Santa Claus and misplaced, misunderstood faith.

It’s not Christian to trick children.

Years ago round Christmastime, one of my 9-year-old students asked me, “Mr. Leslie, is Santa real?” Oh good Lord, I thought, her parents haven’t had the Santa talk with her? I punted. “Ask your mom.”

This girl’s mom was one of those people with the common misconception that the way you keep your kids innocent is by keeping them ignorant. Of course this doesn’t work. You know this from when you were a kid: When you had serious questions, you sought answers, and if your parents didn’t have ’em, you’d go elsewhere. Usually to school friends (who don’t know anything either). Sometimes authority figures, like teachers (i.e. me), or pastors or mentors or people the kids believe are experts. Which is why I got all the questions about Santa. And God. And why people are so terrible. And how babies are made. And the definitions to certain terms the children’s dictionaries correctly didn’t include. And that’s just fourth grade; you should see what junior highers and high schoolers ask. (On the rare occasions they don’t assume they know it all.)

I taught at a Christian school, so parents were usually okay with my answering God questions. That is, so long that my answers didn’t undermine their favorite assumptions. But some of ’em put their kids in Christian school to shelter them—another common misconception—so they were not okay with answers about baby-making. I told one persistent girl, whose mom wouldn’t have “the talk” with her, “Tell her, ‘If I don’t know how they’re made, what if I make a baby by accident?’” That worked. And I knew from experience that parents definitely didn’t want me exposing their Santa game. I knew I’d hear it from her mom—because I definitely heard it from my dad after I spilled the beans to my sister.

Problem is, this question wasn’t part of a private conversation. She asked me in the middle of class. Everybody overheard. So some of ’em decided to answer her question before her mom could: “Santa’s not real.”

“He’s not?” asked the girl.

“He’s real…” I fumbled, thinking specifically of St. Nicholas of Myra, “but maybe not in the way you’re thinking.”

“Which means,” insisted one of my very literal-minded students, “that he’s not real.”

Kids know a wishy-washy answer when they hear it.

Reprint of the “Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” article.
From the Newseum.

This isn’t a complicated question.

I bring this up because every year, my local newspaper reprints an old editorial titled “Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.” Long backstory short: In 1897, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asked her dad whether Santa was real; he punted and told her to write the New York Sun. Editor Francis Church responded in the 21 September issue, telling her yes, there is a Santa Claus—because imagination is real, the realest stuff in the universe, and isn’t that wonderful?

Newspapers reprint it because Church made in it a defense of childhood wonder and faith. Problem is, it’s not the straight answer an 8-year-old girl would legitimately want.

Virginia’s request was simple: “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. … Please tell me the truth: Is there a Santa Claus?” To an 8-year-old’s mind, she wasn’t asking whether the embodied spirit of Christmas goodwill exists. She wasn’t asking whether “love and generosity and devotion exist,” which to Church is essentially the same thing. She wanted to know whether a jolly old elf really and truly lived at the north pole, and every year distributed gifts to good Christian girls and boys. She had a concrete, literal person in mind, and wanted to know whether that guy was real.

In reply, Church gave her a cop-out from someone who didn’t wanna tell her no—and in so doing outrage the Sun’s reading public.

When kids ask, “Is Santa real?” they aren’t asking, “Is Santa real in an immaterial, metaphysical sense?” They don’t care about that answer. Nor do they care for my answer that the basis of Santa Claus is a 4th-century Middle Eastern bishop. They don’t want that St. Nicholas; they want the pink-cheeked St. Nick from the poem with the reindeer and sleigh. They want the flesh-and-blood elf who literally climbs down their chimneys on Christmas Eve and eats their cookies and leaves gifts. That’s what their parents talk about, so that’s what they’re asking about. And it’s a dirty fraud to pull a bait-and-switch and say “Yes he’s real” when we don’t mean precisely the same Santa Claus they mean.

Yeah, I just called “Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” a dirty fraud. ’Cause it is. You don’t leave out milk and cookies for a beautiful concept. You leave it out for a creature with teeth, a tongue, and a stomach. Kids wanna know if the eater of their cookies is real. Not whether the disembodied spirit of Christmas is real. They already know that’s real.

…Well actually it’s not. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Newspapers reprint Church’s editorial because he’s become the patron saint of equivocating adults. This is just the rubbish answer they want when kids ask whether Santa is real. It’s not the sort of yes-or-no answer a lawyer would demand if you were on the stand; it’s a beautiful example of obfuscation. Prevarication. Temporization. Tergiversation. Lying. It’d make the devil blush with pride. Probably already did.

