Friday, November 30, 2007

The Domestic Church: To "Santa" or not to "Santa"...


...that is the question. In fact, it's a question Molly and I have been wrestling with for the last 5 years, ever since our Clara came into the world. It's an interesting question, should Santa have a big place in our Christmas celebrations? Is there "magic" in Christmas for children without Santa? Is Christmas properly focused on it's subject (Christ) with Santa? I grew up with Santa, and so did Molly, and we turned out alright (I think?), so is it a big deal either way? What to do...

For the last 5 years, we've kind of done a "focus on Christ in Christmas, but still do Santa for some fun" strategy. It hasn't worked that well. We have been very successful in getting the kids to focus on Christ, even to the point that when Santa gets mentioned (usually by an extended family member) the kids kind of give a "Oh yeah, I forgot about that guy" type of reaction. We have Santa fill their Christmas stockings, but the presents under the tree are from us and not Santa. The kids don't really watch Santa Christmas cartoons either (they do have a cartoon on the life of St. Nicholas). We have celebrated the feast of St. Nicolas on the 6th of December as well, and we've sort of half-heartedly tried to claim that the Santa who comes on Christmas is really St. Nicholas (which of course is the person on which the idea of Santa is based). Santa has seemed almost a useless appendage recently, not central to our celebration of Christmas, and sort of a confusing figure for the kids. It's even more confusing when you factor in that the kids received a 5-foot tall animatronic Santa from their Grandpa one year, complete with robotic swaying and hand motions as he sings, "Oh the weather outside is frightful..." and belly laughs "Ho ho ho!" :-) Kids get really confused when you say Santa filled their stocking, and they're trying to figure out how a robot ambled off his pedestal and accomplished that feat.

This year, we've finally had some clarity and certainty in what we will do going forward. We're not doing Santa.

Before I explain this decision, I would just note that I do think this is a family by family decision. There's no one way of doing things that would fit every family. I certainly would never, never judge another family for doing Santa (again, I grew up with Santa). I do think that if a family does Santa, great care should be taken that he is not the focus of Christmas. For us, the inordinate focus on Santa that has developed in our culture is one of the main reasons we aren't doing Santa. When I'm at work, and an engineer I work with who is from India and is Hindu tells me that his family celebrates "Christmas" by putting up a "holiday tree" and exchanging gifts and having Santa Claus come, it's very clear that a separate, parallel, secular holiday has been set up in direct competition with the real Christmas (in effect, in competition with Christ). The secular assault on Christmas, such as banning the phrase "merry Christmas" and calling Christmas trees "holiday trees" is readily apparent, and we won't allow that tide to play any influence in our family. Santa himself has been a part of that separate secular holiday for a long time, and we really don't want to celebrate two parallel holidays (we have found that it doesn't work to celebrate both). The secular holiday of "Christmas" takes attention away from Christ, and the excessive materialism that goes with it is a whole other issue.

So, Christmas will be truly that in our family. As far as maintaining the "magic" of Christmas for children, the other day Clara said to me, "I'm so excited for Christmas to come because it's Jesus' birthday!" Christmas is very magical for our kids, and it's this type of magic that should be maintained. We will still have all of the garland and Christmas decorations, an advent wreath, and a Christmas tree, and some modest gifts, because these are all Christian symbols of Christ's birth. And when we move into our new home, we'll be able to have a manger scene in our chapel and decorate the chapel with the liturgical symbols of advent. And, lest I forget, we celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas on the 6th of December as we always have, giving us a chance to explain his holy life and fill the kids' shoes with candy for them to find in the morning (which is the tradition of the feast of St. Nicholas).

We hope going forward that our kids will always know that Christ is the center of Christmas, and will look forward to Christmas specifically for that reason.


Paul said...

This is the problem with secularization -- it poisons actual Christian traditions. Santa Clause is not a creature of modern American consumerism, even if his most popular representation in art is. And even that is a product of a much more Christian and innocent world from half a century ago. Traditions of St. Nicholas (or other associated quasi-mystical figures) coming to give presents in the night arose organically in Christian societies, and we should be loathe to give them up merely because they've been co-opted by people who don't understand them. And I'm sorry, but the argument about the animatronic Santa is straight out of the Byzantine iconoclastic heresy: if I make a statute of something, people won't be able to distinguish it from the real thing! Your kids aren't that stupid. Sure, Christmas makes perfect sense without Santa Clause, but when we throw him out the window completely we're not chalking up a victory against secular consumerism, we're chalking up a defeated retreat.

