Saint Nicholas vs Santa Claus…Jesus FTW

Let me just get it out there. My kids don’t believe in Santa Claus. We don’t “do” Santa. No, my kids aren’t deprived. Yes, Christmas is still a magically special time of year. My kids are NOT the spoil sports who tell other kids that Santa is not real. On the contrary, they know there will be very real consequences from Mom and Dad if they tell other kids that.

No, we don’t “believe” but we do “pretend to believe.” Danielle Bean gives a beautiful explanation of what exactly that is:

We enjoy pretending to believe in Santa, in much the same way we pretend to believe in Curious George, gnomes, or fairies. We tell their stories in great, magical detail. We discuss the logistics of Santa getting into a house with no chimney. We wonder about the number of elves he must employ and what Mrs. Claus might be cooking for his Christmas dinner. We love Santa.

Now if you scroll down far enough in that eight-year-old post in the comments, you’ll see one from someone you may know. Someone who at that point had very young children and whose child was not diagnosed with autism then. It’s been a long eight years since that post which sort of leaves it ambiguous but leaning toward Santa.

A year after that post, Shelby was diagnosed with autism and suddenly, this became an urgent matter. When consulting with other parents of older autistic children online and person we found a mixed bag. Children with autism have a tendency to be very literal. And it was the story of a family’s eight-year-old son climbing onto the roof and attempting to get in the chimney that pushed us over the edge into the “pretending to believe” category at the time. We didn’t know if Shelby’s diagnosis would prove to be higher functioning or not but we also had another child and baby on the way to consider.

And just because there is no “belief” in our home of Santa, doesn’t mean he’s shunned either. Like Danielle said, “We love Santa!” My kids are going to breakfast with Santa Sunday morning after mass at our parish on the feast of St Nicholas. And we have tentative plans to bring them to a McDonald’s to get their picture taken with Santa and Mrs Claus a week from today. It’s fun for them belief or not!

Has this stunted my children’s imagination? Not at all. Imaginative play is probably the type my boys excel at most. They weave stories about stuffed animals and dinosaur figures as naturally as any child. They create all kinds of reality-defying worlds in Minecraft. They role-play invented stories. For them, knowing the “truth” of Santa never put a damper on those things.

It also failed to strip Christmas of it’s “magic.” While I have issues with the term “magic” being used to describe Christmas (a post for another time), for my family the predominant images and focus of Christmas is Jesus. My parents raised four kids with a “belief” in Santa but the real prize Christmas morning, was being the kid chosen by my dad to make sure that Baby Jesus was in the manger and it was truly Christmas. My dad never failed to be amazed when whomever was chosen walked past the Christmas tree (that Santa had added tinsel and candy canes to during his visit), past the presents and the stockings to the creche and then delightedly turned and ran back to the stairs where the other three waited with our mom to announce, “He’s here! Jesus is in the manger!” My parents did “Santa” right by ensuring Jesus was the central focus of the season.

That centrality is what informed making Christmas even more special for my kids. We aren’t just exchanging presents, we’re recalling the presents the Three Kings brought to the baby Jesus. We aren’t just tearing open stockings, we recall the generosity of St Nicholas of Myra.

Ah…St Nicholas. Remember him? He was the bishop of  Myra in what is modern-day Turkey. He paid the dowries of three young women whose father’s solution to not being able to afford them was to hire them out as prostitutes. Legend also tells us that Saint Nicholas dropped money and possibly fruit (I’ve heard a version a couple of times that mentions dates and oranges) down the chimneys of poor familys where they landed in the stockings drying over the fire. Does any of that sound familiar? (He also punched a heretic in the face, but I don’t tell my boys that lest they equate that story with justification!)

There is a very heated debate about St Nicholas vs Santa Claus. I’ve met online and in person many the Catholic family who exclude the real St Nicholas for fear of diminishing “belief” in Santa Claus. I find this ludicrous. Sorry, but I do. You don’t need to celebrate St Nicholas Day (as our family does putting our shoes out for a very small treat) to let your children know about the real man. You also don’t have to play him down. In fact, most children are much older before they start connecting the dots. I certainly was.

