Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Santa Claus and Faith Development

"It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble."
Luke 17:2

A few days before Christmas, I was listening to an interview with Brian Scalabrine on the radio. Scalabrine is a reserve forward on the Celtics. He plays just a few minutes a game. The announcers often praise him for his hustle, but no one would confuse him with the stars. I turned on the radio when they were already well into the interview, and apparently they had moved from talking about basketball to more seasonal themes. They were asking him if his daughter, who (I’m guessing) is probably three or four years old, was excited about Santa Claus coming with presents.

He surprised his radio hosts by telling them that at the Scalabrine household, they didn’t do Santa Claus. There were two reasons for this, he explained. First, he and his wife did not want to lie to their daughter. And second, they wanted her to understand what Christmas was really about. He explained it without seeming judgmental or self-righteous. It’s just what they do. No big deal. I was impressed

The Santa Claus idea has always been problematic for Christians. The upside is that Santa Claus embodies the spirit of giving, and of generosity. Those are good things. But the downside is that belief in Santa Claus becomes easily confused with belief in God. And Santa Claus introduces a magical element which is actually antithetical to Christian faith. It seems harmless enough for toddlers, but when kids begin to ask questions, they wonder about everything that their parents have taught them to believe.

A friend told me that when he was a child, his Holy Trinity was God and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. When he stopped believing in the Easter Bunny, he still had God and Santa, but when he could no longer believe “that reindeer really know how to fly,” he thought that God would be the next one to go. Seriously. It was a crisis of faith for him. And I have come to think that teaching kids to believe in Santa Claus can be a barrier to developing a mature Christian faith as they grow.

I don’t think this means that parents have to declare their homes a no Santa zone, as the Scalabrines have done. But it does mean that caution is a good idea. A little Santa goes a long way. We can allow children their fantasy without promoting it. We can downplay the Santa idea without disparaging the traditions of others. And we can make it very clear that Santa has only a minor part in the celebration of the Christmas season.

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