Brendan Koop said...


Couldn't disagree with you more there, and I think you must have misinterpreted a good portion of the post. Surely a man with a big red suit, who lives in the North Pole, who drives a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer has nothing to do with Christianity. This is the definition of the icon of the secular holiday. As I noted in the post, we aren't doing away with any Christian traditions, whether they be Christmas trees, decorations, gift-giving, and celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas. We're doing all those things, and in fact reclaiming them for Christianity. As far as the animatronic Santa, when a 3-year old looks at a Santa that is adult size, and sings and moves, and then you tell him that Santa is coming to fill their stockings but he's really this other make-believe character who flies through the air with reindeer, who is in turn a little bit different than St. Nicholas, who is a saint in heaven and was (and is) a real person, then that 3-year old is going to be a little confused. This has in fact happened. Hope this makes some sense. Keeping Santa (of the North Pole) in our Christmas is more of a victory for secularism (which created that character) than dispensing with that and focusing on Christ.

Again, though, I judge no family that does Santa, we know many fine Catholic families that do, God bless them. Care should be taken to do it tastefully, keeping Christ the center.

Sarah said...

Yay!!! We're with you guys! I have seen that if kids think their toys are coming from Santa, it doesn't matter how many other Christian symbols you have or how many times you try and bring the focus on Jesus, unless you have kids with the mind of a 30 year old, they'll focus on what gets them the gifts:) We also try and keep our gifts modest. Actually, I just heard of a tradition where each child gets 3 gifts: one spiritual, one practical, and one fun. 3 of course, symbolizes the 3 gifts that were brought to Jesus.

Molly Koop said...

Some families actually exchange their three gifts on the Feast of the Epiphany while celebrating all the days of the Christmas season. For those who might need clarification, the "Christmas Season" includes the days that follow Christmas Day and lead to Epiphany. (Not to be confused with Advent, which are the days leading to Christmas in which we prepare for the coming of the Christ child and also the second coming of Christ.) Praise be to God that we can continue to refine our traditions each year to keep our focus on the Lord!

Allison Koop said...

I totally agree that each family should decide what works best for them. While I grew up with Santa as a part of Christmas, I never remember really "believing" that Santa was real. I can say that my parents clearly had the emphasis in the right places. He was still a fun part of the day, but not the main focus for me. The only thing I wonder about is how children are taught to interact with other children during Christmas. For instance, if a child who believes in Santa is told by another child that it's all fake, that situation can be unfortunate. And vice versa, a child growing up without Santa could be confused by a child who insists he's real. What do you tell your children about talking to other children?

Evan Koop said...

Alas, Santa, Santa...we hardly knew ye!

Sounds good, but I still do contend that one should admit that the "man with a big red suit, who lives in the North Pole, who drives a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer," was indeed a creation of Christian culture, even if it has since been co-opted and obscured by secular culture. This is not to say that all creations of Christian culture are of necessity good and valuable, however, and I think you've made a good decision for the family.

Incidentally, this is the first time I've ever heard someone reference the Byzantine Iconoclasts in a debate about Santa Claus. Maybe, just maybe, a little over the top!

Brendan Koop said...


Very good question. We've sort of talked about that, but not totally. We haven't really said, "Santa's not real", it's been more of a ignoring of Santa for the time being. At some point we'll definitely have to talk to them and make sure that they understand plenty of families do Santa and they under no circumstances are to run around telling people Santa's not real, or comment on other families' way of doing things. We'll cross that bridge soon I'm sure.

Brendan Koop said...


I don't think you're entirely correct on Santa. St. Nicholas, and his devotion, is definitely Christian, but the modern notion of Santa Claus, is not. See the history in Wikipedia:

Santa on Wikipedia


"Modern ideas of Santa Claus seemingly became canon after the publication of the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas") in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823. In this poem Santa is established as a heavyset individual with eight reindeer (who are named for the first time). Santa Claus later appeared in various colored costumes as he gradually became amalgamated with the figure of Father Christmas, but red soon became popular after he appeared wearing such on an 1885 Christmas card. Still, one of the first artists to capture Santa Claus' image as we know him today was Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century. In 1863, a picture of Santa illustrated by Nast appeared in Harper's Weekly."

