Santa Claus and the Bible

As we raise our children, one of my mantras is that we’re not really into lying to them.

So that means we don’t plan to do the Santa Claus thing.

Now, I love the Santa Claus story – how he represents the generosity and charity we should exhibit at Christmas and all year long – and we plan to share all of that with our daughters, but he’s not real, so acting like he is doesn’t make much sense to me. It seems a step or two beyond the usual playing along with our kids’ active imaginations – the kind of fiction in which we happily, and healthily, engage nearly every day.

Of course, that means we will also have to teach the importance of not destroying the Christmas of some poor classmate who does believe in the existence of Santa Claus. We’ll see how that goes – my experience with little girls is that they are not well-equipped for keeping such information private – but if we’re successful, we’ll also have taught the importance of discretion and tact when confronted with people who disagree with their worldview.

Which brings me to the Bible.

Because, let’s face it, we live in an area of the country in which belief in the literal words of the Bible is dominant and vociferously defended. But the girls will grow up in a household that believes much of the Old Testament is – to use a modern word that doesn’t accurately capture the intent of the biblical authors – fiction.

So at some point we will move from “God created the world in seven days” to “God created the world, but the process involved slow change over billions of years.” How do we do this while, 1. keeping their faith intact, and 2. helping them understand that many of their classmates likely will not agree?

The first part didn’t bother me so much. They will have to confront scientific reality sooner or later, after all, and I’d rather they do it when we can answer their questions and talk about how science and faith fit together in our lives.

But yesterday, as we drove home, our older daughter, age 3, was talking about how she learned in school about the “mean king” who said no to God when God told him to “let my people go.”

“But that didn’t really happen,” she said next. “It’s just in the Bible.”

The fact that I agree about the unlikelihood of the exodus story being a literally true event notwithstanding, she’s not exactly old enough to discuss the historicity and purposes of the Pentateuch. Nevertheless, it’s an earlier start than I was expecting in the discussion about what we do with the Bible while we acknowledge that its oldest stories are not being supported by science or archaeology.

Because the Bible should be held to at least the same standards as Santa Claus, I’m not going to lie about it. Which means the easy response – “Of course that story happened!” – is out.

So how do I communicate the fact that the Bible is a reliable source for faith and morality but not necessarily for history or science … to a 3-year-old? I chose simplicity.

“Well,” I responded, “the Bible will tell you the truth about everything you need to know.”

I’m not sure she understood – or was even paying attention anymore. But, of the two of us, I don’t think she was the only one who needed to hear me say that.

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8 comments on “Santa Claus and the Bible

  1. K.S. says:

    We’re not into lying to our girls either. I love how you put it – “It seems a step or two beyond the usual playing along with our kids’ active imaginations”.
    We love who “Santa” was and the story behind him. We told our girls that he was a real man (St. Nicholas) who lived many, many years ago and gave gifts to the poor & needy. We explained that people loved him so much that they wanted to continue the tradition by pretending to dress up like him and give gifts, etc.
    Last Christmas, our almost 5 year old’s beliefs were put to the test: It was Christmas Eve and her little cousin (same age as her) was talking about Santa and how he was “coming down the chimney tonight!”. She was talking up a storm about it, when she asked Mia a few things. Mia replied “I believe in Santa”.

    We were STUNNED! We didn’t teach her to lie either!
    What a bad example we must have set! Did she really feel the need to give into peer pressure at such a young age?! What are we to do?!

    Then, with all the grace in the world and a smile on her face, she walked over to us quietly & privately and said, “I really do believe he lived a long time ago, I just didn’t tell her (the cousin) that it’s pretend now.”
    Success!!
    She got it. She really “got” it.

  2. I really kind of think you’re blending two things here that are unrelated, and as you can perhaps imagine I have some pretty strong personal ideas about the place of make-believe. I’d like to deal with both of these, and wrap up by bringing these ideas back to what we were discussing the other evening.

