“Daddy, is Santa real?”
Some years ago, a seminary classmate introduced to me the perplexing problem of this question. He himself had experienced a crisis of faith after discovering that his parents had lied to him for years about Santa Claus. Could their witness to Jesus Christ also be questionable? Should parents admit that Santa Claus is just a 19th-century marketing gimmick gone wild?
On the other hand, is it necessarily Christian to demythologize everything so that our children always grasp “the truth” in the most literal way possible? WWTD? What Would Tolkien Do? Isn’t it a Catholic understanding of literature that something may be true in a different sense than the literal? That’s how we read much of scripture; a story’s lack of historical accuracy doesn’t mean it lacks in truth, but rather that the truth of the story is on another level. Thus, for instance, Catholics do not read the six days of creation as historical science, but as an illustration of natural order.
I’m not going to tear down your approach to this, but I’d like to offer my own approach as example of a middle way that is in accord with Catholic principles:
- We never lie to our kids. If they ask about something they aren’t ready for, we just tell them they aren’t ready.
- We let them believe whatever about Santa they pick up from the culture. It’s generally not our way to ruin or correct their imaginations.
- Once they start asking, we tell them the truth:
- Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas (Santa is “Saint,” Claus is a nickname for Nicholas.)
- St. Nicholas was a great defender of Christianity, a bishop in the early Church, famous for his legendary charitable acts, including especially putting up money to save or redeem people from lives of debt slavery.
- In some of these legends, he put money down chimneys or in shoes.
- St. Nicholas is in heaven and therefore — short of a divine intervention — doesn’t distribute presents to children. BUT mommy and daddy do give gifts in his honor, and so, in a way, Santa Claus does give them their gifts.
- St. Nicholas can be a powerful intercessor for them.
- Other children may have inaccurate understandings of Santa Claus, but it is not our job to go and spoil it for them.
- There is no Mrs. Claus, there are no flying reindeer, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy fictional stories that build on a false understanding of Santa.
This method is honest, builds trust of parents as well as a critical eye toward popular, secular culture, teaches that a literal understanding isn’t the only way to grasp truth, inspires virtue with a saintly example, and still allows them to enjoy the gift-giving and gift-receiving spirit with joy. All my kids so far who have had this talk have received it very well and have only loved the St. Nicholas tradition more.