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No Virginia, There is No Santa Claus

November 28, 2008

Now that the turkey is digested and the Christmas season has begun in earnest, I would like to make a request of whoever reads this that I hope will not seem naive, or sentimental, or overly moralistic. The request is this:

Please don’t lie to your children about Santa Claus.

Lying is repeatedly condemned in Scripture (Cf. Psalms 5:7; Proverbs 6:17; Ephesians 4:25; Colossians 3:9). And section 2485 of the Catechism says that “[b]y its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” Yet every year millions of Christian parents choose the occasion of our Lord’s birth to lie to their children about the existence of a jolly old fat man who lives in the North Pole.

There are, I know, serious disagreements and arguments about whether a lie is ever justified. But those arguments are about situations (typically involving Nazis) which are a matter of life and death. Nothing like that is at stake here. Christmas is a time when we celebrate the birth of he who is the way, the truth and the light. We should not honor his memory with a lie, especially a lie that is likely to distract attention from Christ. I highly doubt that Saint Nicholas would approve of such use of his name.

It is argued that, if children were told the truth, that it would take the joy and magic out of Christmas. I am living proof, however, that this is not true. I was told by my parents that Santa Claus like Superman; he wasn’t real, but sometimes it was fun to pretend like he was. My childhood Christmases were as happy as any other, I suspect.

If treating the whole thing as make believe is insufficient, why not introduce your children to the real old Saint Nick? Say a prayer to him as a family, and tell how his generosity in times past has inspired others to give and share down through the ages.

Telling your children that Santa is real is sometimes justified on the grounds that it helps teach your children about faith, by teaching them to believe in the things not seen. I can only hope that it doesn’t. If a person did learn anything about faith from the experience, it would probably be that people will lie and pretend that such things exist when in fact they don’t. That only children believe in them, and that authority in general is not to be trusted. Based on the fact that many children grow up to have a profound faith despite having been lied to, I can only conclude that most people don’t learn much of anything from the experience. But there is something about the dogged insistence some atheists have on comparing God to Santa Claus that makes me wonder.

Even if lying about Santa Claus does no harm, not doing so may be a great benefit. When your child grows up, he will realize that you did not lie when others did, even on a matter which (as it may then seem to him) is quite trivial. And he will take from this that honesty is very important.

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46 Comments
  1. November 28, 2008 11:06 am

    I have always told my kids that St. Nicholas used to give children gifts out of joy and thanksgiving for the Christ child. Santa Clause is an example of someone who wants to do the same. Santa represents the spirit of giving and inspires many people to be more generous in celebrating Jesus’ birthday.
    Using real words like “represent” and “inspire” may go over their heads when they are itty bitty but they understand as they get older that I have never lied.
    It is funny you bring up Spiderman!
    My youngest asked me “But, Mommy, do you believe in Santa Clause?” He told me — Santa is like Spiderman. He is a pretend guy who is fun to think about. I told my kiddo — I absolutely believe in the spirit of giving – especially when celebrating Jesus birth. Giving can be hugs, cleaning up after each other, a homemade gift or time together (btw).
    We always read a wonderful book (still brings me to tears) called, The Miracle of Saint Nicholas by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Judith Brown. It is recommended in Catholic Mosaic. This book gives a glimpse of the devotion to St. Nicholas and use of icons by the Russians. It’s a beautiful story of family and villagers coming together restoring their church and icon of St. Nicholas after having to live their faith in the underground.

  2. November 28, 2008 11:22 am

    Christmas season has NOT yet begun in earnest or otherwise…

  3. decker2003 permalink
    November 28, 2008 11:22 am

    Santa Claus is a degraded version of the German/Dutch tradition that children receive gifts on the Feast of St. Nicholas, which comes at approximately this time of year. Anti-Catholics in the U.S. consciously and deliberately transformed him into a secular character who brings gifts on Christmas. Reclaim the ancient tradition! In our family, there has never been a Santa Claus. But Baby Jesus comes to our home on Christmas Day and appears for the first time in the Nativity Scene. With him come gifts for the whole family. The material gifts signify the supreme gift wjoch God gave to us in Jesus. In this sense, the gifts are “from” Baby Jesus, because he is the one who gives us the occasion, the reason, the example, and the means to receive these other gifts into our home. As in so many other ways, he acts through human intermediaries. The children pray to Baby Jesus to come ot our home and he truly does — although in an unseen way — on Christmas day. He brings them gifts when he comes — unseen spiritual gifts, and material gifts (through the agency of parents and relatives).

