It’s not a problem now. Our children are that bit older. But for years we had to threaten them with dire penalties as Christmas approached. They mustn’t say it. They mustn’t even hint at it. Whatever anyone said to them, they mustn’t let it slip. They don’t believe in Santa.
I well remember the day when I realised the depth of horror that such a confession might cause. A kindly, cheerful shop assistant asked our youngest what he hoped Father Christmas might bring. ‘There’s no Father Christmas!’ he declared. ‘It’s just mummy and daddy’. She looked at us aghast. The look of horror in her face slowly turned to hostility and then to fury. ‘You’ve told them!’ she hissed. And we began to edge towards the door before she called for the store security men to come and arrest us. Our guilt was clear. We had blighted our children’s lives, deprived them of their human rights, committed a crime against humanity. We deserved to be exiled from all civilised society.
It happened again and again. Our children blurted out the dreadful truth. And we were left defenceless. So in the end we bound them to silence. Or to some irrelevant response, ‘Ooh, Christmas is so exciting isn’t it!’ That usually satisfied the inquisitors.
Even the tooth fairy doesn’t hold this sort of control over the public. To voice doubts about his/her (which is it?) existence may render you an object of suspicion but it is permitted. Father Christmas is different. No child must be allowed to doubt his reality. And that means no adult must question it.
Why? Why is it so important to people in our society that the children should believe in Father Christmas? I needed to understand. Who could tell me? Idea! I’ll have a look on Mumsnet – the popular internet forum where mothers discuss issues of parenting. Within thirty seconds I had found scores of threads on the subject. It seems there are hundreds of mums out there agonising about what to tell their children about Santa. Here are some typical postings:
‘Should I admit Father Christmas isn’t real to 9 year old?: My son who is 9 has always firmly believed in Father Christmas. However this year at school he has come home several times asking if he is real as other children at school are saying he isn’t real… Should I just admit it or try and keep him believing?’
‘Father Christmas not real. My 8 yr old son has just said he’s not real. Nothing I say can convince him. I’m gutted. Is 8 young to stop believing? Or is that the norm now?’
‘Still believe in Father Christmas: I have a 6 year old and a 9 year old and am expecting lots of questions this year regarding Father Christmas… My nine year old was questioning the fact that he is not real last year – so I really want this year to be extra special and try to get him to really believe it as I think this will be the last year. Any advice how to keep it real for a 9 year old would be gratefully received…’
Well, it’s obviously important to them that their children should believe. So maybe they’ll tell me why.
I chose a thread at random. ‘What do you tell your kids about Father Christmas?’ And as I browsed down, I found some interesting answers. I’m going to give you four.
A control mechanism
Here’s what Catherine W. had to say. ‘I see no problem in children believing in Santa… They do know that if they don’t behave well then Santa will NOT be visiting their house though! On that note I have a friend who walks around with a phone from about October onwards and at any sign of bad behaviour threatens to call Santa – soon puts a stop to it…’.
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. If children believe in Santa, and that he only brings presents for good children, they’ve got a strong incentive to behave! Lisa K. agreed: ‘I have a picture of Santa saved against a random number on my mobile so when my son is naughty, I whip it out and show him my phone and me dialling Santa to grass him up. It stops him in his tracks every time even if it’s the middle of January!! …nothing like a little kiddy blackmail!!’
So apparently it works – at least for a time. But it leaves me feeling uneasy. Why? Well, for at least two reasons.
Firstly, I doubt if Catherine or Lisa would actually carry through their threats. Apparently, up till now, their children have decided to behave rather than lose their Christmas presents. But what if one day they don’t? Will mum actually leave them without presents on Christmas Day? Or will she decide she can’t spoil Christmas? Will she make sure that Santa comes anyway?
It is always a mistake to threaten children with sanctions if you’re not prepared to go through with them. If we don’t mean what we say, we shouldn’t say it. And in the end the children will realise that we don’t mean what we say. And they’ll start ignoring every warning we give them.
And secondly – even more serious – How can anyone think it’s right to control people’s behaviour by telling them they’ll incur the anger of an imaginary being? Isn’t that an ugly and manipulative thing to do to your children?
I wonder if it’s a symptom of the collapse in parental authority that marks our society. Modern parents have no effective sanctions to control their children’s behaviour. They have been taught that they must not smack them. They must not deprive them of any pleasure, or inflict on them any pain. They are afraid that if they do, they will lose their children’s love. So what do they fall back on? A warning that Santa will be displeased with them. ‘I would never punish you. But Santa will..!’
