Christians, Christmas, and Santa Claus.
And Elf on the Shelf, the Easter Bunny, and More…
SHHHHHHHHH! Don’t tell the kids…but, Santa isn’t real!
The Christmas season is fast approaching, and that means all sorts of things. Holidays, festivities, decorations, family and friends, get-togethers, gift-giving, and…Santa (in my best Buddy the Elf voice)!
When I was young, Tim Allen’s The Santa Claus and the 1970’s animated Santa Claus is Coming to Town were some of my favorite Christmas movies.
Those movies, along with so many others, embody what many have come to see as the Christmas spirit: Warmth, delight and joy, happiness, magic, and Christmas cheer.
But for some Christians, especially those Christian parents raising young children, significant questions surround the character of Santa Claus and how to practice him with their children. Questions like…
Should we do Santa with our kids?
Does Santa Claus teach the right message?
Does Santa Claus teach the wrong message?
Does emphasizing Santa pose any dangers to our Christian faith and belief?
Do Santa and Jesus fit within the same belief system?
These questions can also be applied to other traditions like: Elf on the Shelf, the Easter bunny, and more…
These are good, helpful, Christian questions. These are questions that my wife and I have wrestled with in our own family, and they are questions that every Christian home ought to work through.
That is the purpose of this article: To work through the practice of Santa Claus in a biblical way.
A Note to Readers Upfront: This is not an attack on Santa Claus. REPEAT. I am not attacking the jolly man in the big, red suit.
I am, however, seeking to offer some guidance in how Christians ought to think about this issue. More and more, my wife and I are finding ourselves in conversations with other parents regarding this very issue: “How have you guys handled Santa? What do you think about it?”
My goal here in this article is to look at how the truths of the Christian worldview apply to the idea, tradition, and cultural practice of Santa Claus, and thus, shape the way Christians practice it.
I hope to provide parents and others with a helpful, biblical guide in processing Santa Claus and other cultural holiday traditions.
And really, this is something Christians should be doing with everything — every holiday tradition, cultural celebration, personal habit, relationship, etc.; evaluating it according to the teachings of Scripture.
Spoiler Alert: I am not against Santa Claus.
This essay is not an attempt to condemn or villainize those who love and celebrate Santa. My family still listens to and enjoys most of the Christmas songs about Santa (Santa Claus is Coming to Town!), and my children enjoy many of the Santa Christmas movies. But, I do have some serious concerns with how we, as Christians, celebrate and promote Santa to our children. Every Christian ought to have these concerns. So, let’s think about how we celebrate Santa Claus…
Where does Santa Claus Come From?
The modern tradition of the big bearded man in the red suit has deep historical roots. Unfortunately, the modern version of Santa Claus is a far cry from the man he’s (loosely) based on. The modern version of Santa Claus is a mythical, god-like character more in line with Harry Potter and Marvel’s superheroes than anything else.
Just think about some of the stories and “facts” surrounding the Claus:
He lives in some mythical place called the North Pole, which is in an alternate reality, unseen and undetected by human senses (similar to the wizarding world of Harry Potter);
Santa is somehow able to control or manipulate time and space, visiting every home in the world in one night (That numbers in the billions!);
He has an army of Elves (also mythical creatures) who help Santa prepare for Christmas every year;
Santa has some measure of omniscience, knowing who’s been naughty or nice;
He can fly;
He has unlimited resources from which to give billions of gifts every year;
He can adjust his body shape and distribution to fit down any chimney;
He’s able to speak to animals (On dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer, on Vixen!);
He doesn’t age;
Santa has really become a pretty incredible character. But where did this modern version of Santa come from?
Santa Claus was originally a Christian Bishop!
Born in the fourth century, St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra (modern day southern Turkey) and became known for his acts of kindness and generosity to the sad and needy. Nicholas was likely in attendance at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., and, rumor has it that he punched the heretic, Arius, in the face (my kind of guy! Just kidding…sort of…)
It's rumored that in the year 1087, Italian sailors stole Nicholas’ remains and transported him to Europe where droves of Catholic Churches were named in his memory. He became the patron saint of Children and Sailors.
