December 16, 2013

Why Lie to Your Kids about Santa? (reprise)

by Clint Archer

I’m no Scrooge. I don’t object to draping tinsel, jetting off Christmas e-cards, or singing inane jingles about jingling bells. I trust that my family understands that–pagan roots aside–the plastic conifer in our living room is not a subtle mark of our allegiance to the forces of darkness. It’s just a (model of a) tree.

We do, however, prefer singing “Hark the Herald Angel Sings” over the misdirected praise of “Oh Christmas Tree,” though I’m not even fanatic about enforcing that.

We tolerate the poetic inaccuracy of “We three kings of Orient are” because it rolls off the tongue better than “We indeterminable number of Gentile scholars of Persia are.”

But… I am nervous about the potential confusion which may cloud a four-year-old’s faith in my honesty. 

Angels on high, a pregnant virgin, God in a manger, a guiding star… are impossibilities. Yet, “all things are possible with God.” [Yes, you need to believe in the virgin birth to be a ChristianWe ask our children to trust us on these claims, with their lives. Then we add a fictitious, omniscient fat guy with a red-nosed reindeer to the mix. At a certain age we matter-of-factly disclose that we were just kidding about the chimney intrusion, the Elven workshop, and the works-based naughty-or-nice judgment. “Those parts are make-believe, the rest is gospel truth. Trust me, son.”

Misinformation has a way of taking root in our memories. Do you picture the stable with oxen lowing on a silent night? Were the angels actually singing? Was there a villainous curmudgeon inn keeper? These details are not found in Scripture.

Three kings? Nope. How many seminary students have in their NT survey class been disabused of their favorite nativity character, the little drummer boy?

The popular mythology of Father Christmas, as we call him in Africa, runs parallel to biblical truth in our homes, until it dead-ends in one of the (hopefully) pre-teen years. But has the damage to parental credibility already been done?

A parody of a possible consequence is epitomized by that poor, traumatized kid who laments melodically, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” I doubt therapy was needed for the child to overcome his confusion. But there does exist a subtle long-term danger, namely that of placing impossible fiction on the same shelf as impossible fact, and forcing our children to discern arbitrarily which is which, based on our flip-flopping propositions.

Is it any wonder that adults, who at one time believed their Sunday school teachers, eventually conclude that “The Bible sounds like a fairy tale”? These skeptics were expected to outgrow some of what they were taught by their parents. Why not more of it? Why not all that sounds impossible?

I never want my children to have this existential monologue in junior high: “Daddy told me about a six day creation, virgin birth, Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, angels, and fairies. Then he said he was only joking about half the stuff. I felt gullible for falling for it. Mmm. I wonder if my science teacher is right about Evolution? What other nonsense has been fed to me as fact?”

So what do I tell my children when they see other kids queueing to meet one of the ubiquitous middle-aged, overweight men with fake beards offering a lap and a promise of gifts? I tell them the truth: “Look, it’s a pretend Santa! How fun.” This will be in the context of the conversation we would have had, where I explained that part of Christmas fun is pretending there is a man who lives in the North Pole and gives presents. I’ll also tell them about the real Nicholas who ministered in Turkey. Pretending can still be fun. I love fiction and imagination. I offer them Narnia too. But there is a thin line between fiction and fallacy. 

I want my children to grow up knowing that their dad never, ever lies to them. About anything. This may lead to some awkward moments in life, like a premature discussion about where babies come from. But surely adding a stork to the catalogue of misinformation can’t be a better tactic than opting for truth in every situation.

The precious attributes of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, are grotesquely caricatured by Santa-lore. Consider the lyrics that describe what our children think of this demagogue: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

I’m interested to hear your views. In the meantime, I have a nativity set to go re-arrange (the indeterminable scholars from Persia will only arrive in two years time, and they’ll show up at the “house” not the stable). Another bubble burst in the battle for truth; a small price to pay for not abusing the unwavering trust my children have in their dad.

What do you think, am I going too far?


Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Joy

    Hi Clint,

    Thanks so much for your perspective on this. My little one is still too young to understand anything about Christmas, but this is something we’ve been thinking about for the future. I totally understand all the points you have made, but I think you left one thing out. What about the fact that Santa (or insert whatever fictional holiday character you want) only comes around once a year? Growing up, we left out cookies for Santa and looked forward to seeing what he left in our stocking, but he only came around one day a year. We talked about the Lord everyday and went to church every week. So even though we got into Santa, we always knew that there really wasn’t any comparison between him and God. Thoughts?

    Always love a good Cripplegate discussion…thanks for all that you guys do and have a Merry Christmas!

