Redeeming Santa Legends For Delighting In Grace

At Christmas, when it comes to Santa and other issues, do reflexive “we’re to be different” lines jump to our minds? We need to balance that half-truth with enjoyment of God’s good gifts — including celebrating holidays and feasting, which Scripture does support, for God’s glory.
on Dec 28, 2010 · No comments

After this discussion today, I’ve even more convinced of it: some professing Christians, if they end up in Heaven and then the New Earth, may just become bored to tears. Why? Because there’s no one to fight.

Doctrine disclaimer: of course no one in Christ’s after-world will truly be disappointed. That’s clear from Scripture. But when some seem to have confused the means for the end — fight those unbelievers and (supposedly) compromising Christians! — I’m at least certain that when some believers enter Heaven, there will be plenty of D’ohs, wide eyes and slapped foreheads.

If today you have even the slightest dread that Heaven, free of all causes save Himself, poor people to feed or villains to fight, would be boring — you might want to re-evaluate.

“The letters in my name can be rearranged to spell ‘Satan.’ That should tell you something …”

That relates to how we perceive Christmas and various tenets thereof. I can’t help wondering, and wishing I could ask others, on the basis of existing relationships and Christlike love: does the concept of “fun” automatically sound suspicious? Do reflexive “we’re to be different” lines jump to your mind in favor of spiritual-sounding seclusion, and against enjoying God’s good gifts — including celebrating holidays and feasting, which Scripture is not dead set against? Do you feel even the slightest sense of offense when Answers in Genesis (an organization I greatly respect) publishes a list of Miscellaneous Misconceptions about Christmas, but can’t really say why AiG’s Biblical bases are wrong, and instead lapse into generic “avoid the world!” slogans?

Some quick reminders, perhaps for anyone else (or myself) to repeat later against such slogans. I’ve heard similar things said as well against fiction, epic storytelling and visionary novels:

“We are to be a called out people, not resembling the world.”

Chris (and others), I hear this a lot, but to conclude from this that therefore Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas (or enjoy a decoration, etc.) is both selective and inconsistent. I could just as easily argue that to use Facebook is to “resemble the world” and therefore you should get off now. Or I could say electronic devices altogether, or using English, or breathing, is to be “like the world.”

To say that “being called out” must mean avoiding a select series of Things is to use a logical belief System that may be internally consistent, but not consistent with the Bible — the same Word in which Paul gives much more complex advice about issues like “meat sacrificed to idols” than simply “avoid whatever is in the world.”

I’m still waiting for good answers about why Christians should supposedly hang back and wait for pagans to “take over” a Thing, and then simply accept the pagan’s word that the Thing is now evil and corrupt. Isn’t this a far worse compromise with pagan beliefs?

To act as though Things can be inherently corrupt is not a Christian belief. It’s closer to a form of Gnosticism that portrays only “spiritual” things as Godly, and [the material world] as given over to the Devil.

But along with warnings to discern rightly and put Him first in all that we do, God promises that when He makes a New Heavens and a New Earth, He will remove all things that fail to give Him glory and bring in, to His eternal Kingdom, Things that do glorify Him:

“… And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’” (Haggai 2: 7-9)

If you can’t put up a Christmas tree or celebrate Christmas without worshiping the gifts more than the Giver, then don’t. But if you’re saying that certain Things inevitably lead to sin and therefore all Christians should behave as you do, and avoid the Things, that is not Biblically based discernment, but man-made tradition.

Now for some suggested applications. I still hoped to write about Santa Claus while Christmas is still technically in season, and with an extra column slot I get to do that.

My main question: if it’s true that the popular Santa storylines detract from Jesus and make Christmas “secular,” about getting gifts rather than glorifying the Giver, why should we feel forced to accept or reject the whole Santa concept based on what the “bad guys” claim?