    I don’t believe you’re comparing apples to apples, even from the perspective of a preschooler. I think there is a wide gap between, on one hand, stories and ideas that are propagated as and understood to be make-believe; and on the other hand, stories and ideas that are put forth as being factual to any degree. I also believe that these two different contexts become obvious by the way we handle them, even to small children.

    Now, I take seriously any consideration parents take for their kids’ sake, and I believe parents have a strong responsibility for their kids’perceptions in this area. I also understand that the circumstances and values of different families are different. But with the benefit of knowing you personally, many things can be assumed in our discussion.

    Obviously, there is a degree to which you trust kids to understand about make-believe. You trust them to learn from real interaction with the world how it differs from their imagination, and you trust yourself to be able to see when there is any confusion. Without this measure of faith in the organic process of growing up, not only would you not want them to watch movies or read books, you wouldn’t really be able to go in for “horsey rides” on Daddy’s back, or any other kind of pretend, without a brief sit-down lecture first (“Now, you understand, Daddy isn’t really going to turn into a horse. He’ll still be able to understand the things you say”).

    My experience is that participating in the make-believe of movies and traditions (often even without making explicit the difference) is not damaging and does not make one a liar unless one has a reason to believe that your child is having trouble reconciling make-believe and the real world (which, in my opinion, is a far less common problem than grown-ups often assume).

    In my opinion, the damage is done by pushing it too far outside the initial context of make-believe – when parents cross the line and, from the kids’ perspective, start treating it in the same way they treat fact. Parents telling stories about Santa, gifts mysteriously showing up Christmas morning, even maybe answering questions about whether he’s coming with a broadly pantomimed shrug and a wink, can all fit reasonably into a spirit of play that is understandable to toddlers. However, if a major core motivator for good behavior in the last couple months of the year was due to the idea that Santa was constantly watching, or if you had reason to believe that the milk and cookies you left out truly came in handy to someone flying all the way around the world, it would be a much different story. Much of this depends on how the family handles other kinds of make-believe (and in the case of Santa specifically, how they handle traditions and holidays), and in some families there can be reasonably, and I believe appropriately, a pretty wide latitude in this area.

    So, in short, I think, as usual, that you’re making a good decision in how you’ve decided to handle this issue with your kids, but I don’t like the implication that parents who like to include Santa at Christmas are lying to their kids, or even that kids who aren’t sure what to believe about Santa at the age of two or three are necessarily in any need of correction. It may or may not be an issue, depending on how and to what extent it’s refuted, propped up, or left to the natural workings of growing up. To the extent that make-believe has a place in a child’s life, its very nature affords some latitude for play, and in some ways excuses us from constantly having to constantly mark the differences it has from reality.

    The Bible, on the other hand, fits into a different category altogether. Its writers/compilers didn’t intend for its contents to be a story from grandpa, the latest of many more popular stories, or (in my estimation) even parables with a good message. I believe they put it forth as pretty hard fact. (There is perhaps some hemming and hawing we could do with the intentions of ancient writers, but for the purposes of this discussion I think it’s enough that it’s been handled that way for 2,000 years.)

    Just as the nature of make-believe gives us latitude to enjoy and play with it a bit, the nature of serious philosophy forces us to come to some sort of conclusion. We often learn Bible stories at an age where the line between the two is blurred. But eventually, we have to come to grips with the Bible in a way we don’t have to with Santa.

    We can just drop Santa as soon as it becomes too hard to wonder about how he circumnavigates the globe, stopping at a huge number of houses, on reindeer power. We can do this because, at least at this point in history, the purpose of Santa is to have a nice story and some tradition. We have to similarly “judge” the Bible by its purposes.

    If we believe God’s purpose for the Bible is to give his followers a practical view of his nature and his interaction with his people, in an effort to make them aware of the reconciliation and salvation he offers, then we have some serious questions to answer, because what we believe about his nature gives context to the idea of what it means for our view of him to be “practical.”