    • Hi Joy, thanks for your question. You raise an interesting point. I think that the fact that the talk of Santa is seasonal can make it less intrusive into a kid’s world view. I think some families show by their emphasis what is really important. I agree that if a parent never talks about the Lord, that is an obvious issue that is more important than a parent who seasonally talks about Santa. I’m not in favor of making rules for other people; the principle is that you know your kids and what it means to them, and how they will react when they find out that it isn’t real. Each parent needs to shepherd their children the way they believe is best.

  • Windy

    I think that the decision to follow the Santa Claus tradition (or not) is a personal one that every family must make for itself, and I respect your decision. But I confess I don’t understand the obsession some people seem to have with attacking the tradition as a “lie.” Have you ever “stolen” a baby’s nose? Pulled a quarter from behind your son’s ear? When you sip “tea” with your daughter, do you make sure to point out to her that you’re only pretending and there’s not really tea in the cup? Of course not. Children have an amazing capacity to lose themselves in imagination and pretend play, and young children often cannot tell the difference between pretend and reality. This is normal and healthy and an important part of a child’s mental development. As parents, we often play along and even encourage pretend play. I fail to see what is so harmful about extending that concept to Santa Claus. I do not know a single person who feels s/he was “lied to” by parents who played Santa Claus. If anything, those people express a nostalgia for the joy that comes from believing in magic, if only for a little while — the same joy they want to pass on to their children.

    • There’s a big difference between “pretend play” and “pretend real,” Windy. Telling someone something is real and knowing they are truly deceived about it and playing a game of pretend or enjoying fiction are different. This was addressed in the post as well: “Pretending can still be fun. I love fiction and imagination. I offer them Narnia too. But there is a thin line between fiction and fallacy. ”

      You say yourself: “Children have an amazing capacity to lose themselves in imagination and pretend play, and young children often cannot tell the difference between pretend and reality.”

      Yet you know as a matter of fact that this isn’t the case with Santa – children cannot tell the difference, they take it on faith that the most important people in the world are not lying to them.

      This is not a personal decision, but it is a sin, like all lying in the sight of a Holy God who doesn’t lie. If you honestly looked at all your examples, you will see how they are not at all analogous to telling someone something is really happening that isn’t when you know it isn’t and you know they will place great faith in, as parents must do to celebrate Santa.

      If you are honestly open to correction and understanding, let me know and I’ll help. But it seems you are more inclined to simply cling to what you already believe, even though it isn’t based in scripture. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, I’m just commenting on what you posted.

    • I know people who felt lied to when they learned the truth about Santa. Worse, I know people whose faith in God was shaken because the same person who told them about Jesus also told them about Santa.

      Yes, we play make-believe with our kids, but we don’t tell them it’s real. My kids know their nose hasn’t really been stolen, and my daughters know the tea is imaginary (except when we actually use real tea). We read them fiction, but we don’t lead them to believe it. That’s the difference between make-believe and lying.

      • Did those people whose faith was shaken grow up with parents who were otherwise dynamically growing in their faith in Christ? Because I know plenty of strong Christians today who did grow up believing in Santa (at least for some years), and who never looked back at that time and questioned their faith.

        • Some did, some didn’t. I would say it’s those who did who were harmed the most, because they were hit harder by learning that the same parents who told them about Jesus also lied to them about Santa.

    • I totally agree that this is up to each parent to decide for their family. I did address fiction and pretend, and I am highly in favor of that. I think the difference is that pretend/fiction does not become part of a person’s world view. Usually both parties are aware that a scenario is “pretend.” There is an agreed upon suspension of disbelief. A sustained story about a person with some attributes of deity, to me, is a different matter altogether. But I certainly don’t mean to make rules where the Bible doesn’t, so I agree this is up to each family to decide. Thanks for the question.

    • Jason

      That’s right Windy, because no parent who loves Christ is still talking about Santa January – October, but Christ is on display all year round! And most of us can tell the difference between fact, fiction, science fiction, and unreality tv.

  • I am with you in that we don’t “do” Santa either. We have taught our kids that it is a fun story, based on a historical person (St. Nicholas).

    But my rigid views have changed. Like you, I was quick to call it a lie, and a bad idea to “lie” to one’s own kids. But now I see that that Santa is not a salvation issue (as I write here:

    I, too, was concerned about the dangers of lying to my kids, that they would disbelieve everything else I was teaching them. But the truth is that I have NEVER found a case where someone found out the truth about Santa and then that led them to reject what their parents taught them about Jesus.

    We have friends that believed in Santa when they were children, and who have also incorporated Santa in their traditions. And what I’ve seen is that if the parents are living out a dynamic faith in Jesus, the deal about Santa counts very, very little.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do not regret how we have handled Santa. I think we would do the same thing over again. But I would also be more understanding of and less judgmental of Christ-following families who do incorporate Santa in their traditions.

    (Clint — You can read an interview of friends of ours in the link above, and I also link to your post from last year. I think this is a worthy topic of discussion, and I appreciate you talking about it. But even though I tend to be a black-and-white scientist, I am more and more seeing this issue as more of a grey one.)

