We’ve encountered similar befuddlement from friends in the orthodox Catholic community. Reactions have ranged from mild amusement to disapproval. In our experience, most Christian parents feel that including Santa (or “Saint Nicholas”) as part of their Christmas day is harmless. We’re not so sure.
The Case Against Santa
Santa is a fairly recent invention. Although Coca-Cola didn’t invent the American Santa (a rotund old man in red), it’s Christmas advertising campaign from 1931 onwards promulgated and cemented the American Santa as synonymous with Christmas in the United States.
Santa completely eclipsed the Baby Jesus for me as a child: Baby Jesus? Who's that? Where's Santa? I want my presents!
As I got older and entered my teen years, I experienced emptiness and disappointment on Christmas day. My husband’s experience was similar: although Santa was a source of delight in our childhood, as young adults, the arrival of Christmas was anticlimactic and unfulfilling. After all the presents were opened and the feasting was done, there was a listless nothingness.
We’ve come to the conclusion that the human heart longs for and can only find complete fulfillment in God. We don’t want to encourage our daughters to think that Christmas is just for young children or set them up for disappointment by selling them the idea that a jolly old man with reindeer can fulfill the desires of their hearts and provide them with lasting happiness through material things.
The authentic Catholic Christmas (sans Santa) and the secular Santa Christmas represent two opposing worldviews: Christianity and secular modernity. Whether you partake in the charade that is Santa is one of the very first decisions you will make about whether you want your children to be of the world or merely in it (John 15:19, John 17:13-16 and Romans 12:2).
You’re also establishing the parameters of honesty and deception in your relationship with your children. The Santa myth involves a deception. Parents don’t “believe in” Santa but they use their authority (and the trust their children place in them) to mislead their children into thinking not only that Santa is real but that he cares for and loves them. This has the potential to undermine both a child’s trust in his parents and his belief in the existence of God.
Consider the similarities between Santa and God: God lives in a far away place called heaven. Santa lives in the North Pole. Both are benevolent and have omniscient powers (“he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!”). Children believe in the existence of Santa based on their parents’ say-so. The same goes for God. A child’s initial acceptance of God is born out the child’s trust in his or her parents. What happens then when he realizes Santa isn't real? Does that mean God is make-believe too? Even if a child accepts the existence of God, does it undermine what the parents have taught the child about God and salvation history?
It’s been put to us that there is a delightful innocence in how much children love and look forward to their annual visit by Santa. There is. We don’t disagree. We just want to use this capital (and by capital I mean their trust in us and their innocent delight and enthusiasm for beautiful things) to direct their hearts and minds towards something and someone who actually exists: God.
Forcing Baby Jesus to share Christmas with Saint Nicholas is intellectually sloppy. Saint Nicholas already has a feast day on December 6th. Baby Jesus gets December 25th. By imposing Saint Nicholas on December 25th, one is – in effect – conflating the two feast days into one.
An Alternative Way?
One of the accusations directed at us was that in not doing Santa, we are “depriving” our children. The Santa-less Christmas is certainly not a conventional choice by modern standards. But is it really a deprivation?
In lieu of Santa myths, our family has had a wonderful time rediscovering old Christmas traditions and crafting some of our own. We start preparing for the arrival of Baby Jesus with Advent which we treat as a “little Lent.” We try to do lots of little good deeds for Baby Jesus and prepare our hearts for His arrival with prayer.
We have a homemade Advent calendar and each day of the calendar has a pocket containing a piece of the Nativity crèche and a symbol for our homemade Jesse tree. Every morning our daughters place a piece of the Nativity scene in the crèche and sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and then we hang the day’s ornament on the Jesse tree. The Jesse tree provides a way of reviewing Jesus’ lineage and the Old Testament events leading up to Christ’s arrival. We conclude our morning ritual by reading a storybook about whichever Old Testament story is marked that day by the Jesse tree.
On December 6th we celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas. We hang our Christmas stockings the night before and in the morning our children wake to find a small gift and sweets in their stockings (from Mummy and Daddy in honor of Saint Nicholas). We spend part of our morning reading storybooks about Saint Nicholas.
The feast of Saint Thomas is on December 21st. We bake treats the day before and on the 21st we deliver them to a mendicant order near our home and visit a nursing home to spend time with elderly residents who are rarely visited (Saint Thomas is the patron saint of the elderly).
When Christmas arrives the festivities start immediately following midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and finish only on January 6th with the feast of the Epiphany. On Christmas morning, Baby Jesus is finally placed in the crèche and we sing some hymns to Him. The children then receive their gifts (usually three gifts per child which collectively are from Mummy, Daddy and Baby Jesus – whose providence allows us to provide for the children). We have a large meal with delicious food and desserts. The 12 days of Christmas are a special period of joy and fun. We try to have much-loved meals every night and spend time either visiting friends and family or doing things that we love as a family. On January 6th the children receive yet another gift in honor of the three Kings.
Far from depriving the joy of Christmas, by delving deeper into the Christian traditions of Christmas, our family has rediscovered its true joy. There are so many beautiful customs and traditions in our Catholic heritage that we don’t miss Santa at all.
For more information on Saint Nicholas and the history of Santa visit the Saint Nicholas Center website: http://www.stnicholascenter.org
Some recommended children’s books on Saint Nicholas...
For ages two and up: Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend by Julie Stiegemeyer
For ages five and up: The Legend of Saint Nicholas
For ideas on building your own authentically Christian traditions, the following resources are excellent:
The Year & Our Children: Catholic Family Celebrations for Every Season
by Mary Reed Newland
How to Raise Good Catholic Children
by Mary Reed Newland
Building Catholic Family Traditions
by Paul and Leisa Thigpen
Classical Kids Christmas audio collection
of poems and hymnsRachael Patterson is an Australian-born, US-based attorney. She studied at Princeton, Oxford, and Columbia law school and clerked at the High Court of Australia. She lives in New York with her husband and daughters.