This year, it’s a delicate subject for me as I am teaching faith formation to third graders. I have no idea what level of “belief” any of these kids has. And more importantly, how heavily invested their parents are in their “belief.” Regardless, I’ve been teaching the Communion of Saints and feast days and solemnities from day one and as such am not going to stop now, but I plan to simply talk about generosity with St Nicholas and tell the story of the stockings without connecting it at all to present day tradition. I am hopeful this will walk the line of truth to the real man while respecting the views of parents in individual families.

Third grade is on the cusp of many kids “figuring it out.” As it were. Since my kids are this age, I am keenly aware of that fact. My mother remembers figuring it out about that age. Jeff’s step-mother said she remembers Santa bringing clothes for her doll and she recognized the fabric as being in her mother’s sewing materials. She was about the same age as my students. My mom said one of the things that tipped her off even in Catholic school for much of her childhood was less fortunate children not getting much or anything.

Saint Paul says:

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11

It’s a hard fact of parenthood that our kids grow up. And while I’m not going to tell my faith formation students that Santa isn’t real and my children are forbidden to burst another’s bubble…kids do in time figure it out. And yes, it’s a little bit sad that they are growing up and that little bits of innocence are gone but that’s life and we don’t get to keep them little forever.

A commenter on Danielle’s article above made this observation:

One thing that bothers me is that some parents I know as kids get older, like 8, 9 and 10 and figure it out and ask questions their parents still do not come out and tell them the truth. They have to weave some pretty elaborate lies to keep their kids believing. I feel like the magic is more important for the parent that [sic] the child in these cases. I wonder if the older kids who have really been duped for too long do feel betrayed.

I don’t believe that all children brought up believing in Santa will feel betrayed or question their faith. I didn’t. However, it certainly is possible and I have met adults (Catholic and otherwise) who did one or both of those things. And the situation the commenter above describes could certainly potentially lead to some mistrust on the part of the child. My mom remembers a friend’s parents who got on the roof and stamped “like reindeer” to keep the belief going past the expiration date. If what you’re doing sounds crazy and possibly physically dangerous…it probably is. If a child asks, in this case, honesty is probably going to be the best policy. If you are worried about younger siblings or other children being told, you can always tell them, “it’s fun for your little brother (sister etc) to believe in Santa still like it was for you at that age, so we shouldn’t announce this information to them just yet. And if they ask you, you can always tell them to come talk to me (or in the case of a friend, their parent) about it.”

At the end of the day, whether Santa or Saint Nicholas, Jesus is the reason for this season. As long as that’s where you fall, you’re good! If you need proof check out this amazing encounter between Jenny Uebbing of Mama Needs Coffee’s son and a library Santa.

We happened upon the jolly old elf and his missus in a lobby adjoining our favorite library over the weekend and he had real glitter in his realbeard and he told my kids that “every time a bell rings (shook silver sleigh bell at that point for emphasis) an angel gets it’s wings.” My 5 year old then told him he was “filling baby Jesus’ manger with pieces of straw earned for good deeds, so his bed would be soft and cozy” at which point Santa got teary eyed and leaned in real close and told my kids,

“He’s the reason I come, you know.”

Whatever is best for your family this season, is best for your family. It doesn’t matter what I or any other blogger or even your family members do…if it works in your house, it works as long as Jesus is there! We can be respectful of others’ traditions but that doesn’t mean we have to give up or undermine our own!

Links to learn about the Real Saint Nicholas:

St Nicholas Center

St Nicholas Profile on Catholic Online

Links from other Catholics who “do Santa”


Michelle Arnold of Catholic Answers

Now Catholic, Leah Libresco was once an atheist and wrote this post during that time about Santa and lying to children. She points out some valid things about how religion as a cultural practice can be very dangerous and at the time she published it, I linked to it and her response was this post was more geared toward parents and families who attended church not out of belief but cultural norms. I have seen the dangers of that phenomenon first hand, so I find this read very informative. I am not including it to attack anyone but simply to advise to potential pitfalls! (Bonus: Jennifer Fulwiler comments on that post.)

Updated to add this:

this is David Sedaris’ hilarious experience describing the cultural icon the Easter Bunny to a class in France. NSFW or kids due to a bleeped out expletive at the very end. It has a poignant part about faith and belief, which I believe fits nicely into the idea that many families can be good Catholics AND do Santa!