Why the Santa Debate Matters

After 17 years of participating in the debate over whether or not Santa belongs in a Catholic Christmas, I admit to being a little weary of it. Same thoughts, same people, same divide. And then I recall that I am getting older... but there are many people who are hearing the debates for the first time and who have never considered the possibility of Christmas without Santa. Is it my obligation to speak against Santa? Not really. But it is my obligation to speak about Jesus...

So I bring it up again, not to argue but to engage. Which may be only a matter of semantics but I like to think it is something more. Argument for argument's sake? Or discussion for the sake of finding the truth and greatest good? Hopefully, I can claim the latter.

So why does it matter? It matters in the way that anything matters in our lives (does it serve Christ or not?) but particularly because the Santa tradition is enmeshed with one of the holiest seasons and feasts of the liturgical year. Within that context, Santa either leads us away from Jesus or closer to Jesus. There is no neutrality in the spiritual life. 

Do we need Santa? Of course not. And that answer also provides the answer to the question of whether or not we should have a Santa. If we do not need him to live fruitful, holy lives, then there clearly is no obligation to have him at all. With no obligation, the only remaining question is whether or not it is either beneficial or harmful to have him... since we know he cannot remain a neutral figure. 

Does Santa lead us closer to Christ? The answer to that question, honestly treated, is the one that will finally end the debate and discernment in each of our homes. 

Santa isn't taboo in our family but neither is he a "thing." He isn't real. He doesn't bring presents. I've written about our reasons for this HERE but I think they can be summed up neatly in two points....

1) We don't lie to our kids. Ever. It is either a violation of God's command or it is not. 
2) We try to avoid things which distract from Jesus. Because He is everything.

We do read fairy stories. We pretend and dress up and read Tolkien and Lewis and Chesterton and all manner of wonderful fiction. But we have never told our kids that hobbits are real. We have never carried a fictional story so far that our kids stare trustingly up at us with eyes of wonder... and believe us. Not even when it would be fun. Not even if we thought we thought we could make something good of it.

The truth is that those of us who are clever enough to convince children that the person of Santa exists -- with the North Pole, his magic reindeer, elves, fanciful accessories and all -- also possess the ability to create meaningful, memorable, beautiful, and fun holy days without Santa. He isn't necessary to receive God's greatest gifts.

The path to sanctity is a battle and I am not always a good soldier. Even if I wanted Santa, he doesn't fit in my home. He complicates. I am not talented enough to make such a game work in the favor of sanctity in my house. If you can, that's great. But the burden is still on you to evaluate whether you have instilled in your kids a greater sense of wonder for the beautiful and REAL Infant King than for a fictional magical man. 

Santa defenders like to use the fabulous G. K. Chesterton quote to support their traditions and I think that's a worthy defense if ever I heard one. Chesterton's work is marvelous. He is easy to quote because he was brilliant, concise and truth-seeking. But he was still just a man and I am not under obligation to his word. I am, however, under obligation to the Word... and it is for me alone, under the direction of the Holy Spirit working through the Church to determine how I am to continually pursue Christ first.

Also, if we look closely at Chesterton's words, it is clear that they do not contain a justification for the complex fabrication of the modern Santa nor any encouragement for the practice of giving Santa the unhealthy emphasis that we do. He never said "Parents, this is what you ought to do..." but simply gave us a look into his personal journey to Christwhile admitting that his experience differed from that of his friends.

Chesterton's culture was different from ours. The Christmas gifts he alludes to were completely contained in the stocking at the foot of his bed. A large gift was one that only fit halfway into his stocking! And we see that in his particular situation, these traditions were not an obstacle to Christ, but helpful in understanding an unseen benevolence. Can we honestly make the same claim of our practices? 

I don't think that we can generally make the same claim for our cultural Santa. If you personally can... If you can honestly say that telling your children a deliberate falsehood (one which then becomes a central focus during one of the holiest seasons of the year) actually brings Jesus into greater focus, then I have no argument with you at all. As a parent, however, I know how difficult it is to remain properly focused even without Santa. Unless I am uniquely ill-suited to this task of motherhood, it is probable that others share the same challenge.

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus...

His name, His Presence, His gift! The entire season should breathe Him as naturally as a heart beating in a body, and the Body of Christ should radiate this awareness through the season. If the game of Santa can exist without taking away from that even in the smallest way, then I have no issue with it. But I have not personally seen the evidence in the American Church. 

I see a broken Body that is often in a death struggle with materialism and dishonesty. I see Catholic parents who argue passionately in defense of their Santa but who are listless in defense of the faith. Impotent in the face of a culture that seeks the souls of their children. Are you one of them? Probably not if you are bothering to read a Catholic blog! But I still know that you struggle. Because you breathe. Because sin is real. Because the family is always under attack. 

Do our children speak more about Santa or gifts than they speak about holy things? We do not do Santa and I still squirm at the answer.

To those of you who read more of Chesterton than just quotes and memes out of context on the internet, do you think that he would really approve of the way that our culture has turned his Santa into a smarmy plastic falsehood instead of a mysterious magnanimous work of the imagination which illustrates the generosity of Christ? Because of course, Chesterton did not believe in a real Santa. He was a rational man after all. He believed in a real Christ who reveals Himself through the beauty and mystery of creation and yes, even imagination. 

This post is not really anti-Santa at its core. It is Christ-seeking. What more can we do to bring our children to His Sacred Heart? If Santa helps you do that, then please keep Santa. After honest introspection, I do not find myself equipped to pull that off. It is enough for me to keep clinging tenuously to the holy things. 

In spite of the fact that my kids have never believed in a magical Santa, they lack nothing in our Christmas celebrations. Christmas is filled with gifts and food and glitter and mystery... with a depth of joy greater than I could have imagined for them. Does this prove that they would be lacking something with the addition Santa story? No. But I cannot imagine that the addition of the present-focused fiction would enhance their Jesus-joy any more. 

I realize that my family is in the minority even among Catholics. That's okay with me. Because... well... Jesus


To read more about our decision to go Santa-less at Christmas...
Bah Humbug! Dissin' Santa

Thoughts from priests and an archbishop about Santa...
Was He Right to Say It? I Suspect So.

Posted on December 4, 2014 and filed under Christmas, Advent, culture, Family Life, Liturgical Year.