand in judgement of my family or anyone else’s who does. Your condemning tone about it, whether or not you are open about it with them, is going to rub off on your children.

And as many other things parents are made to feel guilty about, it’s not right to make people feel that bad about so small a thing as believing in Santa Claus. As Jennifer Fulwiler said recently:

I’ve been thinking about that option all through Advent, and I’ve decided not to do it. As much as all our fairies are ruining my life, I’m going to stick with them, at least for now. And my main reason is this:

It is the way our families have always done it. And I need — desperately, seriously, dying-man-in-the-desert-level need — one area of my life as a parent that I do not have to agonize about. As a modern mother, I am required to obsess over every. single. aspect. of my children’s lives. I have to make ALL THE CHOICES about ALL THE THINGS and I am EXHAUSTED.

Sorry for the caps lock, but seriously, people, I am supposed to be pouring all this energy into what food we eat and what types of shows they watch and what type of video games they play and how much time they spend doing those things and what sports they play and what sorts of clothes they wear and whether we should vaccinate and circumcise and pierce ears and…GAH! I can’t even send my kids to the school down the street without second-guessing it because now we have the options of homeschooling and charter schools. (And now that we homeschool, don’t even get me started on the opportunities for hand-wringing analysis. I seriously just had a conversation about whether our grammar curriculum is holy enough.)

There was a time when mothers just did things the way their own mothers did, and that was that. There are plenty of downsides to that kind of cultural environment, but I’d imagine that one huge upside is that you don’t burn up half your mental energy questioning everything you do. Ultimately I’m glad that we live in an age where we’re all free to break from tradition and do things our own way. But I have to draw the line somewhere, and I’m drawing the line with our fairy traditions.

I stand with Jen: We need to relax about things that are not inherently sinful, people. This is truly a Live and Let Live Option.

Stop with the Santa Shaming!

When we met Santa...

When we met Santa…


Update: In the same vein as this admonition to lighten up about Santa, I also recommend reading William Newton’s terrific piece on the joy of being Catholic (and having a good time while finding that joy):

… There is at times a regrettable tendency among some American Catholics toward a kind of self-denial which is not actually based in the Christian asceticism of the Desert Fathers, but rather  is a legacy of this country’s original Puritanism.  It is why I have heard and read many times about Americans going to Catholic countries like Spain or Italy for the first time and being shocked by how Catholics in other countries behave.  They see not only a more overt form of Christian devotional life than they are used to back in the States, but also a more widespread public celebration of religious holidays like Christmas, wherein religious elements coexist happily alongside material pleasures such as feasting, music, dancing, etc.

And of course the irony is, much of the good food and drink to be had at such celebrations is in fact made not only by Catholics, but some of the most stripped-down, silent Catholic religious orders there are.  The best pastries in Spain for example – including “Yemas de Santa Teresa”, about a dozen of which I could inhale right now – come from the no-room-for-wimps nuns at the Descalced Carmelite monasteries.  And of course ales brewed by the super-strict Trappist monks of countries like Austria and Belgium are legendary for a reason. …

Merry Christmas, everyone!

One thought on “Santa Shaming

  1. We don’t “do” Santa in our Catholic household. But I’m very proud of how my 7-year-old daughter doesn’t ruin it for others. When other kids (and even adults) talk about Santa or ask her if she’s excited about Santa coming, she just smiles and nods. I think she feels special for knowing the truth but respects that other kids believe in Santa. So smart!


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