Christmas theology

With only a few days left before Christmas there is little time to get those last-minute gifts, and parents are caught between anticipation and anxiety. Not only do parents have to worry about spending too much or too little; they also are overwhelmed with keeping alive the many myths and traditions that make this season so magical for the children. 

There comes a time when the myths take on ridiculous proportions, turning what should be cute into something bordering on terrifying, as in an elf on the shelf that flies back to Santa every night to report on the children’s behavior. The ad for the Elf on the Shelf sets the stage for a very traumatizing concept: “The elf is actually alive and moves around when you’re not looking. He’s watching you and you never know where he will turn up next. And if he sees you doing something wrong he reports directly back to Santa.” 

Myths are not a bad thing, in fact they are how young children access the world of ineffable mystery. James Fowler brought to light the various stages of faith development in his seminal study reported in “Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian.” 

“The preschool child who has access to the symbols, stories and shared Liturgical life of a religious tradition awakens to an expanded horizon of meanings,” he wrote. The morphing of the Santa Claus story with the image we have of God is a common perception that pervades our early stages of faith. Santa Claus is a good and kind grandfather-figure that judges our actions and rewards good behavior with gifts. Santa icons can be seen throughout the season, but every child knows that the real thing resides in some mystical place that we never get to visit until we have attained the lofty status of parenthood. This image fits in nicely with a child’s early concept of God. 

Myths and stories can be misused, however, as when a child is told threatening tales of devils and goblins waiting to steal them away for bad behavior. It can also be harmful to a child if their natural movement through the stages of faith is interrupted by too much harsh reality.

Many years ago a friend told me that she had to tell her eight-year-old son the truth about Santa Claus because he was too smart to continue to believe the myth. The boy burst into tears when he heard the news, looked into his mother’s eyes and asked, “But is the Easter Bunny true?” Thirty years later this boy became a man who no longer takes part in the religion of his youth; turning instead to that which is tangible and verifiable. The unfortunate morphing of the two images was broken at a critical time in his faith journey.

Fowler’s study led him to conclude that “we are creatures who live by faith.” Parents should keep this in mind as they accompany their children through their intuitive-projective stage of faith that is so “open to a world of reality beyond, around, and penetrating the everyday.” The symbols of our faith are powerful ways in which children learn Who God is, and certainly Who God is not. Their strong sense of fairness based on reciprocity, can readily be elevated to a cosmic understanding of reward for doing good or punishment for doing bad. Creating scenarios in which good behavior is rewarded with material goods distorts the reality of God’s love.

Let us not throw away the Santa myth, but rather let us place it into its proper perspective. St. Nicholas of Myra, the fourth-century saint from whom the Santa Claus legend was formed, was known for his generosity toward the poor. He lived during an era of persecution and was saved from prison when Constantine accepted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. In European countries the feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated on its own, and in much the same way we do Christmas. Separating the feasts helps to teach children about how St. Nicholas was unconditionally generous toward those he loved, and those who did not have enough. Christmas could then be revered as the feast of the birth of the baby Savior. We may have to work harder at separating the competing narratives, but it can be done. 

In these remaining days before Christmas we can still redeem the feast and commemorate Santa Claus for the special deeds he did that earned his sainthood. Remind the children that gifts are given because they are loved, not because they are good. This properly centers their beliefs on our understanding of God’s gratuitous grace.

Show children the generosity of giving to those in need that is so much a part of our Catholic culture. Teach the children that we do nice things for others because it is right, not because it will gain some material reward. And if we must demystify Santa Claus, tell them that we have been filled with the spirit of St. Nicholas and will do as he did as our way of honoring the Baby Whose feast we celebrate. Merry Christmas!

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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