The Encyclopedia Britannica reports, “After the Reformation, devotion to Nicholas disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas (a Dutch variant of the name St. Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies in the 17th century. Sinterklaas was adopted by the country’s English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. The resulting image of Santa Claus in the United States crystallized in the 19th century, and he has ever since remained the patron of the gift-giving festival of Christmas. Under various guises, St. Nicholas was transformed into a similar benevolent gift-giving figure in the Netherlands, Belgium, and other northern European countries. In the United Kingdom, Santa Claus is known as Father Christmas.”
The Dutch are credited with the creation of the more mythical ideas surrounding Santa Claus, and we can thank the Coca-Cola bottling Company for our modern images of the big man in the red suit, which developed for an advertisement campaign in the mid-1800’s. .
So, it's pretty clear that the modern version of Santa Claus is a far cry from the man he’s “based” on. And really, we would be hard pressed to say there is any legitimate connection at all.
Our modern idea of Santa Claus is more pagan and cultural than we might like to think or admit.
Jolly Ole’ St. Nick is far more connected with the Norse gods of northern Euopre than the Christian Bishop of southern Turkey.
Okay, okay, so Santa Claus might have some questionable roots. But isn’t Santa just a harmless character? Isn’t Santa just an innocent part of Christmas Magic?
It's just not that simple. Nothing is…
How Should Christians think about Santa Claus?
Here are 9 thoughts…
1 - Santa is part of our Culture.
There’s a helpful paradigm for how Christians can and should think about the culture in which we live:
There are some things in our culture that we can Accept wholesale. no changes needed.
Example: The holiday of Thanksgiving. The cultural values of thanksgiving and gratitude are part and parcel to the Christian worldview.
On Thanksgiving, see this helpful post by Dr. Jason Engle.
Some parts of our culture may not fit neatly into our Christian worldview as is, but can be tweaked or changed, or just explained in order to be incorporated. This is called Redeeming the culture. Much of the world we live in can be placed into this category. We may not accept it outright as the culture presents it, but it can be redeemed in one way or another so that we can participate and enjoy it.
Example: This is where Santa Claus falls for us.
The third category is Rejection. Some parts of our culture not only do not fit within a Christian worldview, they are outright opposed and cannot be redeemed. They are antithetical and must be rejected.
Example: Same-sex marriage.
In the Old Testament, God gives instructions for how His people should deal with secular cultures. While we are in the world, and are called to live in the world as lights for the truth and hope of Jesus Christ, we are not to become one with the world.
The prophet Jeremiah instructs the exiled Israelites to seek the good of the pagan city in which they live, while also remaining distinct from that paganism.
They were to be in that culture, but not one with it. As David Mathis states it, they were sent into it, but were not of it.
The New Testament also instructs God’s people on living holy, righteous, and godly lives in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.
In John’s first letter, the Apostle instructs the Church for all time that we should not love the things of the world because they are already passing away. Our hope should be set on Christ alone. But we should note that in warning us against loving the world, the Apostle assumes that we are in the midst of the world.
In Ephesians, Paul warns against living like the unbelieving world all around the Church.
Peter calls Christians elect exiles, meaning we don't belong to the surrounding culture.
In other words, we should look different.
So, Christians must understand that we live in and among the pagan cultures of the world, and we are called by God, and empowered by His Spirit to be in those cultures while also remaining distinct from them. Some things can be accepted, some things can be redeemed, and some things must be rejected.
2 - Santa can easily compete with God.
This is a tough one, but if we stop and really think about the modern version of Santa Claus, he really is a god-like figure. And if parents are pushing the reality of Santa Claus with their children, then they are pushing a competitor with only the true and living God.
There is only One Who sees us when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake. There is only one set of all seeing eyes Who judges and evaluates our behavior. And it is the God of heaven, not Santa Claus.
