santa baby jesusHere I am, writing about Santa again.

In years past, I have written a lot about Santa. Last year I just did not want to get into it, because it seems like one of those conversations where no mutual ground is gained nor understanding reached. Basically Santa is a convenient excuse for bloggers to tell people they are either lying to their children or destroying the wonder of childhood.

This year, though, the stupid Santa crusades have invaded my own private corner of internet tranquility. Alas, once again, no one is making the most crucial distinction of all. So I guess I will do it, since I am basically a martyr for the Santa cause.

Everyone keeps talking about how telling your children about Santa is a lie because Santa is not real. But who cares if Santa is real or not? That is not the point. The point is, Santa is true.

We have so totally lost the ability to distinguish between the real and the true that we act like they are the same thing, when they are not—at least, not always.

Take the story of St. Christopher, for example. It is widely acknowledged that the story of St. Christopher carrying the Christ-Child across a swollen river—bearing not only the Child Christ but the whole weight of the world along with him—is a myth that drew heavily from various stories in Greek mythology. Even though the Church unfortunately removed his feast day from the calendar (probably because they read too many posts about “the great Santa lie”), they did not suppress the veneration of him. Nor should they, because the myth of St. Christopher might not have been real, but it’s still true.

But, said Lewis, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.

No, said Tolkien, “they are not.

…just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.

You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.

― Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

Myths are not lies. They are not lies. They are not lies. Myths are the best way we have of conveying truths that are otherwise inexpressible. Santa is a myth, but Santa is a myth that images the True Myth of Christ—the myth that exists in the realm of fact as well as in the realm of truth. Sure, a jolly fat old elf dropping presents down chimneys of every child in the world has neither the depth nor beauty nor factual reality of the story of the Nativity. But little children cannot comprehend a baby, who is really God, being born to a virgin (what is a virgin, Mommy?) as a gift to all humankind, to die for our sins and save us from eternal separation from God. Can you blame them? I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it.

Here is what children do understand—they understand the joy and wonder of something magical happening that they cannot see but can feel. They understand the delight of laying out cookies for Santa on Christmas evening in a way they cannot understand the delight of waiting in hope for the 40 days of Advent. They understand the joy and wonder of Christmas morning, with presents from Santa for each of them, even the naughty ones. To me, that is the crux of the myth—all children know that although Santa makes a list of who is naughty and who is nice, everyone gets a present on Christmas morning. Even the naughty ones. Even the ones who do not believe in him.

In our house, we talk a lot about Christ being God’s gift to the world, and Santa bringing everyone gifts to remind us of the greatest gift of all, Jesus. Little children cannot understand the wonder and joy of walking out of a confessional with a skip in your step, having been washed clean of all the sin weighing you down. They cannot understand the deep communion of adoration, nor the spiritual sustenance of the Eucharist. They can understand waking up one morning to a world transformed by joy. They can understand the wonder and gratitude of opening a gift they did not earn. They can place the little wooden baby in the empty cradle, but it will be years before they can fully comprehend the joy and wonder of the baby. Presents from Santa puts all the building blocks in place to make it true for them when they can.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough the fact that Santa is a myth, not a story or a tradition—and certainly not a lie. I would be the first one to admit that as myths go, Santa is kind of a weak one. He is no Orpheus descending into the underworld, no Hercules slaying the lion. He is a fat guy who eats cookies and milk and brings presents to everyone—exactly the kind of comfortable, squashy myth Americans would invent. Nevertheless, the myth is true, and in this time and place it might be the only way many children ever hear these truths. The truth that someone is watching over them, seeing when they are naughty and when they are nice. Maybe he makes a list, but on Christmas Eve he tears the list up, leaves his kingdom, and travels through time and space to bring gifts to all the children. Not because they were nice, but because they are children and he loves them.

