What to Do with Santa Claus

What to Do with Santa Claus

In my first article,“Who Is Santa, and What Does He Have to Do With Christmas?” I discussed the background of the historical St. Nicholas. Now comes the question of what to “do” with Santa Claus in regard to our family celebrations.

Now I realize that this is a controversial topic for many Christians, so I hope that we can all respect each others' decisions. Many of the families that I admire most in this world have chosen to completely disassociate Santa from their family celebrations (some don’t even celebrate Christmas at all). I have a high regard for the commitment of these families to keep the focus on Christ, and I have no intention of convincing them to do otherwise.

However, I know there are some parents, like me, who have fond childhood memories of Santa fantasies and jingles. Though I wholeheartedly agree that the focus should be on Christ during the Christmas season, I wondered if it was necessary to toss out all the old books and ornaments that had any association with Santa. As I struggled with this decision, there were a variety of thoughts that came to mind.

First off, children love fantasy. That is why so many children’s stories include talking animals, fairies, magic, etc. Fantasy can encourage both creativity and imagination in children. As they mature and begin to distinguish between fantasy and reality, parents can play an important role in helping to clarify what is true and what is fiction. Can this apply to Santa fantasies? I looked to two of my favorite authors in the genre of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for some help on this question.

Tolkien, best known for his Lord of the Rings series, was a father of four. Over the course of 20 years, he wrote letters to his children in the name of Father Christmas (the English counterpart to Santa Claus). He included his own sketches of Father Christmas, the North Polar Bear and the North Pole (which he depicted as a literal pole). One year, the North Polar Bear, Father Christmas’ somewhat clumsy assistant, had an incident that forced Father Christmas to move:

“It all happened like this: one very windy day last November my hood blew off and went and stuck on the top of the North Pole. I told him not to, but the North Polar Bear climbed up to the thin top to get it down – and he did. The pole broke in the middle and fell on the roof of my house, and the North Polar Bear fell through the hole it made in to the dining room with my hood over his nose, and all the snow fell off the roof into the house and melted and put out all the fires and ran down into the cellars where I was collecting this year’s presents, and the North Polar bear’s leg got broken. He is well again now, but I was so cross with him that he says he won’t try to help me again. I expect his temper is hurt, and will be mended by next Christmas.”1

Occasionally, even the North Polar Bear would send a letter to the children. He had to excuse “his bad English spelling from the fact that the language spoken at the North Pole was Arctic.” One year, the North Polar Bear got lost in Goblin caves (1932) and later “invented an alphabet from Goblin markings on the walls, and sent a short letter in it.”The children had great fun deciphering the letter.

C. S. Lewis, a friend of Tolkien, is probably best known for his Chronicles of Narnia in which he portrays a more serious Father Christmas. Though the White Witch had made it “always winter and never Christmas in Narnia,”she was beginning to lose her powers. Here is an account of the visit of Father Christmas:

“It was a sledge [sleigh], and it was reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the Witch’s reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world — the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.”2

Father Christmas announces, “She [the White Witch] has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.” He proceeds to give gifts and even delivers sugar, cream and tea “for the moment.” Then he called out, “‘Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!’ and cracked his whip, and he and the reindeer and the sledge and all were out of sight before anyone realized that they had started.”

Clearly, both Tolkien and Lewis embraced the fantasy surrounding Christmas. I especially like how Lewis used the Father Christmas of Narnia to call attention to Aslan, the true King (understood by literary scholars to be a type of Christ).

The beauty of our American Santa Claus is that his roots come from a historical person, St. Nicholas, who was truly a servant of Christ (not a competitor). The fact that American children are surrounded by images of Santa Claus during the Christmas season means that there are many opportunities to discuss the real St. Nicholas, a man whose life should inspire us to more fully serve God.

One aspect of the historical St. Nicholas that I have chosen to emphasize with my children is his generosity. One of the most famous stories about St. Nicholas involves him secretly delivering gold to a father and his three daughters who, through misfortune, had become destitute. The practice of giving gifts in Santa’s name is really just a way of giving anonymously. Secret generosity is consistent with how St. Nicholas gave gifts, and more importantly it follows Jesus’ instruction to let our giving be done in secret. As Jesus said, “Your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:4).

I have always told my children that the real St. Nicholas is in heaven with God and that all the fantasy that surrounds Santa is just “pretend.” My children are still young and love “pretend” stories (just as they love me to make up fairy tales every night before they go to bed). Though I take care to emphasize the difference between what is true and false, reality and fantasy, non-fiction and fiction, my children do not always grasp these distinctions. However, I know that with time and guidance, they will develop this discernment. When this time comes, I look forward to helping them recognize that our Christian story is so much better than fantasy, because it is miraculous, historical and TRUE!

For a good short article on the Santa controversy, see the blog post by Nicki Koziarz: “The Great Santa Debate.”

1 Tolkien, J.R.R. The Father Christmas Letters. Edited by Baillie Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.

2 Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Harper Collins Publishers, 1982.

The content in this article is drawn from Christmas, Celebrating the Christian History of Classic Symbols, Songs and Stories, Holiday Classics Publishing, 2010 (learn more about this Christmas book).

Angie Mosteller is a homeschooling mom of two and founder of Celebrating Holidays, an educational company dedicated to teaching the Christian roots of American holidays.