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Essay

Believing in Santa

By December 8, 2012 4 Comments
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Had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day about his daughter’s experience at preschool.  The preschool teacher took it upon herself to tell all the three and four year olds that Santa is not real. His daughter came home very upset – wanting to know if Sinter Klaas (the Dutch version of St. Nick) was fake too.  My kids are a bit older so my friend wanted to know how my wife and I have dealt with Santa Claus.  Our conversation took some interesting twists and turns – from mythology, Baudrillard and “hyper-reality”, to whether we are setting our kids up for disappointment. It got pretty deep… “What do you say to a kid if they ask straight out:  Is Santa real?”  “Yes” I replied.  “With no qualification?” he responded.  “None.” 

My kids all differ on how they think about things like Santa.  My ten year old daughter has always believed in fairies and mermaids, the birthday fairy who ties balloons on her door for her birthday, and Santa Claus who leaves stuff in her stocking.  Even at ten we can tell she doesn’t want to let go.  The fairies no longer live in our backyard – she’s moved them to some other planet.  And Santa?  We think she knows… but she doesn’t want to let on that she knows.  She loves it too much.  Much son?  He’s a skeptic.  Already at 4 he was telling our oldest that mermaids are not real.  Just a week ago I asked him about his favorite bible story, and in that conversation he asks, “How do we know these stories really happened?”  “What do you mean?” I asked. “You know – the three guys in the furnace. It says they didn’t even have the smell of smoke on them. That can’t be true.”  After some discussion I finally affirmed his questions – letting him know it’s ok to ask.  My five year old? She’s just happy to be here.  She goes along with everything the kids do – so I can’t quite get a read on her myth-o-meter.

Are such things harmful for our kids?  Do we set them up for disappointment?  No way.  What sets them up for greater disappointment is to paint a picture of reality that’s coldly mechanical. Our imagination is the source of meaning, and I believe it is also the place where we encounter the divine. Santa, fairies, and mermaids paint the world as magical, which prepares the way for thinking of the world as miraculous.  Miracles or magic – there isn’t much of a difference as far as I’m concerned.  Believing a fat man in a red suit leaves stuff in your stockings prepares the way for the magical belief that a tiny human baby born 2,000 years ago was God. As for me and my house?  We’ll believe in Santa as long as possible. If you need to get in touch with me later today I’ll be at The Rise of the Guardians with my kids.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

4 Comments

  • Mets fan says:

    Great post, Jason! I'd be furious with the preschool teacher. Coldly mechanical is right.

  • Eric Johnson says:

    Amen! The world does enough to rob our children of imagination and wonder without us making it any worse.

    After seeing "Rise of the Guardians," will you write a post about the film? My kids and I loved it. I particularly appreciated they way they endowed the core value with each character, especially the scene where Santa explained his passion for wonder.

  • Wayne says:

    Respectfully, I must say I couldn't possibly disagree more. I was in third grade when I "found out" it was a lie. Third grade! I was so believing and trusting. I was devastated. It is still there, always, this "Santa" wound haunting my religious experience.

    I agree wholeheartedly that painting a picture of reality that's coldly mechanical is not the answer. But I think there is an implicit false dichotomy in this post between a cold and mechanical world and one interspersed with magic. Magic has to do with incantations, conjuring and intervention. It is formulaic and "works based." If the magic formula is done right you get the desired results. If the incantation is wrong you accidently turn someone into a toad. Even in the best the fantasy world has to offer magic is a works based system: Santa is checking that list twice to find out who is naughty and nice. And in the end magic is always just a fantasy, a fantasy confined here in the real world to illusion played out upon a stage : and another third grader goes home devastated and questioning every other thing he has been taught that now seems too fantastic to be true and too closely tied to behavioral modification not to be false.

    While there is some validation for religion as magic in the broad scope of the Christian tradition from some of the sentiments of the deuteronomic historian (be good and *then* you will be blessed) on down to the health and wealth gospel, that is not the greater picture that emerges in scripture and tradition: a picture of a God who blesses, a blessing that is not dependent upon what we do wrong or right but blessing is dependent upon the sheer will and benevolence of God. A blessing not for our sake but the sake of all of the families of the earth. The broader picture is one where God doesn't intervene if we babel the magic formula/pray correctly or with enough fervency because God is always present; God's Spirit permeates all creation, there is no place I can go to escape that Spirit even if I make my bed in sheol, even if I am constantly persecuted by my enemies and it seems I have been forsaken and my blessing has been forgotten. And one day this God who already permeates all of creation will be all in all. Christianity at its best is the opposite of magic. It is anti-magic.

  • To my brother in Christ Jason and others,

    Respectfully, I also must agree with Wayne here. The Bible itself is filled with enough "magical" and wonderous things to keep all the children on their toes. There's no reason to resort to folk traditions that are quasi-pagan at best and incantations at worst. As you said,

    "Believing a fat man in a red suit leaves stuff in your stockings prepares the way for the magical belief that a tiny human baby born 2,000 years ago was God."

    Then why not just focus on the greater Magic (the "deeper Magic" as Aslan put it) of the Incarnation? This will put wonder in your children's eyes which is far more lasting than any of those things.

    Why not celebrate St. Nicholas? A wonderful, real Christian father who really helped people.

    For me, my parents never told me about Santa. They told me about Jesus Christ. As a child, this was wondrous and filled with fantasy, magic, and a Holy Night. I affirm your point, that "mechanical reality" is not good, but neither is simple falsehood. The real world is already fantastic enough, no need to insert more superfluousness.

    Anyways, that's my opinion, which I offer humbly and respectfully. Please forgive me if I offend anyone. I wish all and their families and very Merry Christmas, no matter who eats the cookies you leave out.

    in Christ our King,

    Timothy

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