It is not a story about commercialism or American greed. It is not a lie parents make up because we “privilege our own pleasure at lording over our own little humans over their interests and autonomy.” It is a myth about God’s love, and the Gift He gave to all mankind. Like all myths,

It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth.’ It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are re-opened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.
– from George Macdonald: An Anthology

One thing I will never do is tell my children that Santa is a lie—the same way I would never tell them that the myth of St. Christopher is a lie, or Athena springing out of Zeus’s forehead is a lie, or Demeter wandering the barren earth, weeping for her lost child, is a lie. They are not lies—they are truths. I could tell you a Christmas story about the time the Ogre and I fought all day on Christmas and our children went to bed weeping, but why would I? It might be real, but it conveys no truth, except the banal and universal truth that human beings can be cruel. If “the real” is the only measure by which we determine the truth of a thing, then our minds will be fettered and our world impoverished.

You can accuse me of lying to emotionally manipulate my children, or treating my children as toys for my own entertainment. You can tell me that Santa is a lie, and your children can taunt my children on the playground for still believing in Santa. Your children can even call us liars, right to our faces, in front of our kids. You can kill the hell out of Santa if you really want, but I will not. I will let my kids have Santa, and with him all the joy and wonder and mystery that prepares their hearts for what they will one day experience in the fullness of the Truth.

Because what you cannot do is take away truth. Whether it is the truth of the Santa myth, or the True Myth of the Child Christ, you cannot make it untrue with all the accusations in the world.

But go ahead and keep trying. I will just be over here, reading my kids stories about a red-nosed flying reindeer and a clown who juggled for Jesus.

This essay originally appeared on Patheos and is republished here with gracious permission of the author.

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8 replies to this post
  1. Truth gives momentum to your words.

    Thank you, and Merry Christmas.

    P.S. Tomie DePaola’s “The Clown of God” is a great story. Have you read Jane Yolen’s “Owl Moon”? It’s more allegorical than DePaolo’s tale, but no less revelatory.

  2. Thank you. My son tried to tell me I was wrong to have kept him thinking Santa was real, but the truth is, there was a Christmas when I had nothing to give him, and I found a box of toys in our basement. Ordinarily, i was Santa. That Christmas, I was not, but someone was. And the wonder of Someone wtching over the little, but important, stuff was alive for both of us.

  3. Are you reading the story with the intention that the children enjoy it as they enjoy a Pooh story? That’s fine, and you’re a good mommy. Are you intending them to believe that Santa actually comes into the house with presents, and drives off in a sleigh? Then you’re a liar, because you know that doesn’t happen. Children don’t need to plumb the theological depths of the Nativity to understand Christmas. They only need to be shown the creche and told, “See the baby? That’s Baby Jesus.” Offering them Santa because there are aspects of Incarnational theology they don’t yet grasp is like giving a hungry child a Twinkie because he can’t yet cook and eat a whole turkey. It’s better to start small and build their understanding than to start false and then make a lot of silly excuses later on, when the children find out they’ve been played by the person they thought they could believe.

  4. I second the comment above. When I was a child, my parents and I played pretend about Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. But my parents never implied they were *real* in the same way Jesus was. Pretending about Santa captures the essential truth of his story without making your kids feel that you tricked them later. Because myths are good, but confusing them for reality is not.

  5. What a bunch of puritanical sad-sacks we’ve become. The author never said she swears to her kids that Santa is factual – she just lets them hang on to the myth for a while. Kids will naturally progress beyond it without later feeling betrayed by lying parents. Honestly, has anyone been warped by Santa? Just the opposite: kids grow up happier when they are allowed to indulge their imaginations a little.

    Oh, no – much better to let them know as soon as possible that life is cold and hard and facts are all that matter. Instead of Santa, let’s read our kids “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” That won’t warp them at all. The sad thing is how many American Catholics have been infected by this joyless Calvinist nonsense.

  6. I remember the Christmas I discovered Santa was a lie. I was old enough to read cursive handwriting, and when I looked at the present addressed to me from Santa, I recognized my mother’s handwriting. I was crushed. Kids should indulge in make-believe as much as possible, and my parents allowed me plenty of time to do that. But they never entered into my world of imagination; they left me to my own devices. But the Santa lie was of THEIR own making and they bade me enter into it with them. I never fully trusted them again. Adults should always be as truthful as they can with children.

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