Santa of the North Pole is a creation of "Americana" and a merging of St. Nicholas with the British notion of "Father Christmas". Harmless enough (and meant for fun) but not something worthy of linking to the Christian faith.

daisy said...

Bravo! My sibs and I didn't grow up with Santa, and we sure didn't miss him!

Evan Koop said...


This was precisely my point. Santa Claus evolved out of the figure of St. Nicholaus. I did not intend to say that every detail of his modern persona (indeed, even most of it) was Christian in origin, for which reason I said that the Christian saint is now "co-opted and obscured." But it's clear that the source of the legend is that of St. Nicholaus, who was famed for giving gifts to poor children. "Santa Claus" is after all merely a corruption of "Saint Nicholaus."

As I said in my original post, it may be that the modern persona of Santa Claus has come to replace Christ for many people (and certainly in the culture at large), but let's not pretend he was concocted out of thin air with that purpose in mind.

Like I said, I think you've made a good decision, brother. I'm sure we'll have ample time to debate further this coming,, Special, Winter Happening.

Paul said...

I appear to have missed that the animatronic Santa Clause was life-size. Yikes; confusing toddlers aside, that sounds just as likely to scare them (or even adults, for that matter). And I apologize if my point was an inadequate gloss -- I had to dash it off before heading to class. Perhaps I can give a better account of myself.

I suppose I was attempting to tap into the explicitly Christian roots of the Mysterious Yuletide Gift Giver tradition, whether an Italian La Befana or Dutch Sinterklaas or English Father Christmas. These characters were culturally and religiously edifying for our ancestors, and it's sad to see them corrupted by our wider culture to such a degree that they become completely unusable in Catholic households. It was in that sense that I portrayed the phenomena as a victory for secularism, in that it constitutes a kind of cultural theft.

Is Santa Clause used today by many as a stand-in for the true nature of Christmas? Sure, there's no denying that. Even the Supreme Court has said that. But if we're going to maintain order in our own homes, I think (I hope?) that this can be mitigated against. One can portray the Mysterious Giver of Yuletide Gifts as St. Nicholas acting qua Father Christmas, emphasize more traditional depictions of him, and point out that Gift-Giving and Child-Watching is just St. Nicholas's special job in heaven, sort of like God sends St. Anthony to help people find things. He doesn't have to live at the North Pole (which even a relatively small child can discern as somewhat silly by looking at a map, since there is no landmass there). If he makes the rounds on St. Nicholas's day or Epiphany, well that's perfectly all right -- all the better to fill in some of the lost joy of the liturgical calendar.

It also strikes me as insufficient to argue against a MYGG on the basis of attempting to discourage children from expecting or being excited over gifts. Again, it's possible (perhaps even today easy) for people to spoil their children and promote avarice from a young age. But I don't think the MYGG does this inherently or necessarily. We live in a material (i.e. physical) world as physical beings. It is proper and fitting that we take steps to conform our physical lives with our spiritual ones. We don't work on holy days; instead, we have celebrations. The expectations of the physical pleasures of celebrations mirror the spiritual expectation for the holy day. The dinner feast reflects the importance of the liturgical feast; one nourishes the body and the other the soul. We are here as in many other instances a "both and" people. It's not reasonable or Catholic to expect people universally to anticipate or enjoy only spiritual comforts. People, children or not, are going to look forward to presents, good food, and other material comforts regardless of whence they come. Take away all the presents, and a person will look forward to seeing a decorated tree; take away the tree, and he will look forward to at least having the day off school; make him go to school and you have become a Calvinist.

All that being said, I would not posit that it is somehow wrong to choose not "to Santa." It's a matter of personal context, children's temperament, and even gustubus non disputandem. And trying to switch course mid-family must pose significant difficulties. I hope that when it gets here, all y'all have a very Merry (and animatronic-free) Christmas.

Molly Koop said...