Why can’t Lisa or Catherine have the courage to say to a misbehaving child, ‘you stop that, or you miss your tea and go to bed now’? Or even, ‘do that again, and you get a smack!’ Why must they resort to a lie in order to keep control of their children?
For Christians who resort to such a lie, the outcome could be disastrous. What will their children say when they realise that they were conned? ‘Once my parents tried to control me by talking about Santa’s displeasure. Now it’s God’s wrath they talk about. But it’s all the same – controlling parents threatening me with imaginary dangers’!
Shouldn’t we be warning children from the start of the real danger they’re in if they break God’s rules – including his command, ‘honour your father and mother’? Let’s tell them the truth. Not as a convenient control mechanism, but because it’s true.
Making Christmas magical
That’s the big one. The answer that’s given again and again. Christmas needs to be magical for children. Back to mumsnet… Lots of people are saying it.
‘I loved the whole Father Christmas story at Christmas and leaving milk out etc… I wouldn’t take that magic away from my children’.
‘Little ones don’t need to know the truth… yet. Let it be magical!!’
‘It’s such a magical time and they are only young and so innocent to believe in it all for a short time’.
‘I see no problem in children believing in Santa. Why not? Doesn’t hurt and they find it so magical!’
‘I could never take the magic I feel for Christmas away from my little one… I would much rather keep the magic of Christmas going for as long as possible’.
‘I 100% agree in letting your kids believe in Father Christmas and the wonder and magic involved in it all…’
‘I like the magic of Christmas – the fact that Santa magically flies and has a sack that can magically fit all the presents in. He magically comes down the chimney and knows exactly what you wanted by magically receiving the letter. That’s magic because I make them believe the unbelievable is real’.
Curious isn’t it? We live in a society where supernatural religion is treated with ever greater contempt. Creationism is banned from school classrooms. Parents are warned against ‘fundamentalist Christians’ who will indoctrinate their children with the idea that Christianity is objectively true. Social workers refuse to place children with foster parents who will teach them that ‘there’s a Friend for little children above the bright blue sky’. Richard Dawkins is applauded when he declares that teaching children about a God who rewards and punishes is tantamount to child abuse. Apparently, it’s dangerous for children to believe in the supernatural God of the Bible.
And yet, parents are desperate for their children to believe that every Christmas the world is invaded by a supernatural being, who can circle the globe in twenty four hours, know the desires of every child, find his way into every home. It’s not enough for them to enjoy the story of Father Christmas as a fantasy on the same level as Peter Pan or Snow White. Children must be taught that he’s real. Parents feel that a child deprived of that supernatural dimension has been robbed of something precious.
My children don’t believe in Father Christmas. But I don’t think they’ve been robbed of anything. For them, everything in the world is supernatural. When the seeds they’ve sown sprout and push their way through the soil, they know that this is the miracle-working hand of God. When they see a rainbow, they know that God has painted the colours on the sky. Oh sure, they’re fascinated by the scientific mechanisms by which seeds germinate, or how sunlight is refracted through the raindrops. But they know that behind it all is the awesome, ‘magical’, work of God.
And our children know about the biggest miracle of all – that God himself, infinite, everlasting, almighty, became a human baby, lived a perfect life here on earth, died on a cross to rescue his enemies, rose again to live for ever, and is coming again to make all things new. Isn’t that miracle enough to satisfy the heart of any child, any grown-up?
And it’s not just that our children have been taught about the supernatural power of God. They’ve witnessed it. They’ve sat at our lunch table and listened as different friends have talked about the miracles God has done for them. They’ve heard testimonies of wicked people becoming holy, broken lives transformed, prayers marvellously answered. Not just that. They’ve seen our prayers, and their own, answered in astonishing ways that no one could have expected. Our children live in a supernatural world. They don’t need Father Christmas to make the world seem wonderful.
Parents and children alike deep down in their hearts know that this world is not all there is. God has written his reality on our heart. Children instinctively believe that there are unseen, mysterious, wonderful realities – and parents want them to believe it. But our society is determined to deny the God who is there, the ultimate reality. So the hunger for the mysterious, the magical, the supernatural, has to be filled up with other things. When people cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything. And they teach their children to believe in anything – even a bearded man in a red coat driving his sleigh across the sky and popping up in the local supermarket.
