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“You told her what?!” I glanced in horror at my adorable toddler and then back to my husband. He laughed, but without any particular remorse.
“I told her that Santa brought the Baby Jesus and put Him in the manger.”
“Oh, I heard what you said,” I said, still horrified, “I was just hoping it wasn’t real, or that you would explain it away somehow.”
All new parents should have a conversation about Santa while they are choosing a name for their yet unborn offspring. Figuring out family traditions on the fly, while exciting, is not a theologically sound way to bring up children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Fortunately, our toddler’s vocabulary was minimal. She didn’t catch my husband’s version of the great mystery of the Incarnation.1 What should he have said? Should you foster a belief in Santa? Should you tell “the absolute truth?” And what about St. Nicholas? My personal favorite.
And the Winner Is…Santa. The jolly, red-suited fat man is inescapable this time of year. He is in all the stores, in every television program, and even on social media. Being a “Santa Atheist” is almost not a choice in our post-Christian world. But where did he come from? Why do children have to sit screaming to have their pictures taken on his lap?2
Accounts differ, but most historians believe our modern version of Santa is an amalgamation of the myths derived from Saint Nicholas and some versions of the Norse and English mythology involving Woden as Lord Christmas3 and the various sprites or spirits of Scandinavia.4 While some countries in Northern Europe told stories of a scary fairy named Krampas, who came to persecute children5 — a useful way, apparently, to get little tikes to behave in the Middle Ages — early Americans turned to St. Nicholas, who made his way from more southerly climates to Holland where he became Sinterklaas in the company of an excessively politically incorrect sidekick Black Pieter.6 A dash of Father Christmas, a sprinkle of Kris Kindle,7 and the possibilities for stories and traditions are as wide as Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Past. We may thank Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens,8 Coca Cola, and Norman Rockwell, though, for most of our more contemporary Christmas iconography.9 That and Amazon.com, Inc., which sees you when you’re sleeping, and knows when you’re awake and scrolling on your phone.
It’s Complicated. I grew up putting my flip-flops out on the night of December 5 in the sure and certain hope that in the morning there would be an orange and a chocolate teetering on the dusty plastic, placed there lovingly by Saint Nicholas himself. This was not because I have a speck of Dutch heritage. It was only because my parents’ journey to the mission field included a sojourn in Belgium before they took up their appointment in West Africa. Neither the Saint, nor his derivative, Santa, had ever visited anyone in our remote village in Mali before I put my sandals out. But Christmas was a big deal for the Christian community, not only to celebrate the birth of the Savior, but also to show their Animist and Muslim neighbors that they knew how to party.
The elements of the village Christmas feast were more ancient than that of the average American. Believers gathered for a big bonfire on Christmas Eve to put on plays featuring every biblical story and character except the Nativity.10 (When I was ten, as part of our Christmas festivities, I got to play the slave girl who tells Naaman about Elijah.) After all the acting and dancing came a long night of caroling. In the spirit of good King Wenceslas, when the children of the village came to our door around 4 in the morning, we plied them with lashings of hot chocolate and buns. Mid-morning the whole Christian community gathered for several hours of church, followed by a feast of pork — an important Christian distinctive.
So how did I find myself in a heated exchange with my husband over the head of our toddler when, mid-Advent, I heard the bedtime story was about Santa, of all people, bringing the Baby Jesus to Mary? Who was Santa? He was nothing to me. Where was the true Saint Nicholas, that great defender of the faith who allegedly punched Arius in the nose during the Council of Nicaea and rescued young ladies from poverty by paying their doweries? He, of course, is allowed out of heaven, where he sits next to Abraham and Lazarus, one special night of the year when he claps on his miter and travels over the wide world dispensing oranges and chocolate.
A Great Thanksgiving. J. R. R. Tolkien, in between two World Wars, in an effort to manage his children’s dashed hopes during times of deprivation, wrote and illustrated what became Letters from Father Christmas. These charming epistles relate the crises brought about by the foolishness of the North Polar Bear and the various calamities associated with living in an inconvenient northern climate.
Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (who had Father Christmas randomly bequeath presents on three of the four Pevensie children, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, during their long flight to the Stone Table to defeat the White Witch, meet Aslan, and rescue their brother) would not accept the view of many Christians that it is important to “tell the absolute truth” about mythical figures like Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas. And this wasn’t because they didn’t believe in the truth.
Tolkien, in his long essay, “On Fairy Stories,” dismantles the binary categories of those who believe they must make a choice between Jesus and Santa. It depends on what kind of story you are trying to tell. “Fairy-stories,” Tolkien said, “were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.”11 Every good story, he would say, points beyond itself to the greatest Truth of all. By extrapolation, every present a child unwraps at least potentially points to the greatest Gift of all — Jesus.
Ah yes, you would be right to say, but Christmas has become a grotesque celebration of indulgence and greed, overseen by the great fat man himself — Santa, whose name, when you rearrange the letters, spells Satan. And indeed, it is telling that for too many today, the version of Santa that predominates is one that points no further than Target. Wouldn’t it be, therefore, better to forsake all participation with such a worldly, and in many cases, anti-Christian human invention?
I think to put the question in those stark terms betrays a failure of our modern assumptions about what constitutes beauty and goodness, an anemia of the moral imagination. Our reduction of the celebration of Christ’s birth to a festival of greed and individualism is not the fault of the various myths bequeathed to us by our ancestors, those who lived in a world enchanted, resplendent with the glory of a God our culture has forgotten. Tolkien goes on:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels — peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable Eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the Eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.12
Tolkien coined the term “Eucatastrophe.”13 It is, some say, the “anti-doomsday” and refers to the cataclysmic work that God undertook to restore His creation to Himself. I like it because it sounds a little bit like the word “Eucharist,” which means, literally, “Thanksgiving.” Both words point to a way to put, as so many want to do, the “Christ back into Christmas.” Both terms offer a way out of having to choose between Santa and Jesus. For Jesus is the King who came into the world to claim His rightful kingdom. Indeed, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16–17 ESV).
Taking every thought “captive” for him (2 Corinthians 10:5) must certainly include the kind of stories we tell our children. Why should Christians today not enjoy the kind of freedom of bygone generations to weave old tales together with new ones, to pick and choose various iterations of Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas — or any fancifully delightful tale — to settle squirrely young children into their beds at night? The human imagination is already a part of Christ’s realm. Indeed, all customs and traditions — provided they are not evil or counter biblical teaching — can be claimed for Him. The appropriation of cultural customs and “baptizing” them for Christian use has a long history in the church.14 It is the act of taking the whole world and reorienting it to its source — Christ and His strange and mysterious entry into human society, His taking our troubles and righting them, turning them over to make us jolly and glad.
Feasting and Fasting. Nevertheless, even with the intentional affirmation that Christmas is about Jesus, the overpowering thrust of the world’s assumptions about what constitutes a “feast” can be hard to overcome. Should Christians, therefore, completely withdraw from the world’s celebration? Or should they try to instruct a pagan world about the Christian origins of their grasping, consumerist “feast?” Or should they just do whatever happens to come to mind? Every family will have to make its own decision, but my husband and I, through trial and error, found some traditions that worked well.
First, we tried to orient our family around the church, rather than fitting the church in around our family. This is a principle we embrace year-round, but especially at Christmas. Private devotions at home give way to special services in church if we are pressed to make a choice. Church parties go on the calendar and can’t be neglected. Family celebrations are caught up in the thrall of the Christmas Pageant, of singing in the choir and creeping home late on Christmas Eve, only to turn around and go back to church again on Christmas Morning, abandoning a living room awash in paper and ribbon.
Second, we make ours a true feast and not a mere “fast from the world.” Our feast rivals that of the world. We save up all year for Christmas presents for the children, forgoing other fun things. We do not skimp (where we can afford it) on cheese and chocolate. We do not scold anyone for their hopes and dreams. When the children were little, we stayed up all night putting batteries in everything that made a noise in order to forestall frustration begotten from an overindulgence of sugar.
Third, we give Santa the credit for something extravagant, with a nod and a wink. This, frankly, is an act of humility. We saved up, we did the work, and we bought the stuff, but it all comes from God. Letting someone else — a long-dead saint, or a larger-than-life mythical man — get the glory is good for a parent’s soul.
Fourth, we refuse, when pressed, to explain everything. Instead, in the words of Tasha Tudor, we “take joy.” That is, through the month of December, as the nights press in more closely, we await the Dawn from on high. We revel in the mystery of Christ. We also eat a lot of rich food, tell fanciful stories, and watch Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather.15 One viewing of that excellent and strange work makes every wide-eyed child fall silent over the dreaded question, “Do you believe in Santa?” —Anne Kennedy
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Standfirminfaith.org.
- My husband — a pastor and passionate lover of all things Christmas — doesn’t really believe this novel idea about the Incarnation.
- That’s one question for which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer.
- Tom Moriarty, “The History of Father Christmas: Festive Folklore, Winter Traditions and Very Merry Myths, the Making of a Festive Icon,” English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/christmas/the-history-of-father-christmas/.
- Henning Sehmsdorf, “Nisse in Norway: From Sprite to Bringer of Presents,” The Norwegian American, December 17, 2020, https://www.norwegianamerican.com/nisse-in-norway/.
- Amy Tikkanen, “Krampus: Legend,” Britannica.com, September 8, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Krampus.
- “Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus,” The Saint Nicholas Center, https://www.stnicholascenter.org/who-is-st-nicholas/origin-of-santa.
- Various forums online have tried to trace out the origin of the term “Kris Kindle” or “Kris Kringle.” This post aggregates at least the questions, if not the answers: “What Is the Origin of ‘Kris Kringle?’” StackExchange.com, https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/215741/what-is-the-origin-of-kris-kringle.
- Ben Johnson, “A Victorian Christmas,” Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Victorian-Christmas/.
- Venus van Ness, “Santa in Illustration,” Norman Rockwell Museum, December 21, 2020, https://www.nrm.org/2020/12/santa-in-illustration/.
- The origin of the nativity play is believed to have been St. Frances. See Gretchen Filz, “The Story of St. Francis of Assisi and the First Nativity Scene, as Told by St. Bonaventure,” The Catholic Company, December 20, 2016, https://www.catholiccompany.com/magazine/story-francis-assisi-first-navity-scene-5955.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” (1938), fisheaters.com, https://www.fisheaters.com/srpdf/Tolkien%20OnFairy-Stories.pdf.
- Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 35.
- “Eucatastrophe,” The Tolkien Gateway, https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Eucatastrophe.
- “Pope Gregory’s Letter,” excerpt from A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford Reference, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100337215.
- Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather (2006) is dark humor and may not be suitable for young viewers. Pratchett, however, raises all the essential questions of human existence and belief in a comical way, and debunks the myth of Santa indirectly. For those who desire keen and intense conversations with their children about epistemology, I can’t recommend it more highly.