I appreciate much of Mark Driscoll’s take on what Christians can tell their children about Santa:

When it comes to cultural issues like Santa, Christians have three options: (1) we can reject it, (2) we can receive it, or (3) we can redeem it.

[…] We tell our kids that he was a real person who did live a long time ago. We also explain how people dress up as Santa and pretend to be him for fun, kind of like how young children like to dress up as pirates, princesses, superheroes, and a host of other people, real and imaginary. We explain how, in addition to the actual story of Santa, a lot of other stories have been added (e.g., flying reindeer, living in the North Pole, delivering presents to every child in one night) so that Santa is a combination of true and make-believe stories.

We do not, however, demonize Santa. Dressing up, having fun, and using the imagination God gave can be an act of holy worship and is something that, frankly, a lot of adults need to learn from children.

Ultimately Driscoll does comes down on the safer “St. Nicholas was a real person” option. That I also appreciate — and will not judge as legalistic or licentious — but I also wonder: might we go further than this? While perhaps not lying to children (a whole other debate, that), might we redeem more of the popular Santa story? Yes, North Pole, elves, magic sleigh, reindeer and all?

As some may guess, I would intensely dislike the whole legalistic “naughty or nice list” concept. Why not instead think of Santa in terms of Biblical “common grace” (as in Matt. 5:45), someone who relays good gifts from God, even to those who reject Him? What lessons could Christian children learn about God’s forgiveness, when they know (as most know anyway) that despite how naughty they are, their parents love and want to care for them? Could Santa perhaps even join the ranks of Aslan, Gandalf and other imaginary characters who imitate Christ Himself?

Just something to consider and discuss. But even if you disagree, I don’t mind — just please consider the Biblical truths in Colossians 2:16 and Romans 14:5–6, encouraging Christians not to judge one another, un-Biblically, over how they celebrate holidays. Our imaginations, like our celebrations, can ignore God or give glory to Him. Either way, it’s about what’s in our hearts.

E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of Lorehaven.com and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. I loved this piece! Too often people throw the myth out, instead of trying to show children that imagination can be fun, and we can learn Biblical lessons from it. I’m also one of those who wonders if maybe, along with books by Lewis, Tolkien, and others, some books of ancient Greek myth won’t be in Heaven. If the myth detracts from God, it is wrong, but otherwise, imagination if fun, and God-given to imagine, create, and enjoy, giving Him the glory, as He imagines, creates, and enjoys his Creation. Amen! HOOAH!!! Great piece! 🙂

    • Whoa … Greek myths in Heaven … now that is something I had not considered, but if Tolkien’s myths make the cut (and I can think of no reason why not) why wouldn’t at least cleaned-up versions of the Greek myths? I’m not sure; I’m undecided on this one!

      • Ken Rolph says:

        The Inklings were mostly classicists, and would have drawn on all the major threads of ancient cultures. Think of what is in Narnia. Why did Lewis include Father Christmas in the way he did?

        I remember crossing a boundary in this issue when I was much younger. One day I was startled to realise that being a Christian was supposed to make your more human. Not some minority walled-off group mainly known for what they didn’t do. Some seem to have a vision of heaven where we are all Free Presbyterians. We just sit around all day singing psalms to no accompanying instruments. That’s heaven known for what is left out, not for what is included.

        I think the Inlkings took the idea further. Tolkien especially. The story of Jesus was the true story, of which others were pale imitations and wishes. There are many people who will find echoes of something in the Bible in other cultures and offer this as a disproof. Whereas Tolkien et all would take it as a proof. Both Lewis and Tolkien looked at the idea of other kinds of creature apart from human who were sentient and spiritually aware.

        Ultimately we won’t know what we will meet in haven until we get there. But how we imagine it defines how we act in this world.

      • Kaci Hill says:

        Whoa … Greek myths in Heaven …

         
        Ugh. I pray to God Ovid’s Metamorphosis doesn’t make the cut.

