y mother wrapped her arms around me, trying to console me as I wept uncontrollably. After a few minutes of soothing I was able to express myself coherently. “He said there’s no Santa, Mommy!”
For years my presents under the tree were always signed with a tag “From Santa.” Not until my older cousin burst my belief in Santa like a bubble was I finally told the truth. This same conversation occurs in households all over the world, and the question is asked: Should we teach our children about someone who doesn’t exist?
From a young age I was told about another Man—one who came to the earth as a baby and eventually gave His life on a cross so that I could have eternal life. For someone who has never heard this story, it might seem exciting, almost magical.
Many feel that Christmas should be a holiday that celebrates only Christ’s birth as a baby, and that the holiday has become all too commercialized. Do we have to choose? Or can these two ideals concerning Christmas—Santa Claus and Jesus—coexist in harmony? If there’s a danger in the way we talk about Santa, it’s the way he often becomes the central figure in the story, instead of Jesus.
The Myth Explained
The history of Santa Claus dates back nearly 1,700 years. In Myra (present-day Turkey) a fourth-century bishop named Nicholas reportedly used his family inheritance to help the poor. Legend has him throwing gold coins through a window to help save a peasant girl from slavery, with some of them landing in a stocking drying by the fire. According to legend, word spread, and children began hanging their stockings by the fire, hoping that the same good fortune would happen to them. Upon Nicholas’ death, December 6 became Saint Nicholas’ Day, and the holiday eventually led to gift-giving throughout Christian Europe. Different names were given to the saint and the holiday in different countries.
Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” described Santa in detail—plump and jolly. Retailers discovered the selling ability of Santa, and he continues to be a staple in the American holiday. To this day Santa remains one of the most recognized faces in the world.
The Case for Santa
Most Christians understand that what we celebrate on December 25 began as a pagan holiday, but the Christmas tradition has always been associated with giving. Robert Coombs, a psychologist and professor at Southern Adventist University, suggests that there is nothing wrong with a belief in Santa, and that in fact it may reinforce uniquely Christian ideals.
Part of his attractiveness “is represented in Santa’s willingness to give without expecting anything in return.”
This is an important lesson for children to learn: to know that true giving does not mean expecting recognition or even getting something back, but in knowing that we brought happiness to someone else, as Saint Nicholas did.
The Case for Christ
For Christians Christmas is a time for remembering the birth of Jesus. Every year the story is told in homes all over the world: a young woman becomes pregnant by divine means and travels with her new husband to Bethlehem, where she has her Baby in a stable. The Baby is celebrated (and feared) by those far and near. He fulfills Bible prophecy as the Messiah who was to save Israel and ultimately the world.
Stephen Bauer, a religion professor at Southern Adventist University, maintains that we should not teach our children about Santa because it undermines parents’ credibility.
“They wonder that if their parents are lying about that, what else are they lying about?”
Bauer also commented on the danger of letting a belief in Santa overlap with a belief in Christ in a child’s mind. “Santa is depicted with almost blasphemous traits: He knows when you’re good, when you’re bad; when you’re sleeping, when you’re awake. He’s almost god-like.”
However, Bauer also explained the difference between keeping traditions and rejecting them for biblical reasons.
“[Christmas] has the potential to teach about such things as greed and selfishness,” said Bauer. “I don’t think it’s necessary to be anti-culture or to have no mention of Santa if we can keep Jesus and Santa in their distinct spheres.”
Young Adult Response
A poll taken on the campus of Southern Adventist University asked young adults whether or not they believed in Santa as children, if they planned on letting their own children believe in Santa, and if they believed that belief in Santa detracted from the celebration of Christ’s birth.
The results were almost unanimous. Ninety percent of the students polled did not believe in Santa as children and did not intend to teach their children that he is real. However, while they wouldn’t want their children to believe in Santa, they didn’t think that Santa detracts from the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
What Do You Think?
Is Santa Claus a harmless myth, or does it minimize the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection?
Send your responses in 100 words or less to Letters@AdventistReview.org, or Adventist Review, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904. Don’t forget to include your name, address, and phone number.
There seemed to be a common feeling that Santa and Christ should be kept completely separate, or that Santa conflicts with Christian ideals associated with Christ. Most of these opinions centered on the idea of giving. But didn’t Santa begin as a tradition of a real man helping the poor? Maybe it’s not the ideals that have changed, but the way in which they’re exhibited.
The danger of allowing children to believe in a mythical man while at the same time teaching them about Christ lies in the possible parallels they may find between the two, as in this story related by Bauer:
A young girl visiting a shopping mall asked Santa for the healing of her sibling, who suffered from cancer. When the Santa couldn’t answer her, she began ascribing to him all the things we normally associate with Jesus: His love for children, His ability to heal. The Santa had to step away so the child wouldn’t see his tears. Santa had met his limit.
I challenge all of us to take a closer look at the stories we believe and retell, and I propose that the story of Christ is superior to any other. He may not slide down the chimney with packages, but His life and love are far better gifts.
Erica Richards works for the General Conference Youth Department. She wrote this when she was a student at Southern Adventist University. This article was published on December 15, 2011.