The Santa Claus Conundrum

Photo by Carlos

Santa Claus. For those who grew up believing in him (like me), many cherished childhood Christmas memories are directly related to everyone’s favorite jolly, plus-sized, red-suited geriatric (or the “fat, trespassing saint,” as others have referred to him). Let me say up front that I thoroughly enjoyed my Santa experiences as a kid, so naturally, I have a pro-Santa bias. But when my wife and I had our first child just over 3 years ago, I began to wonder if teaching our kids to believe in Santa was really best. If I want my kids to be excited about Christmas mainly because of the birth of Jesus, does Santa really fit into the mix? When you think about your most treasured Christmas memories as a child, do they involve Santa or Jesus? I want my kids to be able to definitively answer that question with “Jesus” one day.

So as I pondered the Santa conundrum, I spoke with a lot of Christian parents, read a lot of perspectives, and did a lot of praying. While there certainly can be valid reasons to include Santa in the celebration of the birth of Christ (which I'll discuss later), I consolidated my objections to Santa down to the following:

1. Santa reinforces materialism.

Santa Claus has become the patron saint of stuff. How many parents spend tons of money they don’t have on tons of toys their kids don’t need, just to make sure there is a mountain of gifts from Santa to tear into on Christmas morning? Toys are fun, for sure. And giving our kids good gifts can be a genuine expression of love. But what message does going into major debt to buy all the shiniest new goodies each year send to our kids? Especially if we give credit for the biggest and best gifts to Santa, how does this seemingly bizarre tradition possibly point to Christ? My guess is in most homes, even Christian ones, it doesn’t.

2. Santa is deified.

People teach their kids to believe in Santa the exact same way they teach them to believe in God. He is taught as an invisible, omnipresent (“he sees you when you’re sleeping”...creeper alert!), omnipotent, neverending being. I have a pastor friend who once told me that despite being raised in a Christian home, he became an atheist in his teens, in part because he felt that since his parents had convinced him to believe in a mythological Santa, they must have convinced him to believe in a mythological God. While many people may not consciously make this connection, it makes sense that at least subconsciously this logic would cause someone questioning their faith to have legitimate reasons to doubt. Why spend precious time investing in and defending a lie when The Truth is on the line?

3. Santa’s love is works-based.

Perhaps most grievous of all, whether Santa comes or not is (supposedly) contingent upon who is “naughty” and who is “nice” (although honestly I never knew a parent who refused to do Santa because their kids were bad). Besides the behavioral manipulation this legalistic system entails (looking at you, Elf on the Shelf), this is works-based righteousness, and it is the exact opposite of the Gospel. Bad news, folks: Romans 3:23 says you are already on the “naughty” list! But the good news is that “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). At the cross, Christ died the death that we “naughty” sinners deserved, so that we could receive his gift of grace and permanently become his righteousness. Salvation is nothing our “good” behavior could ever earn. It is truly a free gift. This is the Gospel. How can we effectively teach our kids about this ultimate Gift of grace when our traditions do the opposite?  

So what are Christian parents to do with Santa? Do away with the beloved tradition altogether? Well, don’t throw the baby (Jesus) out with the bathwater just yet. I firmly believe that if something is culturally significant but not inherently sinful, Christians can redeem it for the cause of Christ. For example, each year Vintage Church uses the Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating to get to know our neighbors and build intentional relationships to influence them for the Kingdom. Sure, Halloween has plenty of negative things associated with it, but if we can take a culturally prevalent, non-sinful tradition like trick-or-treating and redeem it for the Gospel, we ought to. Similarly, if we can use Santa as an opportunity to emphasize the Gospel, we shouldn’t squander that opportunity.

How can Santa emphasize the Gospel? First, strip away the materialism, deification, and performancism that typically accompany the traditions. In our house, we don’t give ridiculous loads of Santa gifts, we explain that Santa is pretend (just like Elsa, Dora the Explorer, and Doc McStuffins...and it definitely does not take the fun out of it), and we tell our kids that we give them gifts simply because we love them. Beyond that, we like to teach about St. Nicholas, the real 4th-century historical figure on whom Santa is based, who was a genuine follower of Christ. My favorite resource for this is an out-of-print childrens book called Santa, Are You for Real?, which tells the story of St. Nick’s selfless life and shows how his life was all about Christ. Here’s an excerpt:

“When you see a Santa in a store or a parade, think of Saint Nick.

Of course some children know all about Santa and presents and reindeer but forget all about Jesus. For Saint Nick that would ruin Christmas! Jesus was Nick’s whole life.

Saint Nicholas gave gifts because Jesus came on the first Christmas to give himself for us.”


However you choose to handle Santa in your family’s celebration of Christmas, make sure that Christ is at the center of your celebration, and have grace toward those who choose to do Santa differently. Believe me, if you buck the normal tradition, you will upset people, probably even in your own family. But even those arguments are an opportunity to show the grace of Christ. Ultimately, the wonder of Christmas isn’t how one human could come to every child’s house in the world in one night, but how an Almighty God became a human and came into the world he created to redeem his children one holy night. The real wonder of Christmas is how the very God who spoke the entire universe into existence became human flesh. The incarnate God, “pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel...born that man no more may die.” Dwell on the wonder of the Incarnation this season, and let it blow your mind. May He be what is remembered most in your celebration this Christmas.