    We learned this tradition in Mexico where, sadly, the tradition that Baby Jesus or the 3 Kings bring the gifts is quickly being replaced by the American Santa Claus tradition. Resist American secularization. Tell the children that the gifts come from St. Nicholas, Baby Jesus and the 3 Kings. This is the ancient Catholic tradition of which we are the proud heirs.

  4. November 28, 2008 12:10 pm

    One more thing, Christmas is not all about the cute little baby Jesus – well, it is, but not that way. It is about the Incarnation. If we took the time with our children to begin contemplating that mystery rather than the mysterious Santa, then, I think we might truly find something countercultural…

  5. November 28, 2008 12:29 pm

    Bah Humburg to all of you

  6. Brett permalink
    November 28, 2008 12:53 pm

    We fundamentally refuse to perpetuate the Santa Claus myth in our home. However, we do leave teeth for the Tooth Fairy.

    Walking contradiction.

  7. November 28, 2008 1:22 pm

    One of the few posts of yours that I agree with, BA.

    I, for one, could not be more pleased that Christ is being taken out of the consumerist American “Christmas.” Let american soldier-worshiping consumers have their holy day. Give Christmas back to the Church.

    Anyone see Toby Keith’s amazing performance on the Colbert Xmas special?

  8. Katerina permalink*
    November 28, 2008 1:30 pm

    Santa Claus is creepy, but it was fun to believe in him when I was little. Back home, it is both Baby Jesus and Santa Claus (who flies with him, I guess) that bring the gifts. We haven’t decided yet what we’re going to do about Santa Claus in our home…

    One more thing, Christmas is not all about the cute little baby Jesus – well, it is, but not that way. It is about the Incarnation.

    Amen!

  9. Brian Desmarais permalink
    November 28, 2008 1:50 pm

    The real problem with Santa Claus is learning as a kid that his magical elves can make nothing better than the cheap stuff they sell at Target or Toysrus. I remember my Mom once telling me that the Santa sent his elves to the stores nowadays. Ugh…

  10. ben permalink
    November 28, 2008 1:53 pm

    Old St. Nick was not jsut generous in ages past. He continues to be generous here and now. Many times he has interceeded for me. And I can tell you for certain that he intercedes for millions of children and does real work to help their Cristmas wishes come true.

    The saints are not myths.

  11. radicalcatholicmom permalink
    November 28, 2008 1:53 pm

    We celebrate both in our home and my daughter loves it. She knows Santa gives presents in honor of Jesus. I love the role of the fantastical and magical aspects of life and children NEED it. I believe you cannot get more fantastical than believing a Virgin got pregnant by God and then gave birth to Him and then placed God in a Manger and then later God was tortured and sacrificed for his Creation. Humans. Really, it is a strange story and anything that can help build up the fantastical and magical worlds for children AND adults, should be encouraged.

  12. November 28, 2008 1:54 pm

    Read the Father Christmas Letters and follow the example of Tolkien! That’s what I would suggest to anyone. As he says in Mythopoeia, it is a part of man to dream, and those dreams can be more real than the “reality” we claim to lay under it.

  13. November 28, 2008 1:58 pm

    Back in the old country….

    Santa Claus is Sankt Nikolaus, and he visits children on December 6th. He looks a lot more like a bishop. His counterpart, whose date is Dec. 5th is “Krampus”, a devil – bad children get coals, potatoes etc. Nowadays, people dressed as him scare the crap out of people on the streets as well.