By accepting the cultural story of Santa without qualification, we end up pushing what amounts to an idol; a competitor with the God of heaven. And this is incredibly dangerous for our children.
3 - Santa does have Good Qualities that can and should be celebrated.
This is where we can do some cultural redemption. Some of the most attractive qualities about Santa are his joy, kindness, and generosity. Each of these qualities is found most fully in our Lord, Jesus Christ Who is true joy, kindness, and the most generous Person in all the world.
Christians can certainly emphasize these qualities in the character of Santa Claus, using them as launching boards to lead our children to the true Savior and hero of Christmas, Jesus Christ.
4 - Santa can steal the role that God has rightly given to parents.
One of the cultural myths around Santa is that all the presents come from him. Or, for some families, there is a pile of presents from Santa, and a pile from mom and dad. But this comes into direct competition with the Christian worldview of God, family, and provision.
In Matthew 7:9-11, the Lord Jesus says, “...which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
By giving all the credit for Christmas gifts to Santa Claus, the good gift of parental provision is easily undercut and thrown away. I greatly value when others give gifts to my children, but I would never want my role in providing for them to be lost.
When my children receive their Christmas presents, Tera and I want them to know that the gifts in their hands are evidence of our love, care, and provision for them specifically. We love them uniquely and individually. And I am not handing that credit over to the Claus!
5 - Santa can set up a Crisis of Faith.
Going back to our modern version of Santa as a god-like character, when parents support that idea with their children, even in the name of maintaining “the Christmas spirit” or “the Christmas magic of childhood,” it amounts to a lie and can really set children up for a crisis of faith down the road.
If we tell our children that Santa is omniscient, powerful, and unseen for years and years, and then all of a sudden say, “Well, that was really fun, but Santa isn’t real,” what happens to their belief in God?
Our culture presents Santa in much the same way as we know God, so the line is thin and dangerous. Better to stay away from it.
6 - Santa can be a Part of Christmas, but he cannot be the Meaning of Christmas.
As I noted earlier, the character of Santa Claus can fit neatly into the “redeem” category (although some Christians may choose to reject him; which is their right and ultimately a matter of conscience).
But, Christians can incorporate Sants in appropriate ways while maintaining that he is not the centerpiece of our Christmas celebration. While Santa has largely come to dominate our cultural Christmas celebrations, the true meaning of Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ. Christ is central, and if Santa can play a supporting role in that, Christian’s are free to redeem him in that way.
7 - Santa can make Parents into liars.
I touched on this earlier, but some parents go to great lengths, for years and years, to convince their children that Santa is real. They conduct elaborate stories, complete with props, sound effects, and more. They stay up late into the wee hours of Christmas morning assembling “gifts from Santa.” The Santa’s at the mall are just employees working for “the real Santa.”
What happens to our children’s trust in us when all of sudden, one day, they discover it's all been a ruse? “What else have mom and dad been lying about?”
8 - Santa can Cause Unintentional Doubt and Pain.
“Why didn’t Santa bring me what Billy got!?”
“My friend got new shoes, a new bike, a four-wheeler! Why didn’t I!?”
The idea that Santa gives gifts does not allow for us to have honest and realistic conversations with our children about jobs, income levels, money-management and debt, affluence, and more. If Santa gives all the gifts, and he has unlimited resources, then it makes no sense why there would be variations in gifts!
9 - Santa teaches a False Gospel.
The most dangerous aspect of the cultural Santa Claus is that he is rooted in a works-based righteousness. As the Britannica article made clear, our modern Santa Claus character is based on the Dutch “Sinterklaas, and was adopted by the country’s English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents.”
In other words, Santa gives gifts to the children who've earned it through good behavior, and he gives coal (or lesser gifts) to those who haven’t earned it.
But this is not the gospel of God’s grace. It is the very opposite of God’s grace in Jesus Christ!
