As Christmas is around the corner, several of my FB friends began sharing a link to this post (from last year) by William Lane Craig, in which he says many sensible things. Viz.,
On the one hand, the replacement of Jesus Christ at Christmas by Santa Claus is a sacrilege. Santa Claus is obviously a sort of God-surrogate: an all-seeing person endowed with miraculous powers, who’s making a list and checking it twice in order to find out if you’ve been naughty or nice. “He knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good, for goodness’ sake!” But never fear: Santa Claus is a kindly old man with a long white beard who never judges that someone has been bad. No matter what you’ve done, he thinks you’re good and delivers the presents. Such a caricature of God is so perverse that one wonders how Christian parents could possibly allow their children to believe in such a being. Christmas, as the word suggests, is supposed to be about Christ, not about this imposter.
On the other hand, who wants to be an old Scrooge, spoiling all the fun and dampening the festiveness of Christmas? Poems like “The Night before Christmas” are so much fun to read to your children. Isn’t there some way to reach an accommodation?
I think there is. Saint Nicholas was a historical figure, an early church bishop. We can teach our children about who he was and explain how people like to make-believe that he comes and brings children presents today at Christmas time. Children love to make-believe, and so you can invite them to join in this game of make-believe with you. When you see a Santa at the shopping mall, say, “Look, there’s a man dressed up like Saint Nicholas! People pretend that he is Saint Nicholas. Would you like to tell him what you want for Christmas?”
I strongly believe that Christian parents should not lie to their children about the existence of a supernatural, all-knowing being who is watching them and holding them morally accountable. Once they find out that you have lied to them about Santa’s existence, how can doubts not also arise that you have been wrong as well in telling them that God exists? Maybe the whole Christmas story is a myth which thinking adults should outgrow. In fact, I’ve heard ignorant atheists actually comparing God to Santa Claus and saying that there is no more evidence of God’s existence than Santa’s. In lying to your children about Santa Claus, you may be setting them up for fall.
Hey, WLC agrees with me! (That means he must be right, right?)
Back in 2009 I inaugurated what was possibly our longest comment thread evah by saying the same thing. Like Dr. Craig, I am not saying that you shouldn't enjoy playing make-believe with your kids, even about Santa Claus. What I am saying is that there is a sharp and bright line (yes, really, there is) between playing make-believe in a way that kids know is make-believe and actually attempting to convince them that something is true. If you know that what you are saying is not true, the latter is deception and (if it involves verbal assertion) lying.
For some reason, when it comes to Santa Claus, everyone loses their mind on this. If it were some other issue, perhaps this wouldn't happen. If, for example, I said that there is a sharp distinction between a family joke that the postman, Mr. Jones, is Superman and a serious attempt to convince my five-year-old that Mr. Jones is really superman, I would think that there would be no trouble seeing the distinction. There would also be no trouble (I would think) seeing that this is a not-so-good thing to do to my five-year-old, even if I plan on gradually helping him to figure out over the next five years that Mr. Jones isn't really Superman. Kind of a creepy game: First you try to convince Junior of something that isn't true, then you go through this long, delicate process of gently helping him to figure out that you lied to him in the first place. Weird. Why do that?
But when it comes to Santa, this weirdness is taken to be incredibly charming, and plain distinctions between obvious make-believe and deception become impossible for even smart people to make.
By way of stirring the pot this Advent season, here's a link to my original entry and some quotes therefrom.
Consider what it means to teach a young child to believe that Santa Claus is real. You are teaching the child that a person exists who is benevolent and has super-powers, who can do incredible things, who sees his actions while remaining unseen, who rewards good acts, and with whom (if you encourage letter-writing to Santa) the child can communicate.
If you're a Christian parent, you are very likely teaching the child at the same time in his life and at the same stage in his development to believe in God--a powerful and benevolent Being who sees his actions while remaining unseen, who rewards good actions and punishes evil actions, and with whom the child can communicate by praying. In fact, you encourage him to pray to this Unseen Being.
To induce belief in your child in both of these teachings, you are relying on the fact that children naturally believe what their parents tell them.
But one is an unimportant falsehood and the other is the ultimately important Truth.
Belief in Santa Claus is temporary. Eventually kids figure out that Mom and Dad have been telling them a white lie and that the causes of the presents on Christmas morning are mundane. ... [I]t isn't that much of a stretch for the astute child to wonder whether the other story about an invisible, benevolent Being who is the cause of all things, seen and unseen, has also been a white lie and whether the causes of all the things previously attributed to Him are, instead, mundane.
Atheists trade on this. I'm sure my astute readers could find dozens of examples of atheist rants to very much the "when I became a man, I put away childish things" effect. And this trope can be very effective for older young people as well. A Christian high school or college student will no doubt at some point encounter the following line of thought: "Why do you believe in God? Because your parents told you that He exists, right? But you believed in Santa Claus on the same basis. If you'd been raised in another culture, you would believe a different religion, and they can't all be true. At some point you have to start thinking for yourself. Just as it turned out that Santa Claus doesn't exist, so, you'll find, it turns out that God doesn't exist either. You're old enough to figure this out for yourself."
Very few teenagers or young adults like to contemplate the picture of themselves as cute, naive little children. Sometimes they don't even want to remember that they once were cute, naive little children. It is probably a fault in the age, but it's a widespread one. They want to distance themselves from anything remotely resembling wide-eyed pre-school-hood. It's embarrassing to think that they used to believe this or that crazy thing, that some older brother took them in with a tall tale...or that Mom and Dad did.
And if they come to believe that God does not exist, that would-be superiority will be turned against Christianity, too. "When I became a man, I put away childish things." Deconverts are some of the hardest to get back.
So if you want to "tell" your kids about Santa Claus, I suggest you just make it a fun pretend thing you share together, making it clear that it's a joke.