Santa Claus gets some bad press these days. I encountered plenty of it while trying to sort out Christmas traditions for my own young family. He’s too materialistic with all those toys. The secular icon detracts from the Christ Child. The fantasy ruins critical thinking skills. The deception breaks the bond of trust between parent and child.
Ouch. Some of those really pack a punch.
I began to question the beloved tradition from my childhood. Could I really keep up the charade with my children? Could I stand to see their little hearts break when they discovered the truth? Would they one day extend their shattered belief to our religious faith?
Then a dear friend shared this delightful passage from the Christian author G.K. Chesterton:
Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened this way. As a child…I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking.
I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them. I had not even been good—far from it. And the explanation was that…Santa Claus was benevolently disposed towards me.
[…] I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea. Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.
Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking.
Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the…present of myself, as to the origin of which I can afford no suggestion except that Santa gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill. (“My Experience of Santa Claus,” Black & White, 1903)
Chesterton has convinced me that we need Santa now as much as ever. All that hard work you, mama, put into making Christmas magical for your children is about so much more than toys in stockings or even warm family memories—it’s building solid character! Here’s how:
01. Santa builds the moral imagination
When I say that Santa builds the moral imagination, I don’t mean that he simply inspires creativity, though that could be an added bonus. More importantly, he elevates us from a culture of scientism to real moral truths.
Our science-obsessed education system drills the difference between fact and fiction into our minds from a young age. But this distinction misleads us into thinking that only empirical facts are true.
Science may explain how hormone levels and neuron connections work together to form a bond between a mother and her new baby. Yet it fails to capture the joy of first cradling that newborn or the superhuman sacrifices in the days and weeks that follow. These experiences are no less true. More than flesh and blood and bones, we are created for a higher purpose.
The moral imagination points beyond the mere facts of our existence towards that purpose. It is the faculty of the human heart that allows us to see ourselves and others as moral beings rather than objects of utility. It makes use of fairy tales or myths to explain the otherwise unexplainable. These myths are not lies, they reveal truths. These truths are in some sense more real than what we can discover in a cold lab under a microscope.
Chesterton was a lifelong believer in Santa. What was important to him was not so much the literal fact of how his stocking was filled or the historical description of the Bishop of Bari from the 4thcentury. It was the enduring truth of Santa, of a benevolent being who loves him even though he has been naughty.
02. Santa prepares us to understand God’s love and order
Our children quickly grasp the enduring truth of Santa. They endure the agony that accompanies anticipation in the nights leading up to his visit. They marvel at a man so omniscient that he knows if they’ve been bad or good. They awake to joy on Christmas morning. They wonder as to how Santa’s gifts materialized overnight. They feel unconditional love when they discover these gifts in their stockings despite past transgressions. They know this love extends to all children everywhere.
Our children understand all this before they’ve likely uttered the word “incarnation,” much less understood it.
Santa is not a replacement for the Christ Child, but a stepping stone to understanding God’s love and order. Chesterton is a remarkable example of how Santa can assist in the transition from a child’s fancy to a robust faith. As Chesterton says, he merely extended the idea.
The love that was once apparent in the small gifts soon extends to the beauty of a sunset or to the very fact of our own beating hearts. The order once known in the magical appearance of chocolates and toys soon extends to the mystery of creation, to planets in the void.
To be sure, the transition from a child’s fancy can be bitter. Chesterton blames not Santa, but a modern psychology that fails to address the breach between imagination and reason. The two are not diametrically opposed. As Edmund Burke described their relationship, the heart owns the moral imagination; the understanding ratifies it. It is not Santa who is out of touch with reality. It’s the world we’ve created for ourselves.
We live in a culture that suffers from a lack of moral imagination. The bitter break from childhood results not from an excess of imagination, but from its absence. To blame Santa for this break is like traveling through a desert and cursing a bottle of water for making apparent the unbearable dry heat. We need more myths like Santa, not less.
03. Santa inspires gratitude
We can certainly allow a Hollywood version of Santa to overshadow the entire Advent and Christmas seasons. We can prepare our Amazon wish lists for ourselves instead of our hearts for baby Jesus. We can breed an atmosphere of entitlement rather than humble anticipation. We all struggle with this, myself included.
But this is not the Santa Chesterton knew, and it is not the Santa our children have to know.
There’s something so charming about young Chesterton’s gratitude for only “a few dolls and crackers” or a present “so big” that it did not fit entirely into his stocking. The line makes me blush because my Christmas mornings have been an embarrassment of riches. I could stand to tone the material blessings down a bit.
Santa inspires gratitude not because he gives exorbitant gifts. It’s a wonder that he gives any gifts at all—especially when we’ve been naughty.
04. Santa inspires parents alongside their children
I’ve been intentional not to separate you, mama, from your children in this conversation. I’ve used words like “we” and “us” because Santa invites us to wonder alongside them. Chesterton once wrote in a book review that thoughtful parents do not tell their children whether or not Santa exists because they do not know. When it comes to life’s deepest mysteries, we know “precious little more than the child knows.”
What this looks like in each family is not so important. Perhaps it’s a jolly fat man in a red suit on the night before Christmas or a visit from Saint Nicholas on his feast day. Perhaps we go to great lengths to keep our children guessing or we let their natural curiosity get the best of them and continue to play along. The particular details do not matter so much as the truths we convey.
So let us humble ourselves to wonder alongside our children. Dwell on the possibility of miracles. Approach Advent with the intensity of a child’s anticipation. Soak in the joy on your children’s faces. Thank God for their beating hearts. Wonder at a being so great that he hung the planets in the void, yet so benevolent that he humbly becomes a tiny baby out of love for us—despite knowing our greatest faults.
G.K. Chesterton, “On Santa Claus,” New York Times Review of Books, 1912.