When I was a young man, I religiously listened to a Christian radio station in Detroit. (Full disclosure: I did not confess the Lutheran faith until I was 20 years old.) I found the show to be informative and challenging, as well as provocative for the myriad subjects the host presented that were hitherto unknown by me. Moreover, I was always impressed by the radio host’s ability to present a Christian issue that was contentious among his listeners, who hailed from every Christian denomination under the sun.
Without fail, every Christmas the show turned its gaze onto the cultural degradation (perceived or otherwise) of the holiday season. Caller after caller would proffer their negative opinions about the phrase “Happy Holidays,” as if by saying such one was denying the birth of Jesus Christ. More callers would call in and declare proudly that they do not celebrate Christmas because December 25th was once a pagan holiday, as if by naming December 25th as the day to celebrate, Pope Julius I (in 336 AD) was selling his soul to the devil and condemning all of Christendom to a liturgical guilt by association. But the pièce de résistance, the mother of all Christmas controversies, was Santa—whose name many callers pointed out was an anagram for Satan. The argument, as it goes, is that if a parent convinces a child of Santa Claus, what’s to stop that child from denying Jesus once they realize Mom and Dad were lying about Santa?
As staunch of a funda-gelical as I was at that time (that’s both a Fundamentalist and an American Evangelical), even I wanted to come to Santa’s defense. “Wait a minute. I grew up with Santa Claus. I believed in Santa Claus. I also went to church. I was also taught that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday. I am solidly a follower of Christ, but I have many fond memories of writing Christmas lists and mailing them to Santa, setting out cookies and milk, and searching the snow for reindeer prints on Christmas morning.”
But now I’m an adult, a father of four young American children, and a Lutheran pastor. What do I do with Santa Claus now? Certainly my primary goal of parenting is that all my children love Jesus forever, and my wife and I are zealously deliberate about instilling this love in them. Yet Santa Claus is all about rewarding children for their good behavior—isn’t that distracting from what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown?
Maybe. But I am reminded of a letter that Martin Luther once wrote to his son Hans. Hans was just a young boy at the time, and the good doctor painted a wondrous picture of a “beautiful garden,” available only to little children who say their prayers and learn their lessons. Was Luther deliberately lying to his son? Well … sure. But I am a father of young children and I understand what he was doing. Simply put, he was enticing his child to learn his lessons and say his prayers, after which he would be rewarded with pony rides, and “golden fifes and drums and little silver crossbows.”
This sounds to me an awful lot like Santa Claus, only slightly less insane. To wit: up on the North Pole there’s a fat man working a sweat shop of little people who flies around with reindeer on Christmas Eve and gives presents to good little boys and girls. So you better be good, for goodness’ sake. Now go to bed and stay there before Santa sees his shadow and we have eleven more months without Christmas.
Is this lying to our children? Well … sure. But there’s magic in that lie, as surely as there’s magic under Frosty’s old top hat. There’s the warm sensation that comes from our Christmas traditions. There’s the tree, the lights, the egg nog, the music, the warm clothes on cold nights, the reindeer with the bright red nose. Can’t this and more be allowed in our Christian homes without worrying that such memories will distract us from Jesus?
I say, with all the certainty of the shrug of my shoulders, “Sure.” But then again, in my house, Santa Claus is staunchly peripheral to our daily lives. I don’t put my kids to bed reminding them that Santa is watching; I put them to bed with the Lord’s Prayer, and with stories of God working through his people. Santa could come or not, and I couldn’t care less one way or the other. But Jesus is every day. Church is every week (sometimes twice). Prayer, praise, and thanksgiving are essential parts of our family devotion to God. Santa? I’m not particularly threatened by him. So if he sneaks into our house once a year and helps my kids behave, more power to him.
To be sure, there’s a breaking point: if your children look forward to Christmas because of Santa bringing presents, yet cannot say the Lord’s Prayer or sing any hymns to Jesus because you only take them to church twice a year, you are failing as a parent. But can’t the faithful Christian household let their imaginations run wild with dancing sugar plum fairies without being attacked by overly pious Grinches?
This pastor says sure. Just make sure the kids know it was Dad, not Santa, who fronted the bill for all those presents under the tree.
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
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