illustration by Kari Kroll
Go to any mall this season and you'll hear "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." It's music to children's ears, but after our first son was born, it became unwelcome noise to my wife and me. We wanted our family to celebrate Christmas for what it really is: Jesus' birthday.
We soon learned that good intentions go only so far. It seemed that everyone was asking our son, "What did you ask Santa for?" And from mid-November on, every store we visited had a costumed Santa (or two or three) on hand. We couldn't just ignore this guy: He was everywhere!
My own childhood memories include Santa: I can remember going into the woods to cut our Christmas tree, decorating it with tinsel and then waiting impatiently for Santa to arrive. So many of the Christmas memories that I wanted to share involved Santa. It became clear that we needed to deal with Santa before we could help our son learn the true meaning of Christmas. But how could we talk about Santa and still give Christ his rightful place?
Even though for some, Santa symbolizes the commercialism that taints the Christmas season, we knew that stern lectures about consumerism or materialism would make no sense to a child. After all, how can a jolly, generous guy who loves children and gives them presents be bad? Instead we opted for a nonconfrontational approach. We decided to gently but firmly undermine Santa whenever the opportunity arose, while focusing most of our efforts and excitement on celebrating the birth of the Christ child. That way, we hoped, it would be clear to our son that Jesus really is the center of our family's Christmas celebration.
By the time he was 5, our son started noticing that there were Santas at every store, and he began to ask questions: "Which one is the real Santa, Daddy?"
I took advantage of the opportunity by asking him: "What do you think? A real person can't be in a lot of different places at the same time, can he? And how can Santa visit all the houses of all the children in the world in just one night? A real person couldn't do that, but a pretend person could, couldn't he?"
Children have a marvelous ability to believe in magical behavior. But by the time they're 5 or 6, they begin to separate fact from fantasy. When reading fairy tales to my son, I would stress that Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk or Paul Bunyan were able to do things that real people couldn't. With carefully worded questions, I knew I could encourage his developing ability to understand that not every person we talk about is real; some "people" are just pretend.
When your child begins to ask questions about how Santa can enter a house that doesn't have a fireplace, help her understand that Santa is a pretend person, like a cartoon character. You can even make a game of it. When reading a favorite children's book with her, ask, "Is Curious George real or pretend? Are Mom and Dad real or pretend?"
Fantasy and play acting are a fun and healthy part of childhood. And if your kids understand that Santa isn't real, there's no harm if they join their friends in pretending about him. When our first son was young, we'd exchange a wink as we secretly went along with others (adults as well as children) who spoke of Santa as if he were real. It became a game our entire family enjoyed.
Since some parents encourage their children to believe in Santa, we told our kids: "If other children's parents want them to believe in Santa, don't argue with them. You're grown up enough to know the truth, and someday these other children will be, too."
If your child wants to know the origins of the Santa legend, explain that Santa is also called "Saint Nick" for Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Christian known for his tremendous kindness and generosity. That can lead into a discussion of the wonderful gift of God's grace that came to earth when Christ was born on the first Christmas.
Real, But Unseen
Christian parents want their children to understand that while Santa is pretend, Jesus is real! We celebrate Jesus' birth at Christmas and he's still alive today. Making that powerful truth clear to our son was the second part of our strategy. While we adopted a policy of "benign neglect" toward Santa, we focused our energies on enjoying the many Christmas traditions that honor the living Savior.
As our family grew, our sons had fun opening the little pockets of the Advent calendar we used during the month leading up to Christmas. Each pocket contained a Bible verse. When they were old enough, they would read the verse to the rest of us.
Some families we know gather on Christmas Eve to read the Christmas story from the Bible. As the children are able, they take turns reading, or each one reads the part of a different character in the story. We made it a tradition to attend Christmas Eve worship at 11:00 p.m.
Even as children move into their teen years, they still need Christmas traditions that keep them focused on Christ. Encourage your older kids to give Jesus a "birthday gift," such as a promise to help an elderly neighbor, or to give a portion of their allowance to advance missions or assist the needy. The act of giving something that blesses the lives of others is a perfect way to stress an important Christmas truth: God sent the ultimate blessing to earth in the gift of his Son.
The Joy of Giving
Our culture has shifted its focus from giving to getting, but Christians know the truth: Christmas is a season for giving. We wanted our children to know that not only have they been given the greatest gift of all, God's Son, but that it is indeed "more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).
It's important to observe holiday traditions that teach this principle. Many churches have "Angel Trees" that list the names of children in need. Families can choose one or more names, and child ren can help purchase gifts for those in need.
Some families we know have "adopted" a child through World Vision or Compassion Inter national. In addition to sending a special gift at Christmas, they also send the child a handmade card with greetings from each member of the family. Other families arrange to bring small gifts to kids who have to be hospitalized over the holidays.
For the past several years, our family has given a grocery store gift certificate to a needy family. We also sign up to serve Christmas dinner at the city mission. Last year we helped serve almost 1,000 meals in about three hours. We were all pretty tired, but came away with a sense of having honored some of those Christ called "the least of these brothers of mine" (Matt. 25:40). It has helped our sons experience firsthand the blessedness of giving and also helped them appreciate the difference between what we want and what we truly need.
The clamor about Santa and "what am I getting?" seemed to fade from our sons' consciousness a little each Christmas. Of course, they were growing up, but I think it was more than that. I believe it came from an emphasis on Christ-centered traditions and our own example of downplaying Santa. Those are the most effective ways to drown out the clamor of commercialism and help our children hear clearly the "good news of great joy" that truly is our greatest Christmas gift.
Richard Patterson, Jr., is a children and family ministries specialist from New York state. He is the author of Confident Parenting in Challenging Times (Tekna). He and his wife have two children.
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1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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