Ahh, yes. The "Catholic And" one of my favorite phrases. (Faith and Works, Scripture and Tradition, it is what makes us who we are). We are indeed, a physical people. We will, therefore, be enjoying the Feast of St Nicholas on Thursday (and even attending a St Nicholas Party with some fellow church members this evening-if we can make it out of our driveway, that is). The Santa Claus in the red suit, from the North Pole, with flying reindeer, et cetera, will not, however, be joining us on the Feast of our Savior's Birth. And our children are very much looking forward to receiving their gifts, they are children, but they won't be given to them by Mr. Claus. We've got the lit tree, the holly on the mantle (which the children find especially ammusing since their babysitter is named "Holly") and we have our fair share of nativity sets, including the fancy one where Mary and Joseph are still traveling to Bethlehem and the wise men stand to the east of the stable. And thankfully, although we do have four children, we're not really mid-family as our eldest child is a mere five years old and will likely never remember the days when Santa did fill her stocking. And, praise the Lord, this season will be free of our animatronic, karaoke-singing Santa.

Brendan Koop said...

Random thoughts regarding recent comments:

Like Molly said, we ARE and always were going to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas (which really goes back to the original, Christian tradition of gift-giving), but NOT the secular expansion of St. Nicholas into the unrecognizable Santa of the North Pole (which it looks like we all agree can be "traced" back to Christian origins, but is not Christian in substance).

Nobody's pretending the origin of "Santa" was part of an elaborate plot to co-opt Christmas, just simply noting that his modern persona has nothing to do with the real Christmas (and that's happened for a lot of reasons).

I don't think we have any concern regarding gift-giving, provided the affair stay modest in scope and number such that a sense of gratitude and appreciation for their gifts is always maintained in our children.

Certainly there's nothing wrong with looking forward to receiving gifts, it's just part of the whole celebration that is ultimately focused on Christ.

Thanks for the discussion!

Nana said...

One aspect of the "Santa" debate that I never liked when pretending that Santa came was that I felt like I was being untruthful to the kids and that the whole culture supports that lie. Of course, you might say it is like any other fantasy story, but I would disagree. When we tell our children the story of Cinderella, we are telling a story until they ask if it is real and we say it is pretend. Or the same with movies. Somehow, with Santa, it's different because not only are we the parents telling this story, but the whole culture is: from CNN to WCCO radio and NORAD radar tracking the jolly olf elf in the sleigh.

When my oldest son asked about Santa at age nine, I figured he was ready to hear the truth...but he was devastated. I can't help but think that it was because he was stunned. I was telling him stuff about Santa (Santa is watching to see if you're being good, Santa is bringing all the presents, etc.)while knowing full well that he didn't exist except in make-believe. I believe that my son lost a little trust in adults and maybe even his parents in particular that day. Am I right?

Brendan Koop said...


You're definitely right. I wouldn't say I lost trust in adults or my parents or anything like that, but I definitely remember being devastated. I don't think that experience informed this decision, except for one aspect: I've seen too many atheists compare God to Santa Claus to feel comfortable "lying" about Santa and then saying, "but God is actually real." There comes a point as an adult where you remember finding out Santa wasn't real and wonder if maybe God is the same? Maybe humanity is really just lying to ourselves? I think it will strengthen our credibility with our kids when they see the way we live and see that we are open about Santa, the "Easter bunny" (that one I have a real problem with), etc. not being real, but are just open about the reality of God and his incarnation. But, again, for others out there, I definitely know that Santa can be done in a good way with no ill effects and don't judge others for doing Santa in their families. This is just best for us.

Molly Koop said...

Of course, I have thought of this aspect as well. Whenever I asked my mom if Santa was real, she would always ask me, "do you believe in the magic of Christmas?" Then I would just go along believing what I wanted to be true. I, too, was about nine when I finally discovered Santa wasn't real. (We eldest children seem to believe the longest, don't we?) I remember the day I found out that it was all pretend--I locked myself in the bathroom and bawled my eyes out. I thought about the time that "Santa" called me, the time we had breakfast with him at Dayton's (and my dad said it wasn't his helper, it was actually him) and I begged my mom to tell me that he was really real. After a few days, I was recovered, but it was really devastating for me.
I have thought of this as I've been talking with the kids about St. Nicholas' visit as well, wondering if I'm lying to them about the whole thing. I feel reconciled in the story though, because St. Nicholas is a real person, whose soul is part of the Church in heaven. And we, in the tradition of this saint, on his feast day, celebrate with him using customary gifts and treats.

