This Christmas my daughter asked the question many parents have to address sooner or later, “Is Santa real?” I took a breath. If I tell her, "No, he's just make believe," I could crush her and stunt her imagination before she even turns six. Besides, for kids if they can feel it or imagine it, it's as "real" as the nose on their faces, something as a writer I find easy to admire in kids. So it could be best just to go along with it. But if I say "Yes, he is," I could just be propagating the common Christmas heresy.
“Yes, he's real,” I said. “Does he know what I’m doing and what I’m thinking?” she asked. Apparently this had been on her mind after a few introductions to him at school and from the media. “No, he doesn’t know that,” I said.
Our natural impulse may be to disavow the roly poly man in a silly red suit who monopolizes the season. The festive figure streaking across the sky with reindeer, after all, is most likely inspired by a Norse god, not by the Christ of Christmas. And in North American tradition that formidable sleigh ride is really a guilt trip loaded with not only presents but also the expectations and conditions that come with them, which only make us depressed at Christmas rather than overjoyed at God’s unmerited grace.
But let’s take a deep breath before going off on Santa and banning him locks, stockings, and barrel chest. Aside from these pagan influences, Santa’s earliest roots are in a real life church bishop of long ago. That is, originally, he’s actually a real Christ-believing, historic figure.
Granted, your kids may not be too inspired by a history lesson on this point. Trying to demythologize a beloved icon in the heat of elated expectations we may find to be an exhausting battle we'd rather not get into. We might be better served bringing Santa down to earth rather than denying him any presence (pardon the pun) in Christmas at all. I’d like to suggest simply treating Santa as more human, like the rest of us, a joyful advocate of Christmas. I’m sure God has plenty of room in the stable for him, too.
In our bedtime stories he’s the same old happy, generous soul, but he gets hungry and tired and has problems like the rest of us. He’s limited. For instance, he can’t possibly make it to all the homes in one night, so he has lots of help. And (this is crucial) he’s always a notch below Mom and Dad. He never gets to steal our thunder. Mom and Dad’s names are always attached to the best gifts such as the doll house or scooter. Santa gives little cheap things. It’s the only way he can handle the whole world on his budget. He’s a welcome guest at our dinner table, our imaginary friend, a bit of an over-eater, but we all have our vices. He is also not allowed to steal Jesus' thunder. In one of our stories, Santa joins the family at our Christmas Eve service and learns about the true meaning of Christmas, quite taken by a self-giving God. So, Santa learns where the “spirit of giving” originates.
Isn’t this mash up of Christmas just weak-kneed compromise? Rather, I'd like to think I’m trying to make him more human. To others this version of Santa may rob our kids of some of the Christmas magic. Are we taking the wonder out of Christmas? Again, I don’t think so. Ask my daughter today if Santa is real, and she’ll flash you a big smile, “Definitely!”
Santa’s still a fantasy character in her mind, just a little more down to earth, a little less endowed with magical power, taking a little lower status in our Christmas. And once he is put in his place, it’s also much easier to get a proper grip on the commercialism that entangles this blessed season. And most importantly, when he’s in his place, the Christ of Christmas can take his proper place, leaving lots of room for “what Christmas is all about” as my daughter is fond of saying.