    For Christmas, there are two versions
    – the older is the Christkind, Christ child, that brings the gifts when everyone’s out of the room.
    – the newer, probably via American influence, is the Weihnachtsmann, or “Christmas Man”. He looks like the American Santa Claus.

    Gifts are opened on the evening of December 24th.

    I think the baby Jesus is blond and blue-eyed as well :-P

    I certainly won’t tell children fairy tales, be it Santa Claus or that the Easter Bunny died for our eggs. Christmas doesn’t really interest me, sure the American stuff is kind of cute for a minute but in the end it’s too sweet, like the food. In Vienna, there’s a very nice “Christkindlmarkt”, A traditional Christmas faire, with (GASP!) ALCOHOL! (spiced tea with rum). Yes, one can drink alcohol in public in Austria. At 16 – I mean, here you can “die for your country” at 18, so that’s neat, too.

    Unless I can fake an injury, I’ll have to go to Grace Cathedral in SF for the caroling revelry. I also have no interest in Thanksgiving, I guess when you don’t associate these things with childhood memories they mean nothing. There is something similar, a harvest thanksgiving of sorts in Austria, but I didn’t grow up in a rural area.

    Once did I stand in line for Black Friday at Circuit City, I dare not imagine what it’s like at Wal-Mart. I got a few things on Amazon’s Black Friday this year.

    The ‘Three Holy Kings” ( I saw the alleged remains of one in Cologne’s cathedral) come, much like Halloween, in the form of dressed-up kids to people’s doors and leave a “C + M + B” in chalk on the door. I don’t think it’s done much anymore in cities. I was surprised to hear that trick or treating is now very common in Austria.

  14. November 28, 2008 2:42 pm

    I agree that you shouldn’t lie to your kids about Santa. Chances are they will still believe in him anyway, and I wouldn’t waste a lot of effort dissuading them, but encouraging them to believe in a falsehood is wrong.

  15. November 28, 2008 2:42 pm

    “I, for one, could not be more pleased that Christ is being taken out of the consumerist American “Christmas.” Let american soldier-worshiping consumers have their holy day. Give Christmas back to the Church.

    Anyone see Toby Keith’s amazing performance on the Colbert Xmas special?”

    Good Griwf Michael. I swear I never get this anti Santa Claus thing. Yes Virigian even Pacifist like Santa Claus

  16. November 28, 2008 2:44 pm

    “Read the Father Christmas Letters and follow the example of Tolkien! That’s what I would suggest to anyone. As he says in Mythopoeia, it is a part of man to dream, and those dreams can be more real than the “reality” we claim to lay under it.”

    Thank you Henry

  17. November 28, 2008 2:45 pm

    I side with Henry and RCM on this one.

  18. David Nickol permalink
    November 28, 2008 2:59 pm

    I actually couldn’t agree more about the Santa Claus issue, I don’t see any point in lying to kids about Santa Claus. Of course, if you raise your kids not to believe in Santa Claus, they may spread the word to other kids who do believe, and that might cause some trouble.

    A lie is an “intrinsic evil,” and although the nature of the lie will determine its gravity, we have just had it pounded into our heads that intrinsic evils are never, ever permissible, not even to save the world. This is a difficult (okay, impossible) for me to accept. What about undercover law enforcement agents or people in the witness protection program? What about people who must safeguard government secrets? Were the folks hiding Anne Frank and her family supposed to answer Nazi enquiries truthfully?

    I just saw a report this morning of a 13-year-old boy in Mumbai in the hospital recovering from wounds he suffered in the terrorist attackes. He wants to go home, but hospital workers don’t have the heart to tell him most of his familiy is dead. I think there are all kinds of circumstances in which almost every reasonable person would admit that lying to achieve a good end is permissible, although in theory the Church teachings about intrinsic and other moral principles forbid it. Even when I was in about the second grade I remember the nun saying you should not tell a lie even to save the entire world, but in essence she said, “Of course, who wouldn’t?”

    But I agree about Santa.

