White Lies and Santa Claus

Clint Archer | December 17, 2015

Is it ever a good idea for parents to mislead their children about Santa Claus by pretending that he’s real?

I’m no Scrooge. I don’t object to draping tinsel, jetting off Christmas e-cards, or singing inane jingles about jingling bells. I trust that my family understands that the plastic conifer in our living room is not a subtle mark of paganism. It’s just a (model of a) tree.

I’m even willing to tolerate the poetic inaccuracy of some of the season’s most popular carols. After all, “We three kings of Orient are” rolls off the tongue better than “We indeterminable number of Gentile scholars of Persia are.”

But, when it came to telling my children the truth about Santa Claus, I never hesitated. From the outset, I explained to them that Santa wasn’t real. That’s because I never wanted there to be any confusion that might have clouded their faith in my honesty.

Angels on high, a pregnant virgin, God in a manger, a guiding star. These are impossibilities. Yet, “all things are possible with God.” We ask our children to trust us on these claims, with their lives and their eternities.

Why would we then add a fictitious, omniscient fat guy with a red-nosed reindeer to the mix? If we do, we will eventually have to disclose that we were just kidding about the chimney intrusion, the elven workshop, and the works-based naughty-or-nice judgment. “Those parts are make-believe, the rest is gospel truth.” Somehow, saying  “Trust me,” after years of being intentionally misleading, rings a bit hollow.

Misinformation has a way of taking root in our memories. Do you picture the stable with oxen lowing on a silent night? Were the angels actually singing? Was there a villainous curmudgeon inn keeper? These details are not found in Scripture.

Three kings? Nope. How many seminary students have in their New Testament survey class been disabused of their favorite nativity character, the little drummer boy?

The popular mythology of Father Christmas, as we call him in Africa, runs parallel to biblical truth in many Christian homes, until it dead-ends in one of the (hopefully) pre-teen years. But has the damage to parental credibility already been done?

A parody of a possible consequence is epitomized by that poor, traumatized kid who laments melodically, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” I doubt counseling was needed for the child to overcome his confusion. But there does exist a subtle long-term danger, namely that of placing impossible fiction on the same shelf as impossible fact, and forcing our children to discern arbitrarily which is which, based on our flip-flopping propositions.

Is it any wonder that adults, who at one time believed their Sunday school teachers, eventually conclude that “The Bible sounds like a fairy tale”? These skeptics were expected to outgrow some of what they were taught by their parents. Why not more of it? Why not all that sounds impossible?

I never want my children to have this existential monologue in Junior High: “Daddy told me about a six day creation, virgin birth, Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, angels, and fairies. Then he said he was only joking about half that stuff. I felt gullible for falling for it. Hmm. I wonder if my science teacher is right about evolution? What other nonsense has been fed to me as fact?”

So what do I tell my children when they see other kids lining up to meet one of the ubiquitous middle-aged, overweight men with fake beards offering a lap and a promise of gifts? I tell them the truth: “Look, it’s a pretend Santa!”

This will be in the context of the conversation we would have had, where I explain that part of Christmas fun is pretending there is a man who lives in the North Pole and gives presents. I’ll also tell them about the real Nicholas who ministered in Turkey. Make believe can still be fun, as long as it is clear up front. I enjoy fiction and imagination. I offer them Narnia too. But there is a thin line between fiction and fallacy.

I want my children to grow up knowing that their dad never, ever lies to them. About anything.

The precious attributes of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, are grotesquely caricatured by Santa-lore. Consider the lyrics that describe what our children think of this demagogue: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

Bursting a bubble about Santa Claus in the battle for truth is a small price to pay for not abusing the unwavering trust my children have in their dad.

(A version of this article was originally published on The Cripplegate blog.)

* * * * *

Clint Archer is the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Durban, South Africa. Clint received several degrees from The Master’s Seminary (M. Div., Th. M., D. Min.), and has authored a number of books including The Home Team and The Preacher’s Payday.

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