Friday, December 9, 2011

The Topic of Santa

As spiritual mentors, how do we deal with the topic of Santa (in all of his various forms!)?  Do we go along with the tradition of teaching kids to believe in Santa? If we talk about Jesus the same way that we talk about Santa, can that cause children to subconsciously believe that Jesus is also a fairy tale?

From a Wikipedia article, this is an 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast. 
I distinctly remember the day that I found out there was no Santa Claus. I was 7-years-old and had been in a serious argument at school with a little boy about Santa's existence. I defended Santa and Rudolph as vehemently as I would have defended the Immaculate Conception.  Shaken by the little boy's counter arguments, I went to my mother who sheepishly admitted that there was no Santa.  I was crushed. . . and angry. Why had every adult in my life lied to me all those years? Fortunately, this disappointment never caused me to doubt my faith in God, but I have heard from others that it cause them to wonder if the story about Bethlehem was made up as well.

My husband, however, had a completely different experience and found the whole Santa thing to be great fun as a kid. When he found out the truth, he just laughed and kept playing along.  So after we had children ourselves, we had serious debates over what to tell our children.  Funny how we got into such heated arguments over something like Santa.:)

We both quickly found that in a multicultural world, keeping up the Santa tradition becomes complicated. With the media and friends from different ethnic backgrounds, kids catch on quick to the different versions (or lack of) to the story. Who exactly does bring all those presents? In the US, Santa and St. Nicholas are the same person. In northern Germany, they are two completely different people. And in many parts of southern Germany, Austria and northern Italy, St. Nicholas also has a sidekick, a sometimes rather scary helper named "Knecht Ruprecht" or "Krampus" who brings naughty children switches.

This is a harmless image of Knecht Ruprecht, St. Nicholas' "helper",
but google the name and you'll see some other images! (Source)
In other parts of southern Germany, there is no Santa at all.  Instead, the "Christkind" ("Christ Child") brings the presents.  Depending on who you talk to, the Christkind can be either Baby Jesus himself or a sort of angel.  (In Nuremburg there is a bi-annual beauty pageant to choose a young girl who will be the Christkind. She then makes public appearances at Christmas markets to wow the young children.) In the Czech Republic, "Ježišek" ("Little Jesus") brings the presents.  (Hmmm . . . the Czech Republic is also the most atheistic nation in Europe. Could there be a historical connection between the birth of Christ being reduced to another form of Santa Claus and the atheism?) In Russia, "Ded Moroz" ("Grandfather Frost") brings the gifts at New Year's, which might be the most healthy thing of all, since the gift-giving has no connection at all to the Orthodox Christmas celebration on January 7. And what about kids whose families don't celebrate Christmas? My son wanted to know in the first grade why his Muslim friends had no Santa visits. Keeping up the Santa tradition is not as easy as it used to be in a global village . . .

Sixteen-year-old Franziska Handke, the Nuremburg Christkind for 2011-12.
Click here for more pictures and info.
In the end, my husband and I settled on a compromise: we told our kids the truth, but explained that it was a fun "game" that everyone, young and old, plays. Consequently, both kids are secure knowing the truth, but still have the fun of drawing pictures for St. Nicholas, singing Santa songs, or leaving cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.

I have also decided that if any children ask me directly about Santa, I will also explain it to them in this way. I certainly don't want to destroy the "Christmas Magic" in their early years, but as a spiritual mentor, I feel that I have to honor the trust that the children around me extend.  This means helping sort out which stories are fun fairy tales and which ones are not.

How do you feel about the Santa tradition and what do you tell the children you care for?


  1. Interesting post! I think Santa/Ded Moroz is a fun tradition for young children though. The way it is done in Russia today has a simple explanation: after the October Revolution all Christmas traditions were simply transfered to the non-religious holiday of New Year's, minus the religious connotations of course. So the Christmas tree became the New Year's tree, gifts would be given not on Christmas Eve but on New Year's Eve, and so forth.

  2. Your solution with your kids is exactly what my parents decided to do with us. We were told that Santa Claus was a game that a lot of parents played with their kids, and I'm pretty sure we were told not to interfere with it by arguing with other children about Santa's existence.

    But I'm interested at your final remarks as I am still feeling awkward about how to handle children's talk about Santa in Junior Church!