Certainly, we want to teach our children that good behavior matters; we want to teach them biblical morality, and the responsibility of living well in the world (...actions do have consequences after all). But Christmas is a whole different ball-game. And the idea that Santa rewards and punishes children on the basis of behavior does not lead our children to the good news of Jesus. It actually places an obstacle between them and Jesus.
The baby is the manger doesn’t show up because we earned it. He actually shows up because never could have earned it!
Santa’s Christmas is about works, whereas Jesus’ Christmas is about undeserved grace!
So, To Summarize…
Some people love Santa and want to incorporate him into their holiday celebrations, and that’s okay.
Some folks go to extreme lengths to “keep the Christmas magic of Santa alive” for their children with elaborate stories, schemes, dramas, half-eaten cookies, glasses of milk, stomping in the attic, snow around the fireplace…it can get downright exhausting and silly. And with the emergence of AI (artificial intelligence), who knows where things will go from here…
But, having soberly reflected upon these things, Christian parents must make their decision on how they will handle Santa Claus with their children.
How will we steward truth, morality, grace, and salvation during our children’s most impressionable years?
How will we teach our children the true meaning of Christmas?
Celebrating Santa is not wrong—it's not sinful. If Christians desire to celebrate the cultural tradition of Santa Claus, they are free to do so; there are definite aspects of the tradition that can be helpfully redeemed. But we can easily go too far with Santa, and lead our families into unhealthy areas.
Generations change. Traditions come and go. And just as most of human history has been “Santa-less,” there is most likely coming a time again when Santa will fade from the scene. He is, after all, not essential to Christmas. Jesus is the reason for the season!
A Personal Note: How My Family has Chosen to Handle Santa.
Tera and I decided early on that we would not celebrate Santa with our children. We do not hide Santa from them, and they watch Christmas movies about Santa (including the ones I grew up with!) But, they also know that Santa Claus is just as much a fictional character as Superman, Batman, and Spongebob.
Because we have been born again through faith in Jesus Christ, and because our consciences are held captive to the Word of God, we seek to ensure that we are bringing up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and this includes how we celebrate Christmas and deal with Santa.
Here are some of our personal thoughts and convictions on the subject of Santa…
1 - We want to emphasize that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus.
Emphasizing the cultural idea Santa can easily compete with this. So, while we do not hate Santa, we have the conviction that it is far more important (eternally so) to emphasize and promote Christ alone.
2 - We want to emphasize that Christmas anticipates Easter.
Santa, in all his holiday cheer, has no eye to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His sole focus is Christmas day and presents. But the birth of Jesus anticipates His death and resurrection! In the Christian worldview, Easter is the most important holiday of the year, even though Christmas gets more attention in our own culture. Easter is the day that changed human history forever as Christ, our King, walked out of the grave.
The resurrection is the very center of our hope, and Christmas is the celebration of what makes the resurrection possible. Christ Jesus, born of virgin, born to die; born to rise again.
Santa has nothing to say about this, nothing to offer this, and nothing to compete with this!
3 - We want to emphasize that Christmas is about God’s designs in providing for His children.
One of the major pictures of God in the Scriptures is that of Father. And as our Father, God is gracious and kind, providing for our needs in a multitude of ways. And for children, of the ways that God has designed for them to receive provision is through their parents.
Parents giving their children gifts is meant to teach and reinforce the truth that God is our Father and He meets our needs.
So, rather than giving all the credit for Christmas gifts to Santa, we want our children to know that we’ve worked hard and sacrificed in order to bless them. We want them to see and know the God of heaven through how we give and sacrifice for them. In short, we want our celebration of Christmas to tell them the truth about God.
We come back now to that threefold cultural paradigm from above: Accept, Redeem, Reject.
Where does Santa fall?
He falls squarely in the “Redeem” category for most. But certainly, on the basis of conscience for some Christians, they rightly choose to reject him. And that’s fine. We must all practice the Christian virtue of charity on things like this, not beating and bashing each other over issues of legitimate disagreement.
Christians can take or leave Santa.
How will you choose to handle the Claus?