Betsy Liller, a Catholic Christian in Washington Township, is active in her church and prays daily. She and her husband are teaching their 3-year-old son to expect a visit from Santa. They have a fabulous giant LED lit Santa on her spacious front porch. The fiber-optic glowing Santa on the hearth inside is a favorite decoration. “I certainly don’t think Santa is a bad thing!” Liller says. “Santa brings toys and children know they are supposed to be good. We have a manger scene too with baby Jesus and our son picks him up and kisses him. But he is too young to understand Jesus yet.”
Some Christians see Santa as a symbol of commercialism in an overly materialistic society. Some go so far as to say that Santa is only a rearrangement of the name of Satan. Is Santa a rival of baby Jesus? Or is he evolved from the model of generosity and saving help of the bishop, St. Nicholas? If Santa is downright evil, then why do so many parents teach their children to believe in him?
We will never have complete agreement on this but it is undeniable that our culture seems to be in love with Santa. Even those who do not participate, wink at him for the sake of believing children.
But if we want our children to understand the ‘reason for the season’ the birth of our Savior, how do we put Santa in his place?
Most of us have believed in Santa’s existence from our earliest years. Then, around the age of reason (7), no matter how well our questions were answered, no matter how many clever ruses were assembled (nibbled carrots for the reindeer, disappearing cookies and milk at the hearth) questions gave way to doubt and doubting began to yield cold, hard evidence. We discover or are told outright, ‘the truth about Santa’. It can be a painful letdown.
Santa is a bastion for the imagination, a comforting presence and hope for dreams to come true. He inspires joy and awakens a love of mysticism. He is a giver of gifts to all the children in the world. These happy things need not be lost.
Our culture defines Santa as one who sees all, wants children to be good, brings gifts to all who believe, still gives presents even if children have done something bad, Santa can be everywhere on Christmas Eve, and he loves all the children of the world. In this way, Santa forms our young ones to understand justice, mercy and forgiveness, universality, fraternity, omniscience, omnipresence, and generosity. Santa is a lot like God.
Once a child has ‘seen’ Santa, we can help him understand that Santa is a beginning of his understanding of God. We don’t really ever see the real Santa but we see signs of him: his gifts and his helpers: elves, reindeer, street corner bell ringers, mall Santas, parents, as a network similar to God’s network of angels, saints, and believers who do his will and provide for others. By seeing helpers who demonstrate the nature or image of Santa, we can understand that Jesus reveals the nature and image of God.
If we can trust that Santa knows us personally, watches us, and wants us to come and admit our good and bad deeds, we can also come to Jesus, admit our failures and confide our hopes and dreams to Him in prayer and sacrament.
Jesus, the greatest gift of God, came to save us from our sins revealing the mercy and forgiveness of God. He is omniscient. He knows us and He understands us. Because the love of Jesus covered our sins, we can be called His children and live confidently knowing he is always there, listening for our prayer.
As those ‘informed’ adopt the role of Santa, becoming a helper, they see God in themselves. They will know that it is more blessed to give than to receive and will delight in their recipient’s joy. This joy is not the love of things but of being known; joy is the truest gift of thanks. Joy is the sign of the believer.
For those Christians in Iraq who are being persecuted and must hide themselves, and their Santas this Christmas, there is no joy but to recall the joy of our salvation. Look up and see Santa in your mind again, in the skies on Christmas Eve and bask in the light of that joy as a child does. Hope in God like children hope in Santa and never forget. He’s coming!
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” – 1 John 4:10