  19. November 28, 2008 3:39 pm

    A lie is an “intrinsic evil,” and although the nature of the lie will determine its gravity, we have just had it pounded into our heads that intrinsic evils are never, ever permissible, not even to save the world. This is a difficult (okay, impossible) for me to accept. What about undercover law enforcement agents or people in the witness protection program? What about people who must safeguard government secrets? Were the folks hiding Anne Frank and her family supposed to answer Nazi enquiries truthfully?

    Good questions, David.

  20. November 28, 2008 4:47 pm

    My apologies if you ran into this before, but I thought you might be amused by the tale of my youthful Santa skepticism.

  21. November 28, 2008 5:30 pm

    Equating telling your children the story of Santa Claus to lying is like saying that we should only take non-fiction seriously. It fails just as fundamentalism fails, because literalism is a dim lens and too small of one. It’s right for the right thing, like studying cell biology or installing electrical wire. But it’s not clear enough to see the entire world. The story of Santa Claus is about wonder. It’s about fairies and elves and saints. It’s about this world being fantastic and bigger and stranger than we can possibly hope or imagine. Life is a damn sight clearer, and therefore brighter, because of story, because of this story – not because it lies, but because of its truth.

    One of my favorite quotes is from the poet Muriel Rukeyser who said, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” Perhaps she overreaches. But let me share a secret with you, the universe is not simply made of atoms.

  22. David Nickol permalink
    November 28, 2008 6:53 pm

    Equating telling your children the story of Santa Claus to lying is like saying that we should only take non-fiction seriously. It fails just as fundamentalism fails, because literalism is a dim lens and too small of one.

    Scott,

    It seems to me BA is right in this case. It takes one lie after another to keep kids belief in Santa Claus intact. It’s not just a story children are told. Any reasonable question they ask about Santa Claus has to be answered with a lie. How can Santa be on every street corner? Oh, those are “Santa’s helpers.”

    What is the point of deliberately deceiving children? If you read them a fictional story or took them to a movie, and they believed it was reality, you would try to explain to them the difference between fiction and non-fiction. So why try to convince kids a fictional character is real?

  23. November 28, 2008 11:30 pm

    Jesus lied and told false stories.

    We call them “parables.”

    Still ready to take the hard line against Santa?

  24. Sylvia Giem permalink
    November 28, 2008 11:52 pm

    I clearly remember being no more than 5 years old, 65 years ago, and having to pretend that I believed there is a Santa Claus. Do children really believe this story, or are they all just pretending because they know it’s expected of them?

  25. November 29, 2008 1:44 am

    Jesus lied and told false stories. We call them “parables.”

    Michael,

    I don’t think you can equate the parables of Jesus with Santa — the former were stories told to present and teach a fundamental truth; when hearing the parables of the ‘Ten Virgins’ or ‘The Unjust Steward’ or ‘The Rich Unmerciful Servant’, his audience understood them as fiction, but sought a deeper meaning.

    In the latter case, Santa is typically presented to children AS true.

    Two different mediums entirely, I’d say.

  26. November 29, 2008 8:16 am

    Dear Mr. Blackadder!

    Santa Claus lives in Korvatunturi, not in the North Pole.

  27. November 29, 2008 8:37 am

    It seems to me that the controlling scripture passage is 1 Cor 13:11 – “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” Here is the link to the original editorial, of which the present entry’s title is a parody: http://www.newseum.org/yesvirginia/

    Santa Claus is what the Greeks called pseudos; thinkers, tellers of moral tales, educators must teach children (and this involves reminding ourselves) to find the ‘alethes in the pseudos.

