Asking For A Friend
Full disclosure: Santa Claus was a part of my childhood experience.
I always thought that our family celebrated Advent and Christmas quite fittingly. We would light the next candle, inaugurating the new week in Advent each Sunday evening. The crèche would make an appearance, slowly coming into focus as the Wise Men approached and the shepherds began to gather. Even throughout the season of Advent, my mother would have cut up pieces of brown and yellow yarn, and whenever we did a good deed, we could place a piece of yarn in the manger so that Jesus would have somewhere to lay his head. I remember fondly in the final week of Advent, my parents chiding us, “The manger is looking pretty bare and hard.” It was a nice way to learn patience and preparation, hallmarks of the Advent season. On Christmas morning, we would place Jesus Christ in the manger and say a prayer in thanksgiving for the gift of the Incarnation.
But we also believed in Santa Claus, at least until the notion of flying deer became a little too farfetched. Why teach it at all, though? Some examples that are usually cited include helping to convey a sense of wonder or offering a good example of kindness and generosity. Certainly, celebrating and teaching about the real St. Nicholas is important, but to a child, the prospect of an individual being able to span the globe in a single evening bringing gifts to children, rich and poor, is admittedly a far more marvelous example than most anything else.
Those who criticize the practice argue that, at its base, Santa Claus is just a clear example of lying to children. Recall that parents have “the first responsibility for the education of their children” (CCC 2223), and that especially means in passing along the faith. Why distract from the real meaning of Christmas — the birth of Jesus Christ — by introducing a fantastical character like Santa Claus? Or are we just bypassing the crèche on the way to “visit” Santa at the mall?
These are good questions. I think for many people, there is not a deep consideration; if their family had Santa growing up, so will their children. The only exception I have seen to this is when the “reveal” about Santa’s veracity was actually so damaging as a child that I know parents who do not want to pass that experience on to their children.
If we reduce the question to its simplest form: Does teaching about Santa Claus truly detract from the coming of Christ? I remember when I was studying Italian in Siena, I was introduced to another cultural tradition known as Il Palio. The Palio is a horse race held twice a year in July and August in honor of the Blessed Mother. The weeks leading up to the races include pageantry and neighborhood meals and culminate in two, short and raucous races in the Piazza del Campo of Siena. While the origin of these races is Marian in devotion, witnessing it firsthand I was dissatisfied with how much emphasis had been placed on the race and how much less emphasis had been placed on honoring the Blessed Mother. One could ask, as my host family had, was the event even Catholic anymore? What had begun as a religious event had so obviously become secularized over the centuries.
Speaking to my language tutor about this divide, she shared how her own family managed the tension between the obviously secular festivities and the celebration of Our Lady. They prayed novenas in anticipation of each feast and made a point of attending the Mass held at the cathedral on those days. Furthermore, the race became an opportunity for them to convey to their children the rich Catholic heritage of Siena. No matter who was the victor, they nonetheless would join the crowds in the parade to the church to sing songs of praise to the Blessed Mother. It remained for them a beautiful opportunity to pass along the faith and cultivate a devotion to the Mother of Christ.
I would contend that a similar disposition should be maintained here in America and our cultural practices. The Church will never give us an official pronouncement on Santa Claus, but what I do think is important is honestly assessing the place that this tradition has in our home. Is there more eager expectation for the arrival of Santa Claus and the gifts that he will bring, or is it merely part of the background experience, instead allowing the coming of Christ to reign as the preeminent cause of our joy? Whether your family does subscribe to Santa Claus or not, it is important that the other traditions the Church employs remain at the heart of our Advent experience of preparation. The Advent wreath, the crèche and the anticipation of Christ needs to be the most significant part of our experience of patient preparation so that, should even Santa Claus come to our home, the joy at his arrival plays a distant second to the real reason for our joy, Jesus Christ, the King of Kings.