Opinion: Three reasons it’s time for Christians to bag Santa

Published on Dec 12th, 2017 by Our Sunday Visitor Catholic Publishing Company | 0

If a young child figures out the truth about Santa Claus, he typically is instructed not to tell other children for fear of spoiling the story for them. But if a child believes in Santa, she is never instructed to keep the story to herself. This does not appear odd, until you consider the children of parents who intentionally choose not to introduce the Santa story in the first place. Among these children are those whose parents may have figured that it already is so difficult to form children’s imaginations according to the mysteries of the Christian faith that spending a half-dozen years or so perpetuating a story that the kids would eventually discover to be untrue (and then having to reshape the Christmas narrative for the purposes of their religious education) … well, maybe that is all just more trouble than it is worth. Christmas is one of the prime times for sparking the imaginations of children, and the ubiquity of Santa Claus makes it far more likely than not that his figure and myth will play a leading role how Christian children’s imaginations are formed year after year. Santa Claus is not evil, but the dominance of his image is unhealthy for the Christian imagination. This isn’t a “Christians against the secular world” sort of thing. Instead it is a recognition of the fact that the enthusiasm and affections of children shape not only what they think about and wish for, but also what they want and believe to be true. Though more could be said, I would like to offer three observations as to how the figure of Santa Claus inverts traditional Christian belief and thereby slowly, subtly and simply by default teaches our children a set of counter-assumptions that, in the end, actually make the Christian faith more difficult to receive. Santa Claus and the image of God We sing a lot of songs this time of year, and we teach our children to sing them. Among these cherished songs, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is the one that captures the essential image of Santa Claus in just a few short verses: “You better watch out / You better not cry / Better not pout / I’m telling you why / Santa Claus is coming to town. / He’s making a list / He’s checking it twice / He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice; / Santa Claus is coming to town. / 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!” Let’s state the obvious: The idea of someone — anyone — watching you all the time is alternately creepy and deeply unsettling. And yet, this is precisely what the psalmist confesses about the God he praises: “Lord, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. You sift through my travels and my rest; with all my ways you are familiar. Even before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it all” (Psalm 139:1-4). If there is someone who sees all and knows all — seeing you and watching you all the time — the really important question is: Who is this? In the Christian imagination — flowing in continuity with the Jewish imagination — the God who sees all and knows all is the one whose seeing is always mercy, and whose mercy always works. In the Book of Exodus, beginning in the second chapter, God is the one who sees suffering and moves to respond, in person. With Santa Claus, the one who sees all and knows all is a moral arbiter who rewards vaguely conceived right conduct and punishes vaguely conceived wrong conduct. We must therefore ask ourselves: Whom do our children imagine is watching them and knowing them, fully and completely? This is not an either-or matter, as in “Santa Claus or God.” It is much more a matter of Santa Claus shaping and reinforcing a predominant image of God, and this image bears a weak resemblance to the God whom Jesus teaches us to call Father. In fact, the image of Santa Claus nicely lines up with the image of God that the sociologist of religion Christian Smith has described as …