I spent today listening to my children sing at their School Christmas event. Two of my children stood quietly without singing during the performance out of protest and I could not not be prouder. I had not asked them to behave in this manner but I am sure the values we have taught them bore a heavy influence in how they perceived the program in which they were participating. In general I keep posts on this blog limited to non controversial scholarship but on this occasion I want to explore the American phenomenon of Santa Claus and lay out my own beliefs on the matter.
Many of my friends have often inquired of either myself or my family members as to why our family does not participate in the Santa Claus tradition. While we try to be kind to our neighbors who hold other opinions, we do not participate in movies or songs that focus primarily on Santa, nor do we keep his icons in our home. Our children are explicitly told that he is not real and we do not approve of his inclusion in Christmas. If asked to participate in Santa related activities they usually respond with something to the effect of “We don't believe in Santa Claus and would prefer to not participate in the rituals of his faith.” Yes, my six year old really talks that way.
My own feelings toward Santa began as a young teen. I was awake far too late and watching bad television. During the commercial break an advertisement came on for Playboy magazine. I was at an age where the magazine cover caught my undivided attention. The photo was of a young woman wearing only a Santa hat, posed in such a manner that it could be shown on network television but obviously intended to excite. The commercial noted this was its Christmas edition and was complete with festive music in the background as the announcer explained the great cost savings of a subscription. I was coyly urged to ask Santa to leave this gift in my stocking. This amazed me. I felt guilty for having watched the commercial with such attention. Pornography was something I considered evil and had struggled hard to avoid. How could such a vile thing be associated with the celebration of Christ? How could this commercial not induce feelings of shame in the customers as they mentioned a sacred holiday. Surely placing the label of “Christmas” on such a product would remind potential buyers of the very reason why such a choice was wrong. Then in a moment of clarity I realized they had completely removed Christ from the holiday and replaced him with Santa Claus. Santa was a figure that bestowed great gifts in the form of temporal goods and focused on fulfillment of base desires without attaching any requirement of true morality.
As the years passed and I grew older, I observed in more detail the effect that Santa Claus had on our culture and the celebration of Christmas. I observed with increasing frequency children who when asked the meaning of Christmas could name nothing beyond the coming of Santa Claus. I attended a ward Christmas party which had little mention of the Christmas story and bored children awaited the moment where Santa Claus would come. It was obvious that little else in the party had a lasting impression on these young minds. Santa and his bag of toys was overshadowing the story of our Messiah and his atonement.
I listened more closely to the various hymns offered by those who followed the Santa tradition. “He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good. So be good for goodness sake.” Santa was given all the trappings of a deity. He has an all seeing eye and is set up to be your judge. The additional traditions surrounding him followed a similar pattern. He was able to travel without limits of time and space. He had great age and was not subject to death. He inscribed the names of the righteous in a list obviously borrowed from the concept of the Book of Life. He hails from the lands of the North, a traditional home of the gods and the cosmic mountain. He is given supernatural “magic” powers, occasionally attributed with miracles and families frequently keep icons of him in prominent locations. While there is a pretense at “being good”, all are invariably rewarded with copious gifts. The threat of “coal” is an empty one. This behavior seems to cast Santa in the same category of other false gods, approving unconditionally the behavior of its maker and providing a sham religion to pursue lusts. Thus, unlike Christ, we can have a Santa that approves of pornography, gambling, smoking, drinking or any other vice. Unencumbered by scripture or commandments, he remains a pliable figure to be molded into any form.
The prophets of old have warned ancient peoples of setting up gods of their own creation. These gods were popular and appealing precisely because they could be controlled to teach only those doctrines their makers approved.
18 What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols?
19 Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach! Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in the midst of it.
It may be justly asked how we arrived at this state of affairs and how wide spread the observance of the Santa tradition is. There is good news on this front. Santa is not nearly so old or ingrained in our culture as some might suspect.
The modern Santa image has a lengthy heritage going back to several old traditions and I will not attempt to document them in depth here. Most people know about the connection to the ancient fourth century Saint Nicholas from which his name derives. This old Saint was among other things the patron saint of prostitutes, having once saved some young women from that fate through a generous gift of a dowry. He also was a patron saint of children because according to a late story he resurrected some children that had been chopped up and were being sold as pickled ham. Beyond this very loose connection there is no real similarity between the Greek bishop of Myra and the modern myth. Instead a stronger sense of the origins seems to come from Odin (the father of Thor) who would ride out across the skies on his eight legged horse Sleipnir during Yule. He was known as a gift bringer who came from the north and had a long beard. In England from the 16th century onward he was turned to the figure of Father Christmas who was an oversized figure in a green or scarlet robe that represented good cheer. He was not associated with children but generally brought wine and revelry to adults where the rich typically held feasts for the poor on Christmas. This was the inspiration for Dickens character of the Ghost of Christmas Present. These loose traditions remained from pre-Christian and Catholic cultural past and swirled around Christmas in a minor form. Most historians agree however that they were not focused into a coherent single tradition until the publication of “A Visit from St. Nick” in 1823. From this point forward the main elements of the tradition had taken their form and children began to be encouraged to look forward to presents from this figure and believe in his ontological existence.
I want to be clear here that I have no objections to Santa's pagan origins. The holiday of Christmas itself is largely of pagan origin, combining Saturnalia with Yule. There is nothing wrong with this and I give a very short history only to form perspective. What matters is the present theological role of the mythology.
