Photo by Mike Arney on Unsplash

Naughty or nice?

Rev. Dr. Cassandra Carkuff Williams

December 6, 2018

Jonnie rises early to shovel the driveway with a prayer that the car will start so his mom can get to work. With cold feet and a frayed jacket, he walks with his sister to school. He does his best to pay attention despite a throbbing toothache. When a boy points to his baggy thrift-store pants and others join in the laughter, Jonnie walks away. He’s determined not to pout or cry. Jonnie is hoping Santa will bring him a bicycle. He wakes Christmas morning to two packages. One holds a coat he saw his mother put on layaway months ago, the other a pair of socks, a knit hat, and a Bible donated by a local church. His sister excitedly opens a package to find a Dollar Store knockoff. “This isn’t a real Barbie,” she cries, “I wanted a real Barbie.” “She’s really pretty,” Jonnie says. “She even has a pink dress, your favorite color.” Yet he wonders why she wasn’t good enough either.

I first came out as “anti-Santa” in the 1980s when I was a pastor of a small-town church. Despite my care not to challenge the myth in front of children, I encountered vehement reactions. One member who cornered me outside the grocery provided this rationale: When they are little they believe in Santa so then when they grow up they believe in Jesus. While the flaw in this argument will be lost on few, it does point toward several concerns I have about the Santa myth.

First, it is not true. Parents who teach their children to be honest and may even punish them for saying things that aren’t true often also go to great lengths to perpetuate the Santa lie. For many children, who don’t get the distinction between a harmless “fib” and a lie, it is a shock to learn that the people they trust the most have intentionally engaged in long-term deception. And heaven help the informed child who tells his or her schoolmates that Santa isn’t real. The discovery that Santa is a lie sets the stage for doubting the reality of that “other” main character of Christmas, namely Jesus. Professor David Kyle Johnson shares the following story from a young woman named Tennille in his book The Myths That Stole Christmas:

 “When I was real young I was told to believe in this Santa. … My mom tried real hard to get us to believe in him, but … one year my mother made a goof and wrapped a Barbie for my brother. I knew that this all awesome Santa would not make such a mistake and my mom explained that she was in fact Santa. I was mad because she tried so hard to lie to me and it made me wonder what else she lied to me about. . . . Unfortunately it also led to my questioning of God. It made sense now why I did not always get what I asked for Christmas because Santa did not exist, so when I prayed to God and things did not come true I figured my mother made him up too.

The Santa myth is also frequently used as a parenting tool that plays into the unfortunate reward/punishment approach to parenting. Weeks leading up to the holiday are often filled with threats of “I’ll tell Santa!” or “Don’t forget who is watching you!” These tactics, reinforced by the Santa lore, potentially lay the foundation for a problematic understanding of God.

The Santa myth is also frequently used as a parenting tool that plays into the unfortunate reward/punishment approach to parenting. Weeks leading up to the holiday are often filled with threats of “I’ll tell Santa!” or “Don’t forget who is watching you!” These tactics, reinforced by the Santa lore, potentially lay the foundation for a problematic understanding of God. As the song says,

He’s making a list and checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice . . .

He sees you when you’re sleepin’
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

Let’s see: Santa knows everything (omniscient), can be everywhere (omnipresent) and can do just about anything (omnipotent). Who else do we know that fits such a description? This god-like being, whom adults insist is real, sets the stage for belief in a God who keeps a record of right and wrong, rewarding or punishing us accordingly—a God contrary to the God of grace who entered human history as a vulnerable child because he loves us.  

The Santa myth can also damage a child’s sense of self. Children who have sad Christmases can only conclude that they are bad when Santa hasn’t brought the gifts they desire. This internalization of unworthiness is likely enhanced when they return to school to see what others have received, especially if children who behave in dishonest, selfish, unkind or even bullying ways have been well-rewarded. Poor or neglected children have enough in life that tells them they are not good enough without the Santa myth reinforcing that belief.

I do like Christmas. I love the decorations, the carols, the seasonal increase in generosity and good will. I confess a smile even crosses my face when I see a department store Santa. Yet I struggle with how the holiday—not just the cultural aspects but also the attempts by Christians to “reclaim” the season—dilutes the power of the incarnation. We have accepted the arbitrary assignment of December 25 as the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Most of us know that the early church did not celebrate his or any other birthday (something that only self-aggrandizing Roman emperors did). Many of us also understand that the holiday was a fourth-century “Christianizing” of the pagan celebration of the Sun God. Yet we continue with recourses to the vague “true meaning of Christmas” and “the reason for the season” (rhyming doesn’t necessarily make something true). Our attempts to defend Christmas as a “Christian” holiday have domesticated the great mystery of the incarnation, gilding and gelding it with sentimentality, as Frederick Buechner suggests:

If the Christian event in itself is indeed… all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading. The Word become flesh . . . with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light . . . “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God . . . who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven…” It is the Resurrection and the Life [Mary] holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast. (Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, page 29).

We are not likely to succeed at making Christmas Christian. The conflation of the birth of Jesus with a pagan holiday may have rendered it irredeemable from the start. So I remain conflicted. It remains a cultural holiday that I enjoy. I can also use it as time to intentionally focus on my faith without fighting against a fictional “war on Christmas.” I may not know what to do with the holiday, but I am unequivocal in wanting to say “No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. He’s just pretend. But yes, Virginia, there is a God who loves you and all children without condition, who keeps no record of wrong, who cries with you when you cry, who forgives when you are naughty and who wishes for you every good thing that life has to offer.” Perhaps, however, that’s a conversation better left to another season.

The Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, Ed.D. is American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ national director of discipleship ministries.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

Want the latest from The Christian Citizen?
Subscribe to Christian Citizen Weekly

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This