I hear curious rumblings this time of year among Christians that letting children believe in Santa is wrong. That giving children a myth implies that the Nativity story is insufficient. That letting them believe that good behavior earns gifts makes them greedy or legalistic. That belief in Santa means bowing to materialism and all things plastic.
But what if Christians embraced the Father Christmas myth while rejecting the materialism attached to it? Myths, after all, are time-honored methods of communicating truth through story, and the Santa Claus myth is no exception. (Please, don't tell me his name is an anagram for Satan. Santa comes from the Latin sanctus, meaning holy or saint. Santa's name likely evolved from a real person, Nicholas, a Christian man whose extreme generosity helped strangers.) I'd like to propose that teaching children about Santa Claus does not conflict with teaching them about Jesus. In fact, I propose that the Nativity story and the Santa myth may have more in common than we're prone to believe.
Some stories, such as fables and parables, are not empirically true, but they are true in that they point to realities about God's world and the human condition. Some stories are empirically true and also communicate this kind of truth. The Nativity story is a perfect example of the latter. The Santa Claus myth is a great example of the former. Santa Claus embodies Christian values such as kindness, generosity, forgiveness—every child soon realizes that even if they have not been perfect all year, Santa comes through. Santa brings gifts to children both deserving and undeserving. While Santa is not a Christ figure—that must be clear—the Santa myth is not the problem. The problem is that we have let advertisers hijack Santa, turning Christmas into a retail event.
Obviously, leading your kids to believe that their wish list is a demand list, or focusing exclusively on Santa, or using it to threaten or manipulate your children, is unhelpful. But allowing children to embrace Santa while they are young can allow them to experience unmerited favor (grace). We can, as they grow, point to that experience in order to explain what it means to give and receive grace. Rather than replace fairy tales with rational, hard facts ("There is no such thing as Santa. He does not exist!"), why not tell your children the tales of Father Christmas or St. Nicholas, someone who gives without expecting anything in return, who loves children—and who brings you one gift, not 30?
C. S. Lewis, one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century, dedicated the Chronicles of Narnia to his goddaughter Lucy Barfield. In the dedication, he noted that "girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales …. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again."
Many of us have grown too old for fairy tales, yet not matured enough to understand them as adults. And we steal something precious from our children when we deny them the opportunity to believe in fairy tales, and to learn how to glean truth from a made-up story. To believe, for a little while, allows them to later understand symbolism and metaphor. And as growing children question the veracity of the story, let them research the stories and real people (like St. Nicholas) whom the myth is based on. They can compare and contrast Jesus and St. Nick.
Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who brought us the best gift of all: eternal life. And certainly, we need to tell our children first and foremost that Christmas celebrates the Son of God arriving to earth (Our family even baked him a birthday cake!). But other Christmas traditions—from the tree to the turkey dinner to Santa—can also enrich and bless a family's holiday. By using a myth of a loving person who brings you a gift you did not earn, we allow them to experience a parable they can understand when they grow older. They will learn about all generosity by being the recipient of generosity.
Lewis (who, by the way, included Father Christmas in one of his Narnia books) often corresponded with readers. One youngster, 9-year-old Laurence Krieg, confessed to his mother that he might love Aslan the Lion more than he loved Jesus, and felt guilty about this. His mother wrote to the publisher, and Lewis himself responded in less than two weeks.
"Tell Laurence from me, with my love," Lewis wrote, " … [He] can't really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that's what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before … I don't think he need be bothered at all."
Lewis's answer is brilliant. God made our imaginations and hardwired us to connect deeply with stories. Jesus himself appealed to people's imagination by telling parables—stories that communicated profound truths. Even if stories are fairy tales, and therefore not empirically true, they still communicate truth. Smart parents will use the Santa myth to teach their children to be giving rather than demanding, and to experience generosity and grace.
Keri Wyatt Kent is the author of several books on Christian spirituality, most recently Making Room for God in Your Hectic Life, and has written for several websites and magazines, including Christianity Today. A member of the Redbud Writers Guild, she and her husband Scot have been married for 17 years and live with their son and daughter in Illinois.