    • I agree with you that Santa isn’t a salvation issue. But it is difficult to judge what will become a stumbling block for our kids. Some might have no problem with the revelation that Santa was fictional; others might feel foolish for believing in him in the first place; others might feel quite betrayed by their parents. I don’t think we should decide based only on how we think our kids will react, but we should decide what we as parents think about telling our kids metaphysical truths about God, and with the same mouth telling them metaphysical fiction about Santa as if they were truths. Thanks for the comment, Joey.

      • Thanks for your response. As I said, I just haven’t seen this issue of kids feeling betrayed, at least not in the lives of kids who came from stable, loving homes.

  • We started from the very beginning to teach our children about Santa Claus being a fairy tail, just like Snow White, Cinderella, et al. We still had lots of fun with Santa, because they knew he was just for fun, while Jesus was the real deal. We had birthday cakes for Jesus, to show the real difference. We would sign gifts as “from Santa” and everyone would have a good laugh.

    I know most people think it is harmless to teach about Santa, but I’ve seen many children practically traumatized by being forced to sit in “Santa’s” lap. And I never liked the idea of being dishonest with my children.

    As for “stealing” my child’s nose, they also knew that was silly and not real.

    • Thanks Glenn. It sounds like you’ve got a good grip on what i was trying to say in the article.

  • Clint – you described my childhood faith and the falling away of it to a tee. This is a real problem, not a matter of Xian conscience, and it needs to be addressed.

    Aside from the obvious problems you raised, I guess I would also ask – Why would a Xian have ANY DESIRE to “do Santa” anyway? Here’s my almost 3 year old post on the same subject:

    • Thanks Michael, I’ll check that post out.

  • I’d argue that dealing with the Santa stuff it mostly for kids in public schools and/or watchers of lots of television, who are seeing and hearing lots of the Santa nonsense in the first place. Otherwise, I’ve noticed, it’s not really an issue, unless its the parents wish to fabricate the whole Santa thing out of the blue.

    • It is true that our kids will be confronted with the Santa issue in differing degrees. That is why each parent needs to consider how they are going to deal with it.

  • Hmmmm, I think you make some good points but I for one, was raised in a loving Christian home who believed there was a Santa until I was about 3 or 4 and whatever I felt at that time I “heard” he wasn’t real, is nonexistent in my memory. I continued to trust every word out of my parents mouth, and in fact believed they were always right, until my adult years! We always celebrated the birth of Jesus as the reason for Christmas – Santa was just a fun gift receiving part of it. I raised my son the same way but his wife was raised without any Santa, Easter bunny, etc. because her parents vowed never to lie to her. My son has wrestled with which way to go with their five children and in the end, we really don’t talk much about Santa at all. The kids will see a Santa somewhere and say “look at Santa” but he doesn’t mean anything to them except to know he exists. In the end, since indeed we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, I could care less if my grandkids give even a thought about Santa (which they rarely do) – but I also wouldn’t care if they did. In the end, it is most important that Jesus is celebrated every single day of the year and that is being accomplished in our household.

    • Hi Melissa, thanks for your comment. I’m glad it worked out well for you, and I agree that what’s important is to celebrate Christ every day.

  • Sandra D

    Not going too far, just following your conscience. However, my belief in Santa and my later learning the truth did not affect in any way my attitude towards my parent’s integrity. It did not make me question any other thing they had ever told or taught me, including Christianity. (I am currently serving with my husband as a missionary to Kenya.)

    I like the explanation you’ve given your kids, but I also know from experience that allowing children to believe otherwise won’t damage them. I don’t think one should purposefully BUILD the lies, but it didn’t harm any of my American agemates to believe the story and we all did to a point.

    • Great points. I agree that the WHOLE of the family dynamic (and how the parents are following Jesus) trumps any issue like Santa.

      • Well said, Joey. Sandra makes good points.

  • Landon

    Great considerations, thank you for posting this. A small extension on your line of thought:

    By replacing Santa with Jesus (as the bringer of gifts), we can setup a conversation about God as the ultimate provider. Once they are old enough to question and understand that Jesus didn’t physically bring the gifts to them, you can have a great talk about how it was still God who provided the means for them to receive those gifts. He is the ultimate source, not us or Santa or relatives or whomever. Disabusing ourselves of the notion of personal ownership is hard enough, it might be wise to start as young as possible.

    • Thanks Landon. It depends a lot on the kids age, but yes, eventually you want to seize every opportunity in life to bring them back to the cross.

  • Hi Clint – No, I think you’re doing it just right. Kids are bright – Tell em Santa’s fake but fun. We strictly forbid Santa when our kids were little-( a wee fanatical). But it didn’t damage them too much (I hope) – They’re now doing a great job teaching our grandkids good theology while having a little fun with Fake Santa.
    Caveat: Angry parents confronting you when your kid tells their kid Santa’s not real. Ha!