    At this point, we often come to, from a human perspective, “junctions” at which God seems to be forced into a choice as to which aspect of his nature is more important to convey to humanity. Thus, different people who generally agree on the nature of God put importance on different aspects of that nature, and often disagree . You and I disagree in such a way.

    You’ve put forth the very difficult notion that what we know of God’s nature doesn’t match up with a worldview wherein he allows, much less orders, humans killing other humans. Also difficult is the idea that a God interested in openness and honesty would create a world wherein our observation of nature through science would result in any red herrings.

    I think it’s equally important to make peace with the question of whether he would, given how important honesty, openness and truth seem to be to God, allow or facilitate the large-scale, long-term presentation of a largely fictional account of his nature and dealings with humanity as factual.

    Which horrendous mutilation of cosmic reality at the hands of humanity is God more prepared to allow without obvious guiding intervention: the idea we get about him from his physical world, or the ideas we purport to get directly from him about who he is and what he wants from us?

    • Paul says:

      To piggyback on K’s story below, I don’t have anything other than anecdotal evidence, but I think many parents do go to extremes to maintain the Santa Claus fiction and ultimately go about propagating the myth in a way that would not be so easily distinguishable from any other, truthful story they tell their children. I’m not comfortable trying to determine the line there.

      Yes, there is a difference between Santa Claus and the Bible (not least of which is that Santa Claus is the subject of a story, while the Bible is the medium in which the stories are told) and, as with any comparison between different objects or scenarios, the similarities break down past a certain point. But many stories of the Bible and the stories of Santa Claus, I believe, share this in common: they are mythological in nature, have their origins in real events, but have been embellished, exaggerated and politicized over time, and that the versions we tell our kids today do not bear a lot of resemblance to the historical reality of the original events. (With the Bible stories, it can be zero reality, as in Creation; or a little reality, as in a regional flood turned into a divine global punishment; or a lot of reality, as in the development of tribes, warlords and eventually kings from Judges through 1 Samuel.) And I disagree the original authors believed they were setting down historical fact when they wrote the first 11-12 books of the Bible; the notion of historical accuracy did not even exist, so how could they believe in it?

      Now the biblical stories are *more important* than Santa Claus, obviously. In the right hands, the lessons they teach – the love and grace of God, the responsibilities of his people, the many cases of foreshadowing and typology that point to fulfillment in Christ – are all part of the gospel story and can enrich it greatly. Santa Claus, in the right hands, merely teaches some important virtues, regardless of the child’s faith.

      Basically, it boils down to this: If my children are going to put their faith in a supernatural being for whose miraculous acts the empirical evidence cannot account, I’d rather it be Jesus than Santa. I’m not saying it can’t be both, but I feel like I have more credibility discussing the one if I’m being truthful with the other.

      • I agree with you that there are a lot of parents who blur or even misrepresent the line too much for their kids and that damage is done there. I just took issue with the idea that Santa = lying to kids.

        I think you’re imposing current ideology on ancient writers too much when you say they had no concept of historical accuracy, and I don’t believe it can be so easily shrugged off. I’m not arguing here for the Bible’s complete historical impunity by today’s standards. Israelite writers at various times had lots of circumstances working against them. That is not the same as saying they simply copied down the stories they were told as kids.

        Some events are clearly recorded as having actually happened, and whenever possible they use what little anecdotal evidence they had to back it up as such – you often run into phrases such as “it’s still there today.” Clearly, they felt a degree of credibility in what they were recording, as opposed to an attitude of “…and that’s really the best information we have, so we have to muddle through.”

        Additionally, if we are to believe that there was any sincerity at all in the way they recorded the law (I do), we must consider that they would have taken too seriously the task of writing their nation’s history – let alone their deity’s – by filling in the gaps with whatever story was at hand. Clearly, their best in this area was only so good. But I don’t believe the intentions of the writers is so unclear that you can reasonably argue that perhaps all they set out to do was record their nation’s legends and mythology. At various times during these discussions, that’s what you seem to say.

