Every Christmas, the Christian blogs and articles start flowing on the biggest topic of the season. No, ironically, it’s not about the birth of Christ, but about whether you should or should not play Santa. In the mix of those articles and blogs, the well-esteemed Dr.William Lane Craig wrote an article criticizing the idea of playing Santa with your children. In it, Dr. Craig described in multiple ways the problem created for a child’s faith in God later in life: that children may try to associate God with Santa and find disappointment in God when they realize He is not a giant gift-giver in the sky.
He also said it’s a bad moral example to set for our children to perpetuate what he perceives as a lie: telling our children that some guy from the North Pole exists and brings presents to undeserving children all over the world by sneaking down their chimney and disappearing on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Scripture teaches that lying is wrong - period. It doesn’t tell us to teach that some lies are ok while others are not.
Craig also mentions how Santa increases selfishness and it creates an entitlement attitude in our children, teaching them to expect rewards for their behavior. Finally, he discusses the issue of the damaging effects to someone’s faith by saying God is just as much a fantasy character as Santa is. Many atheists say God is no different than Santa, in that neither one exists. They equate their loss of belief in God with their loss of belief in Santa (…and the Easter Bunny…and the Tooth Fairy).
While some of those points seem to make sense, and have most likely encouraged those parents who choose NOT to play Santa that they are making a wise and healthy decision for their children, many parents disagree. It leaves those of us who do play Santa with our children wondering if we are now creating a future crisis of faith for our children. Are we horrible parents for “lying” to our children about Santa? Are we perpetuating another generation of greedy little skeptics? I thought it would be good to offer a dissenting opinion that would address these points raised by Dr. Craig (as well as a few others). I do want to remind everyone though that this is a non-salvific issue (meaning this is not salvation dependent) . Sincere and devoted Christians can fall on either side of this issue making it unhealthy and unhelpful to condemn the other side over this point.
1. First, are we bad parents for lying to our children? While I agree that the Bible does not say that some lies are acceptable and some lies are not, we want to insert some caution and common sense at this point -- because we “lie” to our children all the time!! And one day they will find out about them!! One day they will learn that, no, that stick figure they drew was not the most beautiful horse we had ever seen. And no, that dance they made up at the age of 6 would probably not make it on Broadway. And no, that lion did not really save from the evil queen those children who found a fantasy land by walking through their wardrobe. And so, no, there wasn’t a man in a big red suit who brought gifts to every boy and girl around the world. Will this lead them to believe we are giant hypocrites who disregard all the truth of the Bible? I seriously doubt it. Is it really a faith shattering experience when they discover any other childhood fantasy and story to be make-believe? Why does Santa have to be such a horrific experience? We see “lying” to our children about Santa as not so different from all the other things we “lie” to our children about. And besides, when the parents are the ones playing Santa, is it really such a lie to say that “Santa” knows when they’ve been good or not?
Furthermore, “playing Santa” does not really constitute lying to our children in the same way that most people claim. Here’s a question to get you thinking: are we lying to someone when we deliberately mislead them in order to surprise them, say with a surprise party on their birthday? The latter falls into the category of a ruse and though technically it could be called a lie, the intention behind it is vastly different. Is the intention behind playing Santa with your child the same as deliberately lying in order to avoid the truth? No, it’s playing a ruse and joining in on fantasy in order to have fun and create a sense of wonder and excitement for one’s children. It also can get their imaginations going on full blast as they try to figure out how Santa does what he does. Whenever our children would ask, how Santa works, we, with a wink and a smile, turn the question back on them: “Mommy, how does Santa get down the chimney? How does he get around to all the houses in the world in one night?” “Well, darling child, what do you think?” I’ve given the same kind of response when they asked at Disney World if Lightning McQueen was happy they had come to visit him.
The other issue this presents is the implication that our children one day will not be able to separate fantasy from reality. I believe most children know very well when something was just “a-tended” (that’s pretend for those who don’t speak my child’s toddler-ese). My youngest son has a very vivid imagination, pretending to be all sorts of things like poison snakes and even an animal that he has invented (which has included this pretend animal’s dietary habits and hunting calls). However, he definitely knows when he’s pretending and when he’s not. And when he is older he will continue in that discernment between the dinosaur he imagined lived in the front door and Jesus as described by the Gospels, just as he will discern between Santa and the Almighty God Creator. Granted, that is part of my job as a mom to make sure he understands the facts of the Scriptures and the evidence that shows it is truth. It is my job to show him the logic and reasoning that tells him when things are imaginary will be the same logic and reasoning that tells him God is real and Jesus has resurrected.
2. Second, will our children really think God is just like Santa? Santa is someone whom they cannot see who gives them extraordinary gifts which they do not deserve. Is this not what God does for us? Is not existence itself a great gift given to us by One we haven’t (yet) seen - not to mention all the wonders of creation that go along with it? And this Cosmic Gift-Giver has given us the gift of abundant, eternal life something we do not deserve and did not earn, yet it came at great cost to Himself. So if Santa can give gifts, how much more can the Creator of the Universe! In this way, God is akin to Santa but on a grander scale because God is so much more.
