Every year, we are bound to witness heated discussions about the relevance of Santa Claus within our Catholic circles. Good Catholics exist on both sides of the debate:
Is it a lie, and therefore a sin, to teach kids that Santa Claus is real?
The Church has not, and likely won’t ever, make an official statement for parents to abide by. In and of itself, that actually answers the question about whether participating in this cultural phenomenon is a sin.
The Magisterium has two duties:
- To preserve Truth.
- To teach Truth.
This means they have to advise the faithful on what is a danger to their souls. Santa is harmless. I mean, have you ever seen believing in him on an Examination of Conscience the same way you’ve seen astrology and ouija boards? The unofficial silence from the Catholic Church on the well-known tradition actually verifies that it is not a sin. Ipso facto, it must not be a lie.
How can this be?
To start, let’s clarifying a couple of terms...
What We Mean by “Santa Claus”
Within our community, there’s probably no need to go into a lengthy explanation of the reality of St. Nicholas. We all know that he was an actual historical person. A wealthy orphan who gave generously, Nicholas grew up and became a bishop. His generous nature was imitated through the ages as Christianity spread across the globe. Due to changes in language across countries, the Saint’s name became secularized in every culture to which he was introduced.
In America, he is now known as “Santa Claus” because that is the phonetic spelling of the “Sinterklaas” tradition the Dutch settlers brought with them to New York (Sinter = saint; “klaas” = Nicholas).
This is not the “Santa” to which we are referring.
Surely no Catholic parent takes issue with their child believing in the Saint, or in celebrating his feast. Rather, it’s the nordic-clothed, reindeer-owning, elf-employing, jolly fat-man who can fly around the world in one night. How do we rectify these clearly made-up aspects of Santa? The answer can be found by once again clarifying our terms.
What We Mean by “Real”
Modern society measures truth by the senses. The black and white, what can be proven without a speck of doubt. This is the same measuring stick parents use when they take the stance “Santa is not real.”
However, this black and white approach to reality is actually a narrow understanding of the nature of language, of thought, and of truth. Truth includes so much more than what can be sensed or proven. As Catholics, we know this: the existence of God is the epitome of these imperceptible realities. This is the measuring stick parents are using when they take the affirmative stance on the existence of Santa.
When we tell our children “Santa is real,” we are affirming the existence of the Santa Claus of a child’s imagination, of myth and of fable. Not of a literal North Pole Dweller. And this mythical Santa actually has value for our children beyond the gifts he brings to them.
You see, imagination feeds reality.
The Role of Wonder
Most adults still have this same sense of wonder they had when they believed in Santa Claus. It’s just manifested in different ways. Consider people’s attitudes toward the Star Wars franchise, or fictional TV shows like Parks and Recreation. Even though we know the actual events and characters aren’t real, the story still exists in hearts and minds in a very real way. They also have a very real impact on our world. For better or worse, we ultimately end up imitating these characters.
Isn’t the example of Santa something we want our children to imitate?
The Importance of the Intangible
Myths actually play a huge role in the proper development of the human psyche. Psychologists cite them as one of the crucial ways children learn to interact with the unseen world. They introduce us to the path of wonder, awe, and spiritual enlightenment. In other words, myths help us develop our spiritual lives!
This makes sense. After all, humans are the only part of God’s creation that are both material and spiritual. We have to appeal to both aspects of our existence when it comes to directing our children. Within the Santa Claus myth, we can appeal to both aspects of our children’s understanding and help them to learn some incredibly valuable lessons year after year.
- Things they can’t see (Santa) results in something they can see (presents). This lays groundwork for the spiritual understanding of many aspects of God, including creation and how He continues to provide for us throughout our whole lives.
- Good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished. This is something we definitely want them to learn before they stand before God at the end of their lives. Santa makes a difference because it’s not just Mom and Dad doing the punishing.
- On a similar note: someone is always watching. Just because you can’t see Santa doesn’t mean he doesn’t see what you’re up to. This accountability can help us learn self control and honesty.
- We are all connected to one another. Santa visits everyone. He does not pick and choose. He loves and respects all. This sets an example for our children to follow. It also lays a foundation for understanding the universality of the Catholic Church and the Mystical Body of Christ.
- The good we do on earth is long-lasting. Look at St. Nick. He lives on, century after century, because of his virtue and generosity. This lays the groundwork for an understanding of the reward of eternal life.
- It is better to give than to receive. This one you get to experience more as the one who plays “Santa.” And it’s actually a really wise way to help your kids when they’re starting to suspect the material existence of their yearly Christmas visitor.
Obviously, these same lessons can be learned through different means. But why deny the fun of Santa if we don’t have to?
Santa: A “Real-ly” Good Starting Point for Catholics
Pope St. John Paul II once said:
Man… cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.
Santa Claus is a wonderful tool to help infuse this understanding in our children from an early age. At their youngest, kids gain an understanding of the joy of gifts through receiving. As they grow, give gifts to others, and eventually become a Santa themselves, they gain an understanding of the joy of giving.
And though this lesson is learned in many other ways throughout the course of life, there is just something about the “magic,” “sparkle,” and “cheer” of Santa Claus that makes the truth more visceral for young hearts and minds. Don’t we want to help them see the deeper spiritual meaning in the ordinary?
The Real Mission of Santa Claus
Ultimately, the mission of Santa is the mission of every disciple: to bring the joy of Christ to the world. That is real… and certainly something in which I want my children to believe.
How about you? Does your family "do" Santa? Why or why not? And, as stated before, you can be of either opinion and still be a good Catholic in the state of grace. So as always, please keep the discussion in the comments civil :)
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