Some Christians are aware of this, and have gone out of their way to make sure that their children knew that Santa Claus wasn’t real, thus ensuring that their children do not suffer the disappointment of having their belief in a myth dashed. Some Christians resist perpetuating the Santa Claus story for other reasons, such as the feeling that Christmas (as currently celebrated) is weighted down with pagan baggage. This, too, is a line of argument that atheists have put forward. I will not be tackling that objection directly in this essay, but the astute reader will see how it is indirectly addressed.
Before we can settle whether or not you should tell your children that Santa is “real,” we have to open our eyes to the real problem in this question — and the real opportunity. For, the question asks us to reflect on whether or not we ever ought to lie to our children, but this assumes a very important premise: that Santa is not real.
There is just one problem. Santa is real.
I am speaking, of course, of a certain Nicholas of Myra, who would eventually be regarded as a saint of the church. Surely the reader sees the similarities between the name Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus, which came to us evidently through the Dutch as Sinterklaas.
The brief overview is that this prominent Christian of the 4th century developed a reputation for his generosity, a generosity that must have truly left an impression, as the saint was widely regarded throughout Christendom after that. Not as well known is his fierce contention that Jesus was actually God incarnate. The story goes that Jolly Saint Nick clobbered a certain Arius who insisted that Jesus was merely a man. Well, you’d be more sympathetic if you knew what he and the Christian church had just endured under the persecutions of Diocletian. Nicholas himself was tortured during this period, and, like many other Christians who had been viciously abused, didn’t take kindly to the idea that they had suffered much for a man who ultimately accomplished nothing.
Clearly, it does not follow from this that Santa Claus makes an annual trip around the globe, dropping down chimneys and leaving gifts in his wake. However, neither does it follow that Santa Claus isn’t real. He very much was real, and the fact that virtually the entire planet is aware of his name and the mythology surrounding him is testimony to the fact that he really existed in history. Furthermore, the extent of the traditions surrounding him bear witness not merely to the fact that he really existed, but that he really left a mark.
One might say that the greater the impact of the man, the greater are the ripples in history of the waves he made. These waves are, themselves, testimony to the man.
And the legends surrounding Santa Claus are nothing compared to the vast movement that was created from virtually nothing, nearly overnight, c. 33 AD. I am speaking now, of course, about Jesus.
I said that neglecting to mention that Santa Claus was actually a real man forfeited an opportunity. I have sketched out what that opportunity consists of, above. Yes, it’s true that a great many accretions have sprouted up over the centuries about Santa Claus, and yes, more recently the whole affair has been greatly commercialized, so that it is hard to discern in our current climate what it was that truly inspired Saint Nick to do what he did. But it is also true that despite the passage of some 1,700 years or so, it is actually possible to discern some actual facts about a historical person and some of the events in his life.
What we can do with Santa Claus on that score is nothing compared to what we can do with Jesus, whose ‘splash’ generated dozens, if not hundreds, of corroborating documents and events, ultimately changing the course of human history like no man did before, and likely will ever. Just as we can view the widespread legends of Santa Claus’ generosity as a testimony of how it was evidently ‘above and beyond the call of duty,’ the reverberations of the life and death of Jesus testify to.... what, exactly, if not a real death and resurrection?
The story of Santa Claus provides us with a pretext for proclaiming the Gospel. And this is the amazing thing: we are provided this pretext every single year, during an event that in the West, at least, is enthusiastically enjoyed by almost everyone — including atheists. Yes, Christmas has become highly commercialized, but surely humanity’s love of festivities, and the fact that one of mankind’s greatest annual parties happens to center on an important proclamation of the Christian Gospel, is itself a testimony to Christianity.
What I mean is that joy and celebration belong to God, and since we are made in His image, even the most hard boiled atheist has trouble resisting the urge to ‘get into the Christmas spirit.’ We can use that! And finally, as Christians, joy and celebration belongs to us as part of our inheritance. We ought not squander it, or treat it with contempt.
We shouldn’t be ‘growing out of’ our belief in Santa Claus. We should be grounding ourselves in the truth about Santa Claus, using it as good training for grounding ourselves in the truth about God, and the reason for the season: His Son, who was born into our world for the explicit purpose to die for us, with the intent to deliver us into a celebration that will have no end.
And mark my words, the real Santa Claus will be there, in the flesh.
Anthony Horvath is the Executive Director of Athanatos Christian Ministries, an apologetics ministry based out of Greenwood, Wis. He is available to speak and present on these and other defenses of the Christian faith and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org