        To completely shrug off as large a section, comprised of as many different types of literature, (narrative, law, etc.) as you are, I think you have to deal with more than simple historical inaccuracy on the part of its writers. I think you have to assume either that they would use none of their existing research resources (different versions of stories, geneologies to measure time, etc.) or that they would have been clouded by other motives to the point of making up stories which would have been considered heresy. Again, I’m not saying such limitations and biases did not exist. I just don’t think what we know of Israelite culture at that time really allows for either of these as a broad explanation of a third of the Old Testament without harder evidence than “Well, we don’t have any documents that far back so I guess it was all just a crap shoot.”

        I’m not sure what the rest of your reply really refers to. You seem to be acting as if I had put forth the idea that your kids might as well believe in Santa as Jesus. I feel that I made clear that I don’t believe that at all.

  3. K.S. says:

    I’ll share a quick personal story. It’s part of what helped us make the decision to not have Santa come down our chimney on Christmas morning.

    One summer when I was 11 and my brother was 8, we were cleaning out the basement. As we came across the Christmas decor packed away, my brother popped the question on our Mom. With a sheepish grin he asked, “Mom, is Santa real?” My mom, assuming that since he was asking, was probably old enough to hear the truth. Gently & lovingly she told him “No, Santa is just a fun, pretend thing that parents do for their kids, etc.”

    She never saw what was coming.

    He got furious. With her. He didn’t care that Santa wasn’t real. He cared that she had “lied” to him.
    He started yelling, saying “You always tell me to be a man of integrity & honor!” (mom was big on that with her only son) “You tell me that we don’t ever lie to each other in this house! You say that we’re ALWAYS supposed to tell the truth! You LIED to me! You’re a liar! I can’t believe anything you say anymore!”

    He didn’t talk to my mom for the whole day because he was so hurt and stunned that after all the training she had instilled in us NOT to lie, she had in fact lied to us.
    Of course, my parents had only done what their families had done with the age old, fun tradition of having Santa included in Christmas. Ask my Mom today and she’d tell you that (in her view now) she wouldn’t have done it that way if she could go back. We wouldn’t have been raised “with” Santa.

    Santa can be a fun tradition. We don’t want to demonize Santa, but we don’t want to lie either. So, go get that picture taken with the local Mall Santa! Have fun telling his story, but always be truthful with your kids. You can never go wrong with the truth.

    • I think this is an excellent illustration. For my part, my family grew up with Santa, and I don’t remember any particular moment when I realized he wasn’t real. I don’t really get the feeling that we ever really bought into it. I have to assume that this was due to my parents’ careful handling of the situation; making it clear somehow that this was make-believe without spoiling the fun. We also had an awareness of the religious tones and were able to incorporate those, and we similarly never had any real problem learning that it wasn’t Jesus’ actual birthday. I was in high school before I put together that I’d only ever heard “Away in a Manger” at Christmastime.

      There’s a similar story about Carroll Spinney, the man who plays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Some young relative of his visited the Sesame Street set and was horrified to see him getting into the Big Bird suit. It was a surprise to Spinney, because other small kids had had no trouble with it. He decided never to be photographed partially in and partially out of the Big Bird puppet/suit for this reason.

      What I was saying is that it’s easier than some people think to maintain (in the context of a family) enough of a handle on the truth that either the lines are easily drawn from the outset between make-believe and reality, or the transitions between the two that inevitably come as kids grow will be natural and complete. As in these examples, parents can’t always predict which of the two will be true of a particular situation, but I believe it’s possible to set an environment where motives aren’t later questioned.

  4. Jon Fuller says:

    I plan to use Santa Claus for my kids, but also to include the Krampus. That way, when they find out the harsh truth, we can comfort them by saying, “But that also means there’s less chance of you being stuffed in a sack and beaten with chains!”

    Seriously, though… I don’t think there is any real damage present in the myth of Santa Claus, but I do like the idea of pointing out to kids that, yes, it is in fact a myth. That doesn’t make it inconsequential. As Christians, we have our own myths that are used to teach important aspects of behavior and belief… we just call them parables.

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