  28. MMK permalink
    November 29, 2008 11:51 am

    Being the apparent retard that I am (140ish IQ) I believed in Santa until I was in first grade. This wasn’t unusual at the time, all my friends also believed, that is until some big mouthed kid at school decided to clue us in, loudly scolding “Don’t you know that’s only for LITTLE kids!”. Being big sophisticated 6 year olds, it was high time we wised up to the scam. I remember several of us gathered around arguing with the utter heresy this know it all kid was spouting about our beloved Santa. Sure, there were a few strange inconsistencies like the chimney not really being wide enough to accommodate a fat man with a sack of toys. But Santa wasn’t your average guy. And those clunking sounds coming from the living room shortly after we kids were sent to bed on Christmas Eve. We knew it wasn’t Santa because he never came until well after midnight and would never ever be heard saying Ouch! or Damn! like Dad. Santa was very competent at making bikes and doll houses at his North Pole workshop. They fit perfectly into his sack and he delivered them “no assembly required”. Then up the chimney he rose where Rudolph, Donder and Blitzen were waiting to continue the route.

    So it was all a “lie”. Big deal. We loved it and nobody had to go into therapy because our parents “lied” to us. When the truth finally came out, we accepted it with little more than a shrug. As long as the presents kept coming every Christmas that was good enough for us. Lighten up, folks.

  29. November 29, 2008 12:41 pm

    Christopher:

    Yes, but blackadder is attacking the use of all lies or “not truths.” I think it substantially weakens his case to admit parables are acceptable b/c they employ “lies.”

    The bottom line is that myth is an appropriate vehicle for communicating truth, and both parables and Santa fall under the scope of myth. To dismiss myth entirely, as blackadder seems to suggest, is too severe.

    This is further compounded when you realize that many children, especially the very young ones, have a difficulty differentiating between truth and reality. Does a parent have to preface every movie, every fairy tale told to a 2 year old with a detailed explanation of “this is false?” That seems to be what blackadder would want and it seems that that would most certainly rob a childhood of innocence and imagination.

  30. November 29, 2008 12:50 pm

    “As long as the presents kept coming every Christmas that was good enough for us.”

    And this is the problem, Santa or not.

  31. November 29, 2008 1:56 pm

    I teach my children the truth about St. Nicholas and how he was generous to the children and how he punched that bastard Arius in the face. Then we walk around the shopping malls pouring gasoline on stuffed Santas and reindeers and lighting them on fire.

  32. November 29, 2008 2:02 pm

    Another thing I like to do at church: if someone says to me “Merry Christmas!” before the first mass on the 24th, I say to them “Bzzzzt, wrong answer, genius, it’s still Advent… get a clue.” Then I break into a somber intonation of Rorate caeli desuper.

  33. November 29, 2008 2:35 pm

    If Santa constitutes a myth that conveys truth without being factual: What truth does the Santa mythology convey?

    I’m all for myth, and I’d have no problem with teaching children traditional English folklore as true, or myths about St. Nicholas, or what have you. But it stikes me that the thing about Santa Claus (and goodness knows even more to the Easter Bunny) is that there’s really not a truth there to convey. The American Santa mythology (elves, north pole, rudolph the raindear, etc.) doesn’t particularly strike me as conveying any real truth.

    On the other hand, convincing your children that some angels failed to take sides when Satan fell and that they were banished to the earth where they are the hobs and nobs and grims and other household and local sprights strikes me as a great idea. Put out a bowl of cream for the hobgoblin, children, and perhaps he’ll do your chores for you while you’re asleep. Ignore him, and he may pinch you!

  34. David Nickol permalink
    November 29, 2008 4:58 pm

    I don’t know if Pauli would approve of this or not, but I think children should be taught that in the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the red nose symbolizes any physical difference or deformity, or indeed any departure from the norm, any of which justify laughter, mockery, and ostracizing of those who don’t fit in. Of course, if somehow a misfit achieves celebrity status, he or she becomes “one of us.”

  35. Christopher permalink
    November 29, 2008 5:53 pm

    Michael Denton

    I agree that it would be ridiculous to preface the telling of every story with a clarification as to whether it is true or false; when my own son comes of age I would delight in reading him the tales of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien as my father did to me.

    I think we have to let Blackadder clarify whether he’d “dismiss myth [or fiction] entirely”, classifying Jesus’ telling of parables as “lies” in the same manner as Santa Claus (or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, for that matter).

    I’m inclined to think not, although it would be a good philosophical subject to explore (the ‘morality’ of fiction).