The problem comes though when people think God, as the Ultimate Gift-Giver, should give them everything they desire. Now instead of being disappointed that Santa didn’t deliver that shiny new skateboard, there is resentment when God doesn’t answer our prayers. Honestly, this association of Santa with God might be true, but this issue runs deeper than just the idea of Santa Claus. It stems from a deficient understanding of God and theology. Unfortunately, many adults view God as merely a gift giver to whom they are not morally answerable. God is the Cosmic Gift-Giver, but in His infinite wisdom and love, He doesn’t give us everything we ask for. This Cosmic Gift-Giver knows best. Like a loving parent, we may deny something our children demand, causing them disappointment and sadness, but it’s because we know that particular gift was not what was best for them.
Sadly, the root of this line of thinking oftentimes comes from within the church, not from the man in the big red suit. Many times devotions or children’s lessons will present a scenario where something bad has happened, the person prays, and then instantly everything works out. Without even using the word Santa, it has reinforced the misconception that praying always makes everything work out just how we want. Out of this faulty view of God, we will pray for certain things and then get mad when He doesn’t deliver. But that is not a sound, biblical view of God, or the purpose of prayer for that matter. That concept of God is a consequence of our assumption that we know what’s best and that we “deserve” whatever we want. This is a selfish, human nature trait to which none of us are immune. This flawed understanding of God, more so than a childhood game of Santa Claus, gives our children the impression that God is only there to grant your every request.
3. Third, will our Santa-believingchildren be more selfish and entitled than those who don’t play Santa? Well, the job we as parents have to remedy those traits runs much deeper than playing Santa. Children are naturally selfish and entitled. It’s one of those things that parents don’t have to teach - they come out that way (a great little microcosm of human nature). Our job is to try to show them humility and gratitude and generosity. So if a parent never teaches those things the remaining 364 days of the year, doing or not doing Santa on Christmas Day won’t make a difference at all. It all depends on the other instruction and training done in the home. So the concept of Santa is not the ultimate deciding factor on how grateful a child will be. In fact, the concept of Santa can be used instead to TEACH generosity instead of allowing it to teach greed and selfishness. We could teach our children to focus on the generosity of Santa in giving gifts to undeserving children to encourage them to do likewise for those in their community or for those around the world.
4. This leads us to the fourth and most important point. Will playing Santa jeopardize our children’s faith when they get older? Many people claim that teaching our children about a mythical figure alongside teaching them about God will cause them to associate one with the other and, thus, invalidate the truth of who God is. Many atheists have linked their rejection to God to the rejection of Santa, often saying they grew up to discover that both Santa and God were a lie. I think we will now extend our reasoning used on our third point. It all depends on the other instruction done in the home. If God is never discussed outside of the one hour a week spent at church only every so often, then your children might very well reject the faith of Christianity – whether you “do” Santa or not. If your child is never taught the foundation of the truth of Christianity, then your child might very well reject the faith of Christianity – whether you do Santa or not. If you only teach the happy parts of Christianity, that God loves everything, that being a Christian means God will answer your every request, and that God is only interested in you being happy, then your child might very well reject the faith of Christianity – whether you do Santa or not. You see, Santa is not the problem. The problem is what and how things are taught in the home about God. In reality these issues and concerns about Santa highlight the importance of proper and consistent teaching in the home. It shows the importance of teaching our children that being a Christian does not mean we “get everything we want” from God. It shows the importance of teaching our children the many logical and intelligent reasons to believe that God is real and Christianity is truth. It exposes the problematic behaviorof just taking your children to church but never living out your faith or instructing them in the faith the other six days of the week. Those are the things that will cause a child to walk away from their “faith” when they are older - not whether or not you do Santa Claus.
And to be completely honest, you can do all of those things and STILL have a child leave the faith. Unfortunately, there is not some magic formula, that if you do “this” when they are young, they will never leave the faith. What Proverbs 22:6 says about training your children up is a proverb, not a promise. It means this is what you should do because it is the BEST way for you to parent your children, but this is not a guarantee that your child will then be saved. Our children must make that decision for themselves; we can’t save them because of our faith. We can only give them the best information, the best case for Christianity, the best evidence of a life changed by God, the best way of seeing that our eternal hope is found only in Christ, and then pray that they will choose to walk in the way of the Lord.
Some atheists as adults have chosen to make a correlation of Santa to God, comparing the rejection of one to the rejection of the other. Yet to those who have done their homework and have studied the rich theological discourse surrounding the concept of God, this is a poor excuse. The comparison between lack of belief in Santa and lack of belief in God only reveals how little the atheist knew about God to begin with. So, do not let these atheists make you feel guilty for playing Santa with your children! The problem goes much deeper than a little fun around the holidays.
In the end it’s a personal call that each parent should make. You know your child the best (apart from the Cosmic Gift-Giver, of course). If your child is of a particularly serious or literal bent, then play Santa with caution or not at all. And leave room for plenty of grace on this, too. If your child is devastated after learning that it was a ruse, apologize and have a frank talk with them about your intentions.
When all is said and done, I believe that playing Santa is not an ethical issue. I am with G.K. Chesterton on this one:
“What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.
As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.
And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.
Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.
Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.”