Whose Birthday? #2

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What Shall We Do About Santa? Not for Parents Only

by Milo Thornberry

Meet Milo at post 181.

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What Shall We Do About Santa?

Not for Parents Only


"What are we going to do about Santa?" The question not only troubles many parents of small children, but it is also unsettling for many others because it stirs feelings from deep in our childhood memories. Parents, relatives, friends and others who share responsibility for the spiritual nurture of children all have a stake in this issue.

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Where Did He Come From?

Who is this character who figures so prom­inently in celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ?

"Santa Claus" comes from the Dutch Sinter­klass (St. Nicholas). His association with Christmas came about in the Middle Ages, especially in Northern Europe. Little is known about his history except that he was Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the fourth century.

Of the many stories about this saint, one of the most popular tells about his generosity in giving gifts anonymously to the poor. According to the story this young monk learned of a poor family who had no money for dowries for three daughters. Without dowries the daughters could not marry and were condemned to be sold into slavery. Nicholas, so the story goes, dropped bags of gold down the chimney of the family's home so the daughters would have dowries. From this comes the traditions of giving gifts to those in need and of giving gifts anonymously.

Nicholas became the patron saint of numerous countries, cities and groups-including children. As the patron saint of children, tradition developed that he gave gifts to children on the eve of his feast day, December 6th.

Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries the image of St. Nicholas was reshaped by more secular figures known as Christmas Man, Father Christmas and Papa Noel. Sinterklass gradually was anglicized into Santa Claus and acquired many of the accouterments of Christmas Man, i.e., the workshop at the North Pole and the sleigh with reindeer.

The final touches on the modern Santa tradition were provided by Clement Moore's poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas." In the 1930's this poem inspired the artist who drew Santa for a Coca Cola ad that became the standard for subsequent images of Santa.


For additional resources on this topic in this booklet.


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The Case For Keeping Him

The case for not disturbing the Santa myth and traditions is easily stated, and it is compelling:

  1. Fantasy and mythology are all important elements in growing up. Santa is an important part of our cultural mythology.
  2. The mythological character of Santa is admirable. He gives without expecting anything in return.

The Santa traditions are firmly fixed elements of our Christmas celebrations. To remove or significantly change them would be to end the celebration of Christmas as we know it.

We don't know how to change without breaking the hearts of our children, possibly doing psychological harm to them, upsetting our relatives or becoming "Scrooges" ourselves.

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Reasons For Concern

The case for discarding the Santa myth and traditions is not so simply stated. Even though many people are alarmed at what has happened to Christmas, it is hard to point a finger at the figure of Santa Claus, who is presumed to represent everything positive, generous, and jolly about our culture. But if we look more closely at Santa, we see that:

  1. The legitimate mythological, functions of Santa Claus have been greatly diminished by the commercial exploitation of the tradition. The "new" Santa is primarily a salesman. For small children, who is the real Santa? The one in " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas," or the one they see daily selling soft drinks, cigarettes, killer dolls and many other products?
  2. Santa has become a god of material wealth and consumption. The "new" Santa says that joy and happiness come out of the bag on his back. Instead of giving himself, he gives things, suggesting that the way to show love and solicitude is through material offerings.
  3. Santa doesn't come to the poor. In our society the poor experience Christmas as a cruel hoax. The pervasive cultural ideology in this society at Christmas is not "Christology" and the celebration of the coming of Christ as "good news to the poor," but what we might call "Santology" (Santa Claus theology). The "creed" of Santology is the well-known song, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." Hum the tune and think about what you are affirming with the words.

According to this creed, Santa is omniscient, like God: Santa knows all about you. There is also a day of judgment. It comes once a year. It is the time when "good" children (and adults) are rewarded with good things while the "bad" (that is the poor) get coals and switches. The truth is, of course, that gifts are not passed out based on who has been "good or bad" or it naughty or nice," but on what people can afford or get credit to buy. But that's not what the Santa tradition teaches children.

When one considers that Christmas is a celebration honoring the birth of the One whose coming was "good news to the poor" and that this One warned the non-poor about the dangers of materialism, the irony is overwhelming. The celebration of the birth of Christ has become an occasion to perpetuate Santa Claus theology.

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What To Do

If you want to observe Christmas as a holy day and you realize that anticipation of Santa's coming is really at the center in your household, then changes are in order. What those changes should be are matters on which concerned people can and do disagree. There is not one simple "right" path to follow. As you consider what is appropriate for you, consider the following suggestions:

  1. Shift the focus away from Santa in the weeks before Christmas with Advent activities. Let the household services, activities and guidelines for giving set the tone for Christmas preparations in your household. When helped by adults, children can get into the spirit of remembering whose birthday it really is.
  2. Recapture the St. Nicholas tradition. Tell children the story of St. Nicholas. Emphasize the importance of imitating St. Nicholas instead of 'simply waiting for gifts from Santa. Although not written as a Christmas story, Leo Tolstoy's classic story, "Where Love Is," is a wonderful way to help children learn the real spirit of Christmas giving.
  3. Actively resist Santa Claus theology. This means abandoning attempts to manipulate children's behavior by saying, If you are not good, Santa will not bring you any­thing." It also means talking to children frankly about how Santa Claus theology affects poor children and how it conflicts with Jesus' concern for the poor. Do not underestimate children's senses of justice and fair play. Discuss with them the images of Santa they see in "Christmas" programs and ads on television.
  4. Collaborate with others who want to make changes in the role Santa plays in their celebrations. If you are a parent with young children you will need the support of other adults as you take these steps. Also, your children will be helped by knowing that there are other families making these changes. If you are single, or no longer have small children in your household, you can provide important support for those that do and are trying to make changes.

In the end, it is you who must make the decisions. What role will Santa have in your Christmas celebrations?


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