This is the time of year I start getting emails and Facebook messages from parents who are trying to decide how to handle the cultural traditions surrounding Christmas, and how to balance them with their Catholic faith.
There is genuinely a lot of worry that they’ll get it wrong one way or another and drive their children away from the Church either by embracing the secular stuff too much or by eschewing it completely. The particular one I hear most often is the concern that when kids find out that Santa isn’t “real” (although he is, technically, real) they will think that God is also not real.
I’m nine kids and fifteen years into my parenting journey so far, and can finally say that I’m starting to see how some of our parenting choices are turning out. I am in NO WAY a perfect parent. Or a perfect Catholic. But in all honesty, I am really comfortable with the balance we’ve found in this area. I’m confident that it’s a historically Catholic approach.
In our family we do Santa, we don’t lie to our kids, they do not report feeling betrayed, they haven’t been denied a culturally-typical Christmas, and yet Santa doesn’t overshadow Jesus. We’re living the dream, people.
We do traditional American Christmas stuff like letters to Santa, and mall Santa photos, and milk and cookies out on Christmas Eve. Our little kids believe that Santa brings them presents. Our big kids don’t believe that.
St. Nicholas is a part of our Christmas but we have not found that he dominates it, or overshadows “the reason for the season” as they say. My kids have moved from Team Little Kid to Team Santa’s Helpers without any angst or trauma.
I’ve detailed in a previous post why I think it’s okay for Catholic kids to believe in Santa, and how we answer various questions Catholic kids might have about his whole deal. But as I was responding to emails the other night, I realized that in that post I don’t really mention the two big reasons I think our approach has been successful for our family. I think they explain how we can eat our cake and have it too, Santa-wise.
Quick aside here, I hope and pray that your kids and mine will bring a formed Catholic faith into adulthood, practice it their whole lives, and pass it on to their children and their children’s children. I know that it is possible that they won’t. I think it’s very unlikely that the determining factor in how that goes will turn out to have been how we handled Santa Claus.
So, whatever you do: Be not afraid.
Here’s how WE do it.
1. I don’t insist to my kids that anything is TRUE, unless it’s a dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church.
2. We practice liturgical living in the home all year long.
And, unlikely as it may seem, those two go hand in hand.
St. Nicholas isn’t the only saint my kids know and love. He’s not the only saint around whom we have fun and exciting traditions. He’s not the only saint we know who’s got crazy stories associated with him.
In our home, in Advent alone, we also talk about St. Ambrose, the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Loreto, St. Lucy, St. Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe, and St. John of the Cross.
We tell our kids the stories of . . .
How a swarm of bees settled on the face of the baby St. Ambrose, so his dad knew he would be a good speaker. (The obvious reaction to bees on your baby’s face.)
How Mary, from the very moment she was conceived in her mother’s womb, was free from sin. She was pre-redeemed by Christ and was free from original sin at her birth and from actual sin for her whole life.
How Mary’s home in Nazareth, when it was threatened with destruction during the Crusades, was picked up by four angels and flown to Loreto, Italy.
How Our Lady appeared to a humble peasant named Juan Diego and gave him an important job to do, and trusted him to do it even when he was pretty sure he couldn’t, and tried to avoid her. And how she gave him roses, growing out of season, and imprinted her image miraculously on his tilma.
How St. John of the Cross was kidnapped and imprisoned by his own fellow Carmelite priests, and composed long, beautiful poems on scrap pieces of paper, by a sliver of light in his cell, before he boldly escaped from his captors.
St. Nicholas is in the mix too, and there are all sorts of great stories about him giving in secret to the daughters of a needy widower, slapping a heretic across the face at the council of Nicea, and saving three naked little boys from being served up as meat by an evil butcher.
But only ONE of those feast day stories, the Immaculate Conception, is a defined dogma of the Catholic Church. If my kids and I profess to be Catholic, we must believe that story to be absolutely true.
All of the