santa, strategically

This morning, compost piles are riding high with pumpkins from last night’s celebration of Halloween, a holiday that in years past was treated warily by Christians but has more recently been allowed back onto the calendar by many. Why did we salvage it? I’m guessing because we recognized the sheer joy of it for our children, and that for many of us it was the only time all year we interacted meaningfully with our neighbors. Gone are the days when you could tell the house of the devout Christian on the block by the darkened windows and candy-less bowl of tracts on the porch. And I admit I’m glad.

But there’s a new holiday villain “comin’ to town”, and his name is Santa. If “good Christian parenting” of the 80’s and 90’s was marked by snubbing all things Halloween, it now appears to be marked by a wariness toward the Jolly Old Elf himself. I know this because of the frequency with which Jeff and I are asked "What did you do about Santa?" In the minds of many conscientious Christian parents, Santa now rubs shoulders with other shady characters like Harry Potter, the Tooth Fairy, and Ariel the feminist shell-wearing Disney princess. And why not target Santa for hostility? After all, (spoiler alert) he isn’t real. Sure, he’s a historical figure, but the fat-white-guy-in-the-red-suit-who-sneaks-into-homes-to-leave-presents-for-kids-who-have-earned-them-by-good-behavior is not just a myth, he’s a creepy myth. Good Christian parents don’t lie to their children, especially not about works-based, anti-gospel, diet-dodging, voyeuristic Santa. Ask anybody in the Bible Belt.

So, here’s where I confess: The Wilkins kept Santa as part of Christmas. And we loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. And we’d do it the same way all over again if we could.

Stay with me. I can explain.

Jeff and I walked into parenting without a plan for Santa (I guess his heretical status had not yet been firmly established in 1996). We both had fond memories of Santa from childhood. As adults, we knew there were parts of Santa we liked and parts we didn’t like, so we improvised, keeping what we liked and ditching what we didn’t. We gave him a cultural place in our family’s holiday traditions without allowing him to undermine the message of the Advent story.  So I offer for your consideration our approach to Santa, in case you, too, harbor a secret sadness at seeing the Jolly Elf vanish from the Christmas landscape.

What we did:
  • We waited for Santa to show up. We didn’t start the topic – we waited until our oldest child introduced it, and then we responded as briefly as possible to questions and comments.
  • We stacked the deck. Once Santa was on the radar, we told the kids “There’s a secret to Santa. If you think you have figured out the secret of Santa, come ask Mom and Dad.” For awhile, the kids would come to us thinking the secret was that Santa used the front door instead of the chimney, or that the reindeer didn’t really fly. We would respond “That’s not the secret of Santa, but keep thinking!” When they figured out that the secret was that we were Santa, they thought it was hilarious: “All this time it was YOU filling our stockings!” They knew they had not been tricked or lied to, but that their mom and dad had planned a fun surprise for them to discover.
  • We limited Santa’s clout. Santa only brought stocking presents. We wanted the kids to thank Mom and Dad for the big stuff.
What we didn’t do:
  • We didn’t give Santa center stage. Our Christmas tradition centered (and still centers) heavily around the nightly reading of an Advent Book that told clearly the story of the birth of Christ. It is by far the kids' most meaningful Christmas tradition at our house, and they can recite the Christmas story by heart because of it.
  • We did nothing to hype Santa or perpetuate the myth – if they started to suspect, we didn’t try to throw them off the trail. No boot prints in the fireplace or reindeer footprints on the front lawn. If they asked “How can he bring presents to every child in one night?” or “How does he fit down the chimney?” we would say “Good question. That’s part of the secret of Santa.”
  • We happily edited Santa to match the reality of who he is (mom and dad). When a child asked “Does Santa really not come if you’re bad?” we’d answer with “Well, what do you think about that? Does that sound like Santa?” They were more than eager to alter their view of Santa to that of a gracious giver instead of a meritorious one.
Why we’d do it all again:

You might be thinking, “Okay, so you found a way to keep Santa, but why bother? Why not just tell your children he’s not real and move on?” We had a couple of reasons for not doing this.
Matt and Mary Kate meet Mall Santa 1997

First, we supported a child’s natural right to possess a huge and wonderful imagination. Research shows that about 65 percent of all children develop imaginary friends between the ages of three and five. Most Christian parents would not put an end to an imaginary friend – they would wait for the child’s imagination to outgrow the friend. And we would not accuse those parents of lying to their child. Santa is not an imaginary friend, but he appeals to the same place in a young child’s imagination, much like a Disney princess or a character in a book. The line between reality and fantasy is blurry for little children, as is their developmental right. They outgrow their capacity for fantasy as they mature emotionally. We were willing to let that process take its natural course with Santa, remaining cautious not to do anything to reinforce or prolong the fantasy.

Second, we didn’t want to ask our four-year-old to be an apologist for an adult view of Santa. In other words, we didn’t want to send him into preschool having to conceal from (or reveal to) his friends the terrible secret that Santa was a fraud. By giving him the chance to figure out the secret of Santa on his own, we bought him some anxiety-free time with his peers in which he could share their excitement over Santa without having been deceived by a parent.  All of our four children figured out the secret of Santa by about age six. By that age, keeping the secret from peers was far more within their powers of self-control than if we had laid the burden on them from the beginning.

Parting thoughts

Rest assured Santa will be culturally imposed on your family: he will be on the radio, on the TV, and at the mall for a photo op. Whether or not he overshadows the gospel message of Advent is up to you. If that message is only talked about in your home during the Christmas season, you should definitely loathe St. Nick. But parents who impress their children with the gospel message year round have little to fear that Santa will compromise their worldview. In reality, December is only one of the twelve months in which our children are assaulted with anti-gospel, materialistic messages. We would be remiss to make Santa the December scapegoat for a negative message we have neglected to address from January to November.

Can Santa be harmful? Absolutely. Our children reported adamant Santa-belief among their peers well into the fifth grade. It takes a firm commitment to deception on the part of a parent to prolong a child’s belief in Santa to age eleven. And that’s not okay. But at the Wilkin house, we remember Santa fondly. In fact, he still fills the stockings each year. Keeping Santa on our own terms, deliberately making him an extension of ourselves as parents, a minor figure in the holiday celebration, and a clever riddle to be solved allowed us to preserve a fun childhood memory of our own and to hand it down to our children. Not surprisingly, Wilkin-Santa looks a little familiar if you take time to notice: he gives freely without asking for anything in return, and he reveals himself to those who earnestly seek him. And Someone like that will always be welcome in our home.