Jesus Claus

“While I was in Japan soon before Christmas, I became friends with a couple of Japanese. One night we got to talking about Christmas. I tried to explain it to them, describing the presents, Santa Claus, parties, family time, and some of the religious aspects,” the speaker at our departmental meeting said.

“The next time I saw them, being the wonderful Japanese people that they are, they presented me with the strangest Christmas present I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t laugh or reveal my shock, because that would insult them. So I just accepted it and thanked them. It was a Santa Claus nailed to a cross.”

The room exploded with horrified laughter. More than a few wiped away tears before the chuckles finally died down.

Later, when I retold this story to my fiancee and her roommate, a question nagged at me: is it really a huge stretch for an outsider to confuse Jesus and Santa?

The Twinkle in Their Eye

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, young American children are usually most excited about the presents that their families and Santa are going to bring them. We take our children to the mall to take their pictures with Santa and let them rattle off their Christmas lists. Santa asks them whether they’ve been good this year, as if their parents were making them earn their gifts through good behavior rather than giving them freely out of love. On Christmas Eve children set out milk and cookies for someone who will never come and think about Santa until they fall asleep. Then they spend Christmas day playing with their presents and comparing them with their friends’ haul.

This is what we have taught them to do at Christmastime. We even reinforce it when we talk to them, asking questions like, “What do you want for Christmas this year, Kelly?” or “What did Santa bring you this year?”

The Truth Shall Set You Free?

And then there’s the dilemma of what parents should tell their children about Santa. Some tell their kids that Santa is real, filling their heads with magical stories about Santa’s love and generosity. Then a dark day comes when, through a friend, an older sibling, or their own curiosity, they realize that Mom and Dad have been lying to them their entire lives.

Other parents, like mine, tell their kids that Santa isn’t real, that he’s just something we pretend for fun every year. However, they must also warn their kids not to spoil the fun for those other children who still believe in Santa. For a kid whose mind has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, it can be a lot to ask. So they grow up half-believing in a mythical figure whom everyone else seems to believe in, a jolly old fat man who lives in a perpetual haze between imagination and reality.

My mom told us the truth early on, and I’m glad she did. “If you found out I’d lied about Santa, you might think I’d lied about God as well, that maybe He was imaginary, too,” she told me later. A friend of mine went through a difficult period of doubt as a child for that very reason. Her parents taught her to believe in two people whom she could not see for herself: Santa and Jesus. When she found out that one of them was a dream, she didn’t see much reason to go on believing in the other.

My wife calls Santa the “Big Red Burglar.” When she was a child, it scared her to think that a stranger was coming into her house uninvited through the chimney. I can’t fault her logic. As a father, I also wonder why we tell children to distrust strangers and not take anything from them unless they happen to be overweight, dressed in a red suit and hat, and eager to have little children sit on their laps.

Somewhere in this muddy mix is the namesake of this holiday, the Christ child. For some, Christmas is a purely secular holiday intended solely for time with friends and family, fun, and the exchange of gifts. For Christians, Christmas is usually all of these things plus the celebration of our Savior’s birth. We sing songs about Jesus, we “emulate the wise men” by giving gifts to others as a show of our love, and perhaps we even set up nativity scenes in our homes. To pay for all those presents, some of us rack up large amounts of credit card debt that takes months to pay off. On the night before Christmas, perhaps we go to the Christmas Eve service at church to celebrate His coming before we go home to get the kids ready for Santa and in bed as soon as possible, because “Santa doesn’t come while the children are awake.”

Why do we worship Santa instead of Jesus?

Santa as Ultimate Judge

The crucified Santa is a perfect representation of what Christmas in America has become. It has a religious foundation, but the wrong person as the center.

In popular mythology, Santa is a distant judge who watches each child’s every move from afar with glasses on and pen in hand, keeping a ledger of credits and debits. In theory, he gives children gifts according to what they do. To the good ones, Santa delivers the gifts they want. To the bad ones, he gives a lump of coal. At least, that’s what some parents threaten. Rarely do they follow through, further enlarging the lie. Children and parents both always seem to forget that even in our best years, we’re still not completely good all the time, nor are we completely bad. So in practice, Santa brings gifts to children who are “good enough” to meet some undefined standard that only Santa knows.

Replace Santa with God, gifts with heaven, and coal with hell, and you have a good model of Christianity in the eyes of many people.

Unmuddy the Waters

If Santa and gifts are the point of Christmas, we should make them our focus each holiday season. If Jesus is the focus, including Santa in the festivities only muddies the water and confuses both our children and us.

Many excellent and loving Christian parents recognize both Jesus and Santa at Christmastime. Some argue that Santa is just something fun that they do because the children enjoy it, that it doesn’t hurt anything. It’s true that Santa is fun. How can you not like a jolly old man whose sole purpose in life is to make children happy? I remember searching the skies for Rudolph as a boy, deciding what to leave for him on Christmas Eve (as teenagers, my sister and I thought he might prefer bourbon to a billionth glass of milk), and gleefully sneaking out to the living room before dawn to see what Santa had brought me.

But making Santa the focus of Christmas reduces Jesus to an afterthought. I’m sure few Christian parents consciously make that choice, but every year that’s effectively the choice that millions of them make.

Alternatives to the Big Red Burgler

Advent Conspiracy is a great alternative to the traditional American Christmas. Some families use the Advent calendar or an Advent wreath to keep their focus on Jesus. Many ask for donations to charities in lieu of gifts. One of my favorites is the World Vision Gift Catalog.

Now that we have kids of our own, resisting the urge to Santa has become a bit more difficult and complex, but we’re trying. My wife and I have two amazing little boys, ages two and ten months. We are teaching them that Christmas is a huge birthday party for Jesus. Santa is a legend based upon a real and generous man named St. Nicholas who lived long ago, loved God, and gave gifts to people in need. While we do buy limited gifts for them and other family members, the Guest of Honor also wants us to give gifts to people in need. Each year we adopt Salvation Army angels near the ages of our boys. This year, for the first time, we plan to bring our older son to help us choose the clothing and toys we buy. We want him, and later our younger son as well, to share in the joy of giving and to remember how much God has given to us.