    But I’d have to agree with Darwin here, “The American Santa mythology (elves, north pole, rudolph the raindear, etc.) doesn’t particularly strike me as conveying any real truth.” At least with respect to Santa, I find the real Santa much more engrossing.

    Funny . . . do you suppose Jews have these moral quandaries about the story Hannukah, being predicated on a real miracle?

  36. Liam permalink
    November 29, 2008 6:15 pm

    Well, the Catholic imagination has a capacious – nay, enormous – place for something in between truth and lies. Indeed, Catholic culture (in the best sense) has a serious bone to pick with a Reformist literalism that seeks to put that vast place of pious narratives on a severe diet. American Catholics, faced with the hijacking of that narrative impulse by consumer capitalism, may be tempted to tap into their inner Puritan.

    Resist that temptation. It is not a noble one.

    Do, however, make sure your Christmas story telling is of an deeply enriched Catholic sort. That’s the better cure for the disease.

  37. November 29, 2008 10:25 pm

    David is exactly right. All my kids have weird mental deformities like me and I teach them not to take any crap for it. Each one is almost sick of hearing me say “You’re different — leverage it, dammit.” Someday, rich American capitalists like Santa Claus will place them in charge of their corporations.

  38. blackadderiv permalink
    November 30, 2008 11:55 am

    blackadder is attacking the use of all lies or “not truths.”

    This is not a fair reading of my post. After all, in it I say:

    I was told by my parents that Santa Claus like Superman; he wasn’t real, but sometimes it was fun to pretend like he was.

    So clearly I have no problem with fiction, and am not attacking all “not truths.” If you think that stories involving Santa convey some moral truth, that’s fine. But stories can convey moral truth to children even if they understand that they are fictional (imagine a parent trying to convince his children that the Grinch was real, and then attempting to justify his actions by saying that the Grinch story conveys a valuable moral lesson; it makes no sense).

  39. November 30, 2008 12:08 pm

    Dear Michael Denton,

    You and I are in absolute, 100% perfect agreement.

  40. November 30, 2008 12:10 pm

    Oh, you were not talking to me, were you, Mr. Denton? That makes sense.

  41. Brian Killian permalink
    November 30, 2008 4:21 pm

    Myths are not lies. This implies that truth can only exist on the plane of pure facts, which is a highly dubious and restricted understanding of truth. Myths communicate truth in their own way and in their own modality, and the imagination is actually better at communicating sublime things than matter-of-fact reason.

    For this very reason, we can’t destroy the distinction between the different levels of truth. Myth will not work as myth if we insist that every element is literally, factually true. Since Tolkien was brought into this discussion, the distinction in his own terminology was between the primary world and the secondary worlds of human creators (or sub-creators).

    The truth of a secondary world is true in its own way and warrants belief in its own way, without any need to confuse or conflate it with the primary world. Nor is the primary world the sole dwelling place of truth. Here is a passage from Tolkien about his own perception of the “reality” of faery stories as a child:

    “I had no special ‘wish to believe’… at no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in ‘real life.’ Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.”

    A little further on he says:

    “I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faerie. I desired dragons with a profound desire.”

    So yes, Tolkien may have read or wrote Father Christmas letters to his children, but that doesn’t mean that he did everything in in power to get them to believe that everything related in the letters existed “in real life”.

    It’s not about possibility, but desirability.

  42. December 1, 2008 8:01 pm

    Brian,

    Actually I’d say some myths are lies. (The myth of american exceptionalism, the myth of the sacrifices of soldiering, etc.) But may myths are not lies.

  43. December 2, 2008 11:25 am

    Good article. Thank you!

    (Although my husband has had a number of articles accepted by Catholic Exchange, the following one on Santa Claus was not:)

    http://www.fightingirishthomas.net/2006/12/claus-clause.html

  44. former soldier permalink
    December 2, 2008 11:40 am

    myth of the sacrifices of soldiering

    Not a myth. Not a lie.

  45. December 2, 2008 1:51 pm

    former soldier

    Not objective.

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