I was in fourth grade when I figured out Santa Claus was not “real.”
It happened accidentally. I overheard my grandpa ask my dad where they were going to put my new bike after the kids had gone to bed. I initially shrugged it off. Maybe the bike was from my parents, and Santa was bringing something else. But Christmas morning came, and there sat a bright, shiny mountain bike with eight speeds and fancy hand brakes and a tag hanging off the handlebars: “To Katie, From Santa.”
The jig was up.
I put on a brave face, acting like I did not know the big secret, for the sake of my younger sister. But I confronted my mom about it later that night, demanding answers.
“So, Mom, is Santa Claus real?” Thinking I would catch her in some elaborate lie, I waited for her answer, ready to pounce.
She paused just long enough for me to know she was about to let me in on some scheme. “Santa Claus doesn’t come down a chimney and leave you presents, if that’s what you mean.”
Each year I witness the debate among parents, Catholics included, about whether or not to “do Santa.”
She proceeded to explain to me that while Santa was not necessarily “real” in the way I had thought he was, the spirit of Santa Claus—St. Nicholas, to be exact—was very real, and she and my dad had told me about Santa because they wanted me to know about the mystery and majesty of Christmas.
And then she said something I will never forget: “You know, Katie. Santa is not the point of Christmas. Jesus is. We’ve always told you that.”
“But believing in Santa Claus and us telling you about his generosity and kindness by bringing you gifts every year,” she continued, “helps us all understand this special season and to be ready to celebrate the best gift of all, Jesus.”
It was the perfect answer, one I have never forgotten, and it rings true for me today as a mom with my own daughter who is experiencing the mystery and majesty of Christmas as a toddler.
Each year I witness the debate among parents, Catholics included, about whether or not to “do Santa.” Those in the anti-Santa camp make valid points about not wanting to lie to their children or not wanting to encourage good behavior simply on the grounds of “he’s making a list and checking it twice,” as if we should only be good in order to get a reward. And I share their concern that Christmas, for some, is turning into a consumerist holiday centered entirely around presents.
Love for Jesus burned passionately in the heart of St. Nicholas of Myra, and we can teach that to our kids when we introduce them to Santa Claus.
But I think there is one very simple reason to teach children about Santa Claus, perhaps even talk about him throughout the month of December and advocate for some of the whimsy and wonder surrounding the figure of jolly ole St. Nick: Santa Claus was, in fact, real.
St. Nicholas of Myra, a bishop, theologian, fierce defender of Jesus’ divinity and generous patron of the poor, was very real and is someone who we, as Catholics, should get to know, teach about, ask prayers of and very much believe in.
To simply say “Santa isn’t real” is to oversimplify the mystery and grandeur surrounding the figure of St. Nicholas. Our materialistic culture has certainly co-opted this saint into a cartoon character of sorts, who just dishes out judgment and delivers presents. But St. Nicholas (and thus Santa Claus) is the perfect figure to help children learn about the mystery and majesty of Christmas.
The best story (perhaps more myth than truth) about St. Nicholas, is the one people love to tell most. While debating Arius at the Council of Nicea, Nicholas became so upset by his denial of Jesus’ divinity that he slapped Arius across the face and was then punished for his outburst. The story goes that while he was jailed, he had a vision of Jesus, who asked him why he was in jail. “Because of my love for you,” Nicholas said.
Santa can be an entry point into the miracle of the incarnation.
Love for Jesus burned passionately in the heart of St. Nicholas of Myra, and we can teach that to our kids when we introduce them to Santa Claus. Whether it is the mall Santa we take pictures with or the claymation Santa Claus of cartoons, every encounter with Santa Claus—even in the midst of the materialism and consumerism—is a chance to teach our kids about a deep love for Jesus.
The spirit of Christmas is about one thing above all else: the mystery of the incarnation. This is when we celebrate the Word becoming flesh, and that is a miraculous, mystical thing. It is hard to wrap our heads around. We set out nativity scenes and sing songs about silent and holy nights, but everyone, especially our kids, needs tangible things that help us grasp the importance and significance of Christmas. Rather than seeing Santa Claus as a lie or a parenting hack to create mild-mannered kids, Santa can be an entry point into the miracle of the incarnation.
I want nothing more than my daughter to wake up on Christmas morning, for years to come, and be amazed at the gifts under the tree that were not there the night before. I want her to be surprised, shocked even, by their presence, just as the world was surprised by the new presence of an infant king, lying in a manger, sneaking in under our noses, ready to save the world. I want her to be thrilled when we wait in line to take a picture with Santa, excited to meet a man that we have told her loves Jesus first and foremost and is generous, just as Jesus is to us today. I want her to be jumping up and down with happiness when we place the little baby Jesus into the manger and sing “Happy Birthday” to him.
I think Santa Claus—and the lore and mystery surrounding this jolly old man in the red suit—can help her gain the sense of wonder and awe we want her to have when it comes to Jesus Christ.
Santa Claus does not have to detract from the miracle of the incarnation. Yes, the materialistic, jolly, list-making Santa could cheapen Christmas if he is used to only coax good behavior out of children in exchange for presents. But if we introduce Santa as a man of virtue, who exemplifies generosity and joy, and children are taught to imitate his generous spirit and anticipate his arrival, which brings tidings of comfort and joy because of Jesus, then Santa can open up the mystery of the incarnation as we celebrate our Lord’s wondrous birth.