By the time of the civil war we have children awaiting Santa's arrival (and occasionally disappointed by him). Contrary to urban legend Coca Cola did not invent his red and white suit, though they had a large hand in increasing his popularity from the 1930's onward. At some early point in the tradition the mythology shifted from him bringing good cheer and occasionally gifts to poor children to simply bringing gifts to everyone. By the 1940's it was clear his function was primarily a tool for parents to shower their own children with gifts and any concept that the gifts were reserved for the poor was left behind (as were the poor generally). This continued with a steady march forward with increasing Santa advertising since he was “safe” from the more controversial subject of religion. As a popular marketing tool he was available for any product endorsement imaginable and his usage by cigarette companies, alcohol manufacturers, and casinos is well documented. While Santa is frequently found instructing us on the best soft drinks, candies, and tobacco products, it is rare thing indeed to find any depiction of him teaching about Christ. Even defenses of him as a “Christlike figure” are hard to sustain as there is little in his portrayed mythology that has any real connection with Christ's message of service, morality, caring for the poor or self sacrifice. Indeed his overwhelming tradition of consumerism and self indulgence would seem to place him in the role the Book of Mormon describes as Anti-Christ.
The good news of this is that Santa Claus is only a few generations old in our country. As a trend setter, America's involvement with him has filtered out to other English speaking parts of the world. He is however far from universal. Most children are not taught faith in Santa Claus even among Christian cultures. I do not see any reason to expect his observance to wane as it has only increased in intensity over the last several decades, but breaking with his tradition is possible and support can be found among many families that have removed him from Christmas (or never included him) especially outside the American culture. There is no reason to think he is an indispensable part of our tradition or heritage.
When I was a young missionary, I was annoyed when a companionship in my district had taken an image of Christ and superimposed a Santa Claus hat on him. I failed at first to persuade the elders that the image was disrespectful. We agreed to a simple test. We were about to attend the First Presidency Christmas Devotional and we agreed that if Santa Claus was mentioned even once in a positive way, they would leave it up. If not they would remove it. After the meeting they noticed a conspicuous avoidance of any mention of Santa Claus and a few pointed quotes about partaking in the good traditions of the season that left all of us speculating on which traditions they were thinking of as bad ones. While we still did not agree on the harm or benefit of Santa they at least agreed that the world needed more Christ at Christmas and they were there to advocate for him. Santa already had plenty of advocates and so the hat came off. I shared with them my concerns that Santa was being elevated to the status of a deity and that children would have difficulty learning that he was a lie and still maintaining faith that Christ was not another elaborate deception. I noted that the current letters to Santa were only a short step away from prayer and predicted that the day may come when we find children praying to Santa and that atheists may find this a “cute” way to maintain a tradition while eliminating God.
Years later, I was watching an exciting episode of one of my favorite TV shows, Doctor Who (series 5 Episode 1 “Eleventh Hour”). In this episode a new character is introduced who is a young girl, Amy Pond. In an moment of fear she prays to Santa Claus to send her a “doctor or a policeman”. My heart sunk a bit as I saw my predictions had come true. Having done some searches online I have not found any other examples of this behavior so I cannot say this has become a trend. Yet this is a very popular TV show in Britain and the US and this example will not likely be the last. Then about a year ago a young man in our ward, stood in fast and testimony meeting and bore a fervent testimony of Santa Claus. Again my heart sank. This young man was emotionally not mature and it is unlikely he has much faith developed yet beyond his childlike hopes but it was clear that his parents insistence on keeping the Santa tradition alive in his home had caused him to have confused feelings where he could not separate the two theologies. When he learns one was a deception, will the other be damaged?
Over the last decade or so as my children have interacted with other families and our beliefs have become apparent I have noted a variety of reactions. In some cases there is disbelief from adults who sometimes try to insist that my children must believe in Santa Claus. These conversations often take place outside of my presence. Occasionally, adults have made the children feel that there is something wrong with them if they do not believe or have suggested they must not really observe Christmas, showing an inability of even many adults to separate the Santa myth from the worship of Christ. I have found that school instructors who are ever so careful to edit Christ out of Christmas have no problem forcing my children to complete assignments that include writing letters to Santa or making images of him. They show bewilderment when I withdraw my children from a day of school where they watch Polar Express and get a visit from Santa. On the other hand I have found thoughtful people, mostly Latter-day Saints who also have rejected Santa to varying degrees. Some of these families have been church leaders including bishops of at least two wards. I have been grateful to attend church Christmas parties that did not include Santa as a result. These parties have been just as much fun as any other ward party and the children enjoy music and manger scene reenactments and holiday foods. Removing the visit from Santa prevents his overshadowing all the other aspects of the party.
My children now range from early teens to my little six year old. They have grown up understanding Christmas as a time of remembering the birth of Christ. They sing songs, go sledding, drink hot cocoa, give presents, trim the tree and decorate the house. They also know that some decorations are not acceptable and some songs are not welcome in our home. They do not have difficulty explaining the reason for the holiday, and while I am as guilty as many parents in overindulging them with gifts, they understand that the most important gift we give is our time and love. Each year we try to include several acts of service to others.
I acknowledge I have many friends who see this situation very differently. These are people of good will who see the Santa tradition as harmless and perhaps if it is kept in check it may be. I see it as a powerful tool to supplant the Savior from our lives and distract us with more secular values. It is my advice to rid yourself of the tradition for any small amount of good it might produce will be packaged with real risks.