Here’s the problem. When children find out Santa isn’t real in any concrete, material sense, some of them go into mourning as if he’s died. They mourn their lost idea. They often feel like fools for even believing it in the first place—after all, there’s way more evidence for Santa being imaginary than not. The older they are, the more they’ll feel like adults were laughing behind their backs this whole time.

People correctly describe this experience as when a child’s innocence dies. Now, think about what that means. This is when kids begin to recognize the magical world they were told exists, is actually a trick of their parents, and every other adult has functioned as a co-conspirator. Writings like Church’s editorial are part of the conspiracy. They’re an attempt to prolong it—and justify it in the minds of the adults who do this. Church just happened to write a much better excuse for lying than most adults can think up. But try reading the “Yes, Virginia” piece to a weeping 7-year-old who just found out Santa is make-believe. She’ll call it a rotten lie. ’Cause it is.

And there goes God.

Nearly every atheist I’ve dealt with has claimed they stopped believing in God round the time they stopped believing in Santa Claus.

In fact, most of them lump God together with the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, fairies and elves and monsters under the bed, and all the other myths we tell children. When they stopped believing in one, they stopped believing in all. Because, say these skeptics, they’re all the same thing. They’re based on childlike “faith.” Which isn’t real.

Let that sink in for a bit.

Now yes, the sort of “faith” they mean, isn’t real. Isn’t faith either. Faith isn’t the magical power to believe in the ridiculous: It’s complete trust in someone or something. It’s trusting the physician who tells us we need surgery. It’s trusting the mechanic who tells you your heater needs replacing or it’ll explode. It’s trusting the firefighter who says, “Stay out of the building.” We put our faith in these people, ’cause we believe they’re not steering us wrong.

Kids are literal-minded, as I said. When an adult tells them something, they usually put faith in that adult. Especially Mom and Dad, the adults they know best. And when it turns out Mom and Dad have been punking them for years with all this Santa business, we shouldn’t find it so surprising when kids wind up having a massive crisis of faith. Get ’em at just the right age, and most of ’em won’t believe anything on faith anymore.

Including God and Jesus and Christianity. After all, their parents were making up Santa; why aren’t they also making up God? After all, what evidence do their parents really offer for God’s existence? I mean, their lives don’t show it any.

Yeah, among parents who overdo it on the Santa nonsense, too often you’ll find they’re not the strongest Christian examples. After all they had no trouble inventing the most outrageous lies for their kids. They’ve been suppressing the Holy Spirit and their consciences vigorously. Stands to reason they’re pretty irreligious. The kids interpret this hypocrisy as yet another fraud they’ve been perpetuating. “Why, they only teach us about God and sin and hell in order to make us behave ourselves!” Stuff like that.

Sadly, they’re not wrong. Not every “Christian” has real faith in God. They follow him for pragmatic reasons; their faith is wishful thinking. They want God to be real, want it so bad, but haven’t based their faith on anyone or anything concrete. So they have nothing concrete to pass down to the kids—and the kids have had enough of childish things, and want to put these things behind them.

No more lies.

If you’ve been pushing Santa on your kids, there’s only one way out of a scenario where the kids’ faith in you, in God, in everything just collapses: You have to repent.

Yeah, repent. This doesn’t just mean you feel sorry. Repentance means you’re not gonna lie any more, and you’re gonna do what you can to make things right. Santa is pretend, and we tell the kids Santa stories because they’re fun. But when our fun damages the kids’ ability to trust adults, that’s not right. We gotta make that right. Apologize, then prove you meant it by being honest from now on.

That’s the hard part: Demonstrating your repentance. Demonstrating your faith in Jesus to your kids. (Especially when your own faith is a little shaky.) But we Christians should be doing that anyway. Start producing the real thing, and make sure the kids see it in you.

I know quite a few parents who’ve always taught their kids Santa is imaginary. He’s a fictional character, like the Cat in the Hat; he’s entertainment. He represents generosity and kindness—and when he gives ’em Christmas presents even though they really oughta be on the naughty list, he can even represent grace. He can be a really useful teaching tool. Fun too.

And those kids never have to experience any trauma of discovering they were lied to. They never created any Santa-fixated, artificial version of Christmas. They don’t at all appear to be deprived of wonder and magic and awe. God becoming human—the actual story of Christmas—is plenty awe-inspiring enough.