By Kile Baker, Crosswalk.com
Christmas time is full of fantastic, wonderful moments. Kids start dreaming about what's wrapped under the Christmas tree. Adults are looking forward to family and friends gathering to eat and share stories. It's also the time where adults and kids both probably talk about Santa's involvement in bringing presents, his peculiar breaking-and-entering habit, the jolliness of his character, and the celebration of a jumbo-belly laugh.
If you're like our household with small kids, talking about Santa and his "role" in Christmas can be rather complicated. How much do we say? What do we say? Who was the real Santa Claus? Can Christians believe in and talk about Santa Claus? Can this tradition distract us from celebrating Christ at Christmas?
Our family has wrestled with all of these. We've made it through lots of holidays talking about Santa Claus while keeping the focus on Jesus (mostly!), so here are a few humble suggestions when talking with your kids about Santa and Jesus around the holidays.
1. Talk about the History Behind the Story
One of the things that makes Santa Claus memorable is the story, albeit a very short one. Most adults and kids know some basic details about Santa: the gift-gifting, red suit, beard, reindeer, and "the list." But Saint Nicholas was a real person who lived and died without flying around the world like a one-man Amazon delivery guy.
Although we know precious little details about his life and death, we're pretty sure there was real generosity, compassion, and even suffering in his story. (You can find a few thoughts and a little history about him here and here and the origins of our Santa Claus traditions here.)
The historical information provides some helpful ways to talk about not only Santa but also Jesus. First, in talking about the history of Santa, it grounds the story for kids in real life. This can actually help us talk about Jesus with our kids because we have four accounts of His life in the Bible. We have the words and actions of Jesus. We have stories that are based on His history. We can tell our kids that not just Christmas but all of history is His-story. That even the story of Santa — the original Saint Nicholas — has some parallels and origins based on Jesus. Saint Nicholas' life was modeled after His savior to be a generous, compassionate giver focused on showing Christ in his life.
Saint Nicholas would have undoubtedly pointed out today that: the original gift-giver is Jesus; the original generous person is Christ. Jesus didn't just come to someone's house to check a list to see if someone should receive a gift; He was the gift to good people and bad people alike.
Talk about it:
Ask your kids what they know about Santa and why. Give them some historical facts about who the real Santa Claus is. Ask them what they think and if that changes how they see him.
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2. Inform Your Kid's Imaginations with Biblical Stories
Imagination is a gift from God and should be used often. In fact, as the author of Hebrews comments on, Christians are encouraged to imagine and hope for what we do not yet see: Hebrews 11:1-3 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith, we understand that the universe was formed at God's command so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
Imagination is the trust-building exercise of our faith that draws us closer to God based on what He has already done; it builds our faith to patiently hope for what God will still do. We should encourage our children's imagination, but with information taken from scriptural stories. Informed imagination is far better than imagination by itself. Our kid's imagination doesn't just come from nowhere; it's based on information from outside sources — movies, events, parents, stories, and a myriad of other places.
As parents, we can inform our kid's imaginations in a significant way. Think about it, our kids didn't just come up with the story of Santa Claus, Rudolph, or a magical chimney ride — these were told to them, and they imagined the rest from there. They pictured it all because stories informed their imagination. And who has the best stories of all? God, of course! We can build our kid's imagination — and their hope! — by giving them a regular dose of Biblical stories to inform their imagination. If God can make people from mud, part the seas, appear as a pillar of fire, stop the sun, and help a boy defeat a giant, imagine what else He can do!
Talk about it:
Talk with your kids about the story of Jesus' birth, the miraculous star over His crib, the angels singing and announcing His birth, and the gifts the wise men brought. Talk more about the story of Jesus than the stories of Santa this Christmas and ask them if they've heard these stories.
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3. Talk about the Difference Between "Make-Believe" and "Real"
This one may be the most important of the bunch. One of the reasons my wife and I chose to talk about Jesus as "real" and Santa as fun "make-believe" was simple: We didn't want our kids when they grew up to think that like Santa, Jesus was just a fanciful story we told them as kids.
As you talk about the history of Santa Claus and encourage the imagination of your kids, you should also make sure to separate the make-believe from the real while honoring both. You don't have to stop watching Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter because they aren't real. Just make sure to categorize them as "fun make-believe" for your kids. Putting them in this category allows kids (and you!) to still enjoy all the movies and stories without blurring the lines of what's real and what's not.
Santa Claus has been embellished way apart from the historical Saint Nicholas, while the story of Jesus has been held rather intact for thousands of years. This is important because as our kids age, they will be challenged by other kids, adults, teachers, professors, and family members. While the Santa Claus story doesn't have much but tradition to stand on, the realness of Jesus isn't arguable. How He came into the world and what He did when He grew up might be, but the historical Jesus is hardly a debatable topic anymore. This means we have a starting point for our kids regarding what (and who) is real and what's not.
Talk about it:
Start using phrases like "Isn't ________ fun make-believe!?" When talking about Santa, fantasy movies, Marvel, etc. And start talking about Jesus and biblical stories as "Isn't it cool that God did _______ about ______ years ago?"
While these may be some quick pieces of advice, and you would probably like a few more, these three are the foundation for all talks about Jesus, Santa, make-believe stories, and reality. Our kids need to know it's great to imagine, make-believe, pretend, and wonder. Let's keep those! But at the end of the day, none of these build hope. Santa's influence on our kids may shine brightly for a month (or two if you decorate in November!), but we don't exactly talk about him in January. In fact, to give you one more way to talk about Jesus and Santa…
Talk about the name "Christmas" with your kids. If Santa is so important, why isn't this season called "Santasmas," or why aren't our trees called "Santa trees" instead of "Christmas trees?" Thinking about how "Christ" is in the name of many of our Christmas traditions and language helps keep the center of the season on Christ.
Good luck on the talk with your kids! It's a tough one, but it's worth having. Kids are more resilient than we think. You won't be ruining their childhood, taking the magic out of Christmas, or being a bad parent. In fact, quite the opposite! You'll help them realize that Christmas is like a month-long birthday party, that the magic is really God's incredible story of the greatest miracle ever, and you'll be a great parent by pointing them back to Christ. Merry Christ-mas!
Photo credit: © Getty Images/evgenyatamane