A compensation culture
So many parents in our society are guilt ridden. Why? Because they feel that they’ve failed their children. And when Christmas comes round, they feel they have to do everything they can to make it up to their children. And that includes the whole ritual of Santa: writing letters to him, putting out food and drink for him, hanging out stockings for him, buying extravagant presents from him, taking the children to the grotto to meet him…
What provokes the guilt feelings? For some, it’s the fact that the child has had to cope with family breakup. Mumsnet once more: ‘I feel so guilty that my son will not have Daddy there at Christmas and it’s going to take all the little strength I have left to make it totally magical for him…’
For others, it’s the fact that they have so little time to give to their children throughout the year. ‘My husband and I both work. We do not spend a lot on presents but want the magic of Santa bringing the children presents… we do not want our children to go without! Try explaining to a 4 year old and 6 year old that Santa can’t bring them what they want???’
Or it’s simply that they’re depressed themselves and /or their children are unhappy. ‘To protect and provide for your children is a natural instinct and if you’re feeling down and depressed you don’t think logically. The thought of your children’s happiness, coming down on Xmas day to see what Santa has brought is sometimes the only thought that keeps you going when times are tough!’
Have we really come to that? The only thing that keeps you going is the thought of the happiness Santa will bring to your children? When I read that sentence my eyes filled with tears. Tears of compassion for the lost parents and children of our generation. Tears of gratitude for the contentment that my wife and I have found in Christ, and that we’ve tried to share with our children. Christians really are the happiest people in the world! We have the certainty that God loves us, we have the sure hope of eternity with God, we have the peace of God in our hearts, we have the promises of God for every situation, we have the good gifts of God to enjoy every day. Our children are learning to enjoy the world around them, hikes in the Lake District, sports, swimming, good books, crafts, music, Dad’s Army, romps with the dog, cooking and eating… and they know that all these are our and God’s gifts to them.
We want them to enjoy Christmas. But if this year we couldn’t celebrate Christmas at all, we wouldn’t feel guilty. They don’t need presents, or tinsel, or Father Christmas to make them happy!
Finally, there are parents who admit frankly that they’ve got to stick to the Party line on Santa for fear of the consequences.
One man commented, ‘My wife doesn’t agree with telling our kids… about Father Christmas…’ He received a sharp reply: ‘Sorry – but I don’t agree with your wife at all. Imagine the bullying at school when they start… Some people don’t think, obviously!’
Here are some more contributions: ‘I certainly wouldn’t want to be the most unpopular mum at the school when her kids tell their class mates!! Even the teacher is in on it – my five year old (year 1) teacher apparently has a magic phone and calls Father Christmas!!’
‘Their friends will all be enjoying Father Christmas and so I don’t want them to be the ones left out, especially at school and nursery’.
I find it grim to realise that people can be intimidated into conformity – even in something as absurd as Father Christmas. It takes courage to be different. And not many people have that courage. They’d rather lie to their children than provoke the wrath of our intolerant society.
Christians are called to courage in matters big and small. ‘Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents’ (Phil 1:27-28 ESV). For some Christians, refusal to bow to the image of Santa, will be the first test of their courage!
Truth is important
Don’t get me wrong. We never enrolled our children in a campaign against Father Christmas. As I said at the start of this article, I didn’t see any need for them to go round declaring their unbelief to all and sundry!
Nor did we ever ban all mention of Father Christmas from our home. I wanted my children to enjoy fantasy. I’ve no problem with them enjoying ghost stories, the Narnia books, Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, Wind in the Willows, or Santa Claus. I think it’s good for them to have their imagination stretched. If they had chosen to write letters to Santa, I wouldn’t have discouraged them. They always knew that it was just a game.
But we would never have lied to them and pretended that Santa was real. First, because God hates lies. And second, because I want my children to trust me. I want each of them to be able to say, ‘Mum and dad have never lied to me’.
One last quote from Mumsnet. Samantha B. wrote this after finally admitting the truth about Father Christmas to her child: ‘My son is nine now and we recently had this conversation. He worked most of it out for himself but was completely devastated that all the adults in his life had been lying to him for so long. It took a while to get over and left me with a task. He has himself convinced that now he knows Christmas will never be exciting again. I’m on a mission to prove otherwise! He’s a bit of a deep thinker so what followed really had me stumped. He asked if everything he couldn’t see but believed in (i.e. tooth-fairy/ easterbunny/ Santa) wasn’t real did that mean God wasn’t real too?’
He had a point, didn’t he?
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk