What we tell our children about Santa and what we tell our members about biblical misunderstandings

It’s that time of year when Christian parents begin hand-wringing about the Santa problem. By, the Santa problem, I mean the well worn question of whether it’s right to let your kids enjoy the myth of Santa or not. Christians seem to land on one of four broad approaches: (1) total buy in; (2) not pushing it in any way but not denying it; (3) enjoying the myth and telling your children it is a fun story to enjoy that isn’t real; (4) actively shunning the whole thing and telling your children from day one it is untrue.

The hand-wringing centres on whether it’s right to lie to your children or not (Christians generally say ‘no’). The question then is whether a fun tradition like that surrounding Father Christmas is really lying and, if it is, whether a different level of buy-in (such as options 2 or 3) allow you to enjoy the story without deceiving your kids. It’s one of those very niche, uniquely Christian hang-ups that is entirely legitimate to think about from within our worldview but almost certainly seems as bonkers a discussion as you might ever have outside of Christian circles, in the order of angels on a pinhead sort of stuff. Anyway, wherever you fall on the question, this post really isn’t about the rights and wrongs of whatever decision you’ve made.

We, a few years ago, decided to land close to option 2. We decided that we wouldn’t push the whole idea of Father Christmas. If our children got into it, we’d let them enjoy it but if they asked us outright whether it was true, we’d tell them the truth. That moment came a year or two ago. Our son inevitably discovered Father Christmas through TV and other means and wanted to know if he was real or not. So, we diligently explained it was based on a real man but the Father Christmas we talk about today isn’t real. Like the characters he watches on TV, though they aren’t real, it is still a fun story that is entirely legitimate to enjoy.

Our son was fairly nonplussed by all of this. We’d drilled into him that he wasn’t to say that to his friends and, if they were to ask him what they thought, he was to tell them to ask their parents. He used to relish being asked by adults about Father Christmas and would get a cheeky little grin on his face if we were with him, look up at us to check it was OK, before telling them he wasn’t real (because they probably didn’t know, of course!) If it was around children, he would dutifully say nothing. But all of this was pre-school.

Now he is at school, the concept of Father Christmas came up again. Only his confidence in the answer is not what it was. He asked us not long ago whether Father Christmas was real again. Knowing that we’d told him a number of times, we just asked him what he thought. He ummed and ahhed before saying he didn’t know. The local rotary club do a tour of the area with Father Christmas coming down your road, in the spirit of it being a nice story to enjoy, we bobbed out to see him. Shortly after that, I caught my son looking out the window talking to himself: “Father Christmas, are you real? Oh, I don’t know. I think you are!” I asked him why he thought that and he said, “because I seen him!” Fair enough.

So, here’s the thing. We’ve not encouraged our son to believe in Father Christmas, he has come to that conclusion all on his own. In fact, despite having told him that Father Christmas isn’t real, he has decided on the evidence before him that he is. We feel no duty, nor overwhelming desire, to stamp all over his child-like delusion. In fact, I suspect he knows Father Christmas isn’t real but has chosen to believe in him nonetheless, because its more fun that way.

Now, eventually, he will grow out of that. One day, he will conclude that Father Christmas isn’t real (there aren’t many 40-year-olds who still believe) and I don’t sense he is going to grow up thinking mummy and daddy lied to him. Of course we didn’t! We told him the truth and he chose to believe otherwise. All we have done since is ask him what he thinks. Eventually, when we ask that same question, he will think differently. What value is there, then, in shattering that illusion for him right now?

Now, as I said, this post really isn’t about where you fall on the Santa-is-an-anagram-of-Satan stuff. Wherever you fall on how you handle it, it is before your own master you stand or fall. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind. But it helps to be aware of the various pitfalls that may accompany any of those approaches.

But I raise the issue because there is an interesting parallel with pastoral ministry. How do we handle slightly off-beam views among our members? I’m not talking about dangerous heresy or views that have problematic knock-on effects in the church or anything like that. I’m just talking about the stuff that’s not quite right but not all that dangerous.

I suspect our answers fall somewhere close to the spectrum of how we handle the question of Father Christmas. Some just happily affirm the view on the ground it does no harm, others ignore it until such time as it becomes a problem, others again explain its not true but don’t feel the need to make major issue of it, while others still want to clamp down on all error like a tonne of bricks, no matter how minor or insignificant.

But I would hope, in a healthy church that is gospel-centred and systematically teaching the whole counsel of God, those who hold such views will eventually come to shed them. As we faithfully teach the word of God, those views will one day fall away when it becomes clear that they don’t square with the rest of the teaching they have come to accept and the Biblical evidence they have before them.

Much like the question of Father Christmas, it strikes me as rarely that efficacious to either affirm what we know to be untrue whilst, at the same time, it doesn’t always help the faith of a new believer to have somebody unload on them over a minute error they have come to assume. It strikes me we do well to pick our moments to correct minor, not hugely important errors. We certainly shouldn’t affirm them but we might do well to trust our teaching and believe, in the long run, that we might get a helpful answer when we ask, ‘what do you think?’