    • Great caveat! I have had to rein in my zealous truth-speaking kids from ruining the choice other families have made for their kids.

  • Tammy Wojtas Wagner

    I completely agree w/ your reasoning, & my hubby & I take the same approach. However, before we became parents, we had no idea how entrenched Santa-lore was in the fabric of our culture–so much so that strangers in public constantly approac our kids, asking them
    what they want from Santa or telling them they need to be good so they get presents from him.

    The first time this occurred, my oldest was 1, & he didn’t understand at all. I told the (intrusive) person we didn’t do the Santa thing. He looked at me as if I’d said I didn’t feed the poor kid! Since then, I’ve just quietly smiled, but I know it’s confusing for me 3 & 4yo sons. What do or would you do or say in such situations?

    • I also take the smile-and-nod approach. I tell my kids that Santa is a fun pretend thing but some people take it seriously, so they should just play along. If someone asks them what Santa is bringing them they can answer however they want. My 6 yr old usually says a Ferrari, and then he winks at me.

  • BTW, this here is The Cripplegate’s 10,000th comment. Not sure of the significance, but I wanted to see the clock tick over from 9,999. Thanks to all the commenters who have joined our discussions.

  • Christine Gutierrez

    I appreciate your thoughts. I just had a conversation with my grown daughter about this topic before I read your post. This was the perspective of our family when the kids were young. We enjoyed the various elements of Christmas. However, we didn’t treat fiction as truth. We also taught our children to respect the decisions of families that differed from ours. Although at times I was saddened at the length parents would go to keep the lie alive if the child suspected a cover up. I came from the perspective that if I couldn’t tell the truth in the small and silly things how could I keep the truth and the big and important ones.

    • Well put. It’s all about what’s fact and what’s fiction.

  • Sue

    I couldn’t agree more!! We’ve always made every effort to never lie to our children and always keep promises. Its a small way to mirror how God treats His children. He never lies or breaks promises. My husband and I have often talked about how our children would be expected to believe us if we had lied about there being a santa claus and later in life said, sorry, we were just joking. We do NOT want our children to question “Is Jesus real? If they lied about Santa, they could just as easily have been lying about Jesus.” Our children’s salvation is THE most important thing for me and my husband, and there is NO room for lying because we do not want them questioning what the Bible says and what God has written in His word. Thank you very much for sharing this important fact.

    • You touched on an important way we can lie: breaking commitments and promises. Thanks.

  • Joanne Beange

    The fact of the matter is parents don’t want to admit that they
    are lying and lying is sin. So they compromise and justify their
    actions. Let’s face it, whether kids are damaged in one way or another
    by believing in Santa doesn’t enter into the picture. What is important is that we uphold the Word of God. If we bring even part of it into question then how can we expect our children to believe any of it? How will they know truth from error if we do not teach them it right from the beginning and live it in our lives?

    • Right. As long as everyone involved knows something is fiction, then you avoid the deception charge.

      • Joanne Beange

        If it’s fiction then why promote it at all when there are so many positive and good real life instances instead? What does it show about our priorities when we promote an all seeing Santa as a giver of gifts to those who are “nice” when we can teach about the One True Gift and why Christ was given in the first place? Should Santa and the Babe in the Manger go hand-in-hand? I think not.

        • Joy

          I disagree…I totally think you can use Santa (which your kids are going to be exposed to whether you like it or not) as an opportunity to talk about Jesus. First of all as Clint mentioned, by telling them the true story of St. Nicholas, who gave out of his love for Christ and compassion for others. And to compare Santa’s gifts, which are material and fleeting, to God’s gift of eternal life through Jesus. And I still hold that if God is present everyday in the life of your family, Santa showing up one day a year is not going to undo all of the credibility of who God is. Just my two cents 🙂

          • Joanne Beange

            Joy, I don’t disagree with your point-of-view. What I disagree with is people, especially Christians, telling their kids that Santa is real.There’s a disconnect there.

  • Jen

    I see your point but as an adolescent and now adult with a child I never thought. ‘ Hmm can’t trust mom and dad cause they wanted me to believe in magic and fairies and crap’. When I was old enough to know the tooth fairy was not real I wasn’t mad at my mom I was mad at me cause now I don’t get a gift for my tooth! Never entered my mind that my parents were dishonest!

    • I’m glad it worked out well for you Jen. Thanks for sharing.

  • Linda

    Ever notice that the letters in Santa also spell Satan? Hmmmmm……coincidence? I think not……

    • Deep. I wonder what that says about the divinity of my dog? 🙂

    • Joy

      In the church my mom grew up in, they actually talked about that…from the pulpit…sigh…

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