Anonymous said...

Reading the comments about the Santa problem I have to ask: Is Santa the only bringer of gifts at Christmas in the US? In the part of Germany I live in, the Christmas presents are from the Christkind (Infant Jesus), at least in catholc families. Maybe there are some aspects to criticize at this practice as well, but it is easier to explain children the sense of making presents. And when they grow older, you can explain to them the symbolic meaning of presents from the Christkind. I hope what I wrote is at least in most parts understandable, for my English certainly is not the best. I am just curious whether this tradition of Christkind does exist as well in the US and is only not th topic of the discussion or whether it is unknown.
Best wishes from Germany, Tim

Brendan Koop said...

Tim, your English is great, and thanks for providing our first comment from another country! At any rate, it sounds like the German or European tradition of gifts from the Christkind hasn't made it over to the U.S. in any widespread use (I've not heard of it). It's mostly all about Santa here, even in Catholic or other Christian circles. I think the tradition of gifts from the infant Jesus would be different from Santa, and would be more analogous to St. Nicholas on his feast day (i.e. a real person from whom we are giving gifts on their behalf). Although since it is more Biblical to give gifts to Christ than to receive them in regard to Christmas, it does seem a little different. Thanks for your comment and God bless you.

Molly Koop said...

I have actually heard of this tradition! Another mom in our homeschool group (whose husband has German roots) mentioned their tradition of the Christkind. She said it ends up being a lot of work for her and her husband! When the children go to bed (I think on Christmas Eve) the "Infant Jesus" comes and decorates the home and Christmas tree and also leaves a few gifts. Brendan is a good sport, but he dreads decorating the Christmas tree every year. He gets annoyed that I want the lights to look like they're coming from "within" the tree.

Sarah said...

Jesus Himself is THE gift!

Adoro te Devote said...

I certainly understand and applaud your actions, although I'm not sure I would carry them out myself.

I am a single woman with no children, so this is a decision I don't have to make, but I can speak from my own upbringing.

We grew up with Santa, but at the same time, Mom made sure we understood that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. Santa was secondary.

I do remember believing in him, but that was easy...after all, I had no problem believing in Jesus, and I'd never seen him!

But at the same time, on Christmas morning, some gifts marked "Santa" looked suspiciously like Mom's or Dad's handwriting. And some of the boxes "Santa" used were boxes of products we had around the house.

Children aren't stupid, and just like adults, they can be willfully ignorant when the ignorance has a pleasing result.

I also remember when my brother told me Santa wasn't real...and he'd learned it in school. I protested...but believed him. And I complained to Mom. She first berated my brother for destroying my innocent belief, and then explained that what he said was true, although he should have let her and Dad tell me this.

I really wasn't that upset, and we still enjoyed, for a few years, getting something from "Santa".

And even with all that, Mom somehow managed to make us associate Santa with St. Nick, so we knew it was a Saint that visited us...not Santa. And when that belief in Santa was gone, she opened the door for understanding about St. Nick. So the Saints were always present. Jesus was real...Santa was a fabrication that did not surprise us.

And I must is Jesus and His Saints who have never let us down.

Anyway, a little OT, but my saintly mother tonight made the inane comment about the definition of Christmas: "Christmas is about being with family while celebrating the birth of Christ."

The problem is that my mom is easily led and while she is a Saint, she doesnt' have a lot of knowledge and different medications over the years have addled her somewhat. Her focus is indeed on Christ, but she's buying into the secularization of the season by almost transferring the importance to being with family as primary to the birth of Jesus.

Tonight we discussed that, and she got mad at me for "lecturing". I exclaimed, "Mom...this is how you raised me!"

Seriously. What we learn from our parents, we will give back to them.

So take note of this post you've written; one day, you may be addled and confused, and your children will teach you the same lesons you are now teaching them.

And that's how you'll know that you've been effective as a parent, if God gives you that grace.