  2. Chris says:

    I just commented the other day that while I missed a certain couple’s presence at our church, every Christmas I found myself grateful that they weren’t there. “Another Christmas free of the evils of Satan Clause.” She finished that sentence with me, but it was the first time I’d admitted it out loud.

    He was a real guy and did good things, though I don’t know the whole story by heart. Seems to me that making fun of him is speaking ill of the dead and even nonbelievers seem to maintain that taboo.

    Thanks for touching on this.

    • Do you mean the couple absent from church often spoke of “the evils of Satan Claus”?

      Thanks for your encouragement. And unfortunately, it seems that some Christians simply will not listen to alternative views about Christmas elements and celebrating them. Those who advocate redeeming instead of rejecting Christmas trees, Santa legends, etc., seem to get lumped in with All Those Villains who are compromising with the culture, etc. Anyone who happens to say anything similar just fits inside The System, and ultimately The System becomes more important than actual Scripture.

      For example, on that Facebook discussion, several people just can’t fathom the idea that a Christian could enjoy Christmas or a tree without idolatry being involved somewhere. One can almost see the eyebrows raise. “Well, why are you really enjoying Christmas, no I mean really excusing it, what’s your real reason, hmm?” I swear, it’s like liberal professing Christians who just can’t fathom the notion that some “orthodox” Christian actually defend their beliefs, not out of reflex or power-protection, but because they delight in the Biblical God of truth and grace and want to proclaim both to others. …

  3. Bethany J. says:

    Good thoughts! I’m not a fan of Santa, myself, but my big issue with him isn’t the make-believe (which is fine!) or even the “competition” he supposedly makes for the true purpose of Christmas. My issue with him is that it often goes beyond make-believe and becomes just a flat-out lie. I don’t have a problem with Christians including Santa in their Christmas traditions, but should Christian parents really tell their kids that Santa is REAL, when he’s not? (I mean, aside from telling them he was a historical figure.) There’s a difference between make-believe and deception. “Deception” is a blunt word, but…isn’t that what it is, when a child asks if Santa’s real and a parent says yes? Just like I wouldn’t tell my kids that fairies are real (but it’s fun to pretend they are and I have no problem with that!), I wouldn’t tell my children that Santa is real and will really fill their stockings and come with flying reindeer to our roof.

    I think my parents had a good balance of reality and make-believe when I was little. We didn’t have Santa, but we did have the tooth fairy…it was fun to pretend, but we all KNEW it was my mom. If we were still awake when she sneaked in for the tooth, she’d flutter her hands and buzz around the room. 🙂

    Although we don’t intend to include Santa in our family traditions, I wouldn’t have a problem with others doing it, so long as they are truthful and keep a proper boundary between pretending and reality. 🙂

    Thanks for the thoughtful posting!

    • Kirsty says:

      Yes, the (sometimes very elaborate) deception is what bothers me. We always did Santa (and still do, even though my brother and I are in our 30s!). But my parents never pretended he was real. If I have children, I’ll do the same. Make-believe is fun.
      When my Granny was young, she lived with her aunt – who was a Christian. One day her friend told her that Santa wasn’t real. “Yes he is,” Granny asserted, “my Auntie says so, and she doesn’t tell lies.” Later, she discovered the truth. She remembered watching her aunt as she went about the house, and thinking, “my Auntie does tell lies.” 🙁
       

  4. Caroline Riley says:

    Very, very thoughtful. Thank you.

    We don’t “do” Santa in our home, but we have educated our children about St. Nicholas. We also don’t criticize families who make the more popular choice.
    One thing you said in the discussion of the possibility of positioning Santa as part of God’s common grace concerns me:
    “…What lessons could Christian children learn about God’s forgiveness, when they know (as most know anyway) that despite how naughty they are, their parents love and want to care for them?…”

    My objections:
    1. Loving and wanting to care for children is not the same thing as lavishing gifts on them.
    2. Even if it was, God has not given all parents equal resources to do this, and so I do not want to create a misunderstood relationship between God’s love and the value of material gifts.

    I think that’s probably not what you meant, but your words led me there.

    Merry Christmas 2011, Stephen! May God bless you and your family.

    • Kirsty says:

      1. Loving and wanting to care for children is not the same thing as lavishing gifts on them.
      2. Even if it was, God has not given all parents equal resources to do this, and so I do not want to create a misunderstood relationship between God’s love and the value of material gifts.

      Absolutely! But doing Santa does not have to involve great expense – it needn’t involve any more gifts than you would give them anyway.  And you can lavish kids with unnecessary gifts without doing Santa. The problem is if children believe Santa is real, and therefore an infinite well of presents. If they know it’s just a fun make believe, they will be better able to understand the limits.

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Caroline! The John Piper status discussion on Facebook was what brought you, I’m guessing? Thanks also for your spirit of grace. I think many commentators in response to that status agreed more with the result of the Noel Piper column posted (don’t do Santa), but kind of skipped over the better reasons why.

    As you’ve seen, though, I do think many other reasons can support, for families who so choose, involving and redeeming much of the Santa concept in their celebration. There are many Things people claim distract from Jesus, but only because they let them.

    We also don’t criticize families who make the more popular choice.

    Much obliged! 😀 Yet am I wrong in supposing that among commited Christians, it’s actually more popular to reject any form of the Santa legends? Perhaps that was just my growing up, among many very serious believers (homeschooling types) who did want to avoid this sinful age and materialism, yet — in many ways — overcorrected, and based on the un-Biblical reason that sin comes from Out There, not one’s wicked heart.

    Some of the comments in the Facebook discussion resembled much of that, though I don’t want to assume it’s all the same. I do think we need more balance than simply to assume there’s only one potential sin (materialism, rejecting Christ) about Santa.

    One thing you said in the discussion of the possibility of positioning Santa as part of God’s common grace concerns me:
    “…What lessons could Christian children learn about God’s forgiveness, when they know (as most know anyway) that despite how naughty they are, their parents love and want to care for them?…”

    My objections:
    1. Loving and wanting to care for children is not the same thing as lavishing gifts on them.

    Definitely. Yet I do believe these are lessons children could love. Similarly, God does not always give us Things to show us His love, because He knows what we truly need. Yet sometimes He does. One’s theology should allow for the possibility of suffering as well as success, and prepare us accordingly.

    2. Even if it was, God has not given all parents equal resources to do this, and so I do not want to create a misunderstood relationship between God’s love and the value of material gifts.

    Fully agreed. Thus, it seems we agree this is an issue of Christian freedom — families can choose either way, knowing their life situation, their children, and their “stage” of growth. Which will help them actively glorify God more? That’s their choice in Him.

    Have a merry Christmas season as well! I’ll likely address this topic some more, on this site and in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, our other contributors are already on it!

  6. Caroline Riley says:

    That is perhaps the most gracious and thoughtful response anyone has ever given me in my life. I mean that.

    You even make me wish we had chosen to do Santa here. At least sort of. 😉

  7. Kaci Hill says:

    I’ve never really understood the whole “I freaked when I found out Santa wasn’t real” type thing. Heck, I don’t even remember the day I stopped thinking he was real, assuming I ever thought he was anymore real than any character in any of my other story games. Somewhere in elementary school I heard the St. Nick story and my understanding shifted to “oh, we’re honoring St. Nicholas” along with “the gifts symbolize God’s gift to us.”

    My growing thinking that the whole “I do believe in Santa!” theme of most Christmas movies is silly aside, I really don’t understand the fuss.  So I guess my question is, what the heck are certain parents doing to create such a deception that their children really develop an unhealthy faith in the Santa Deity? Seriously – because I really think I had a pretty solid understanding of the realities of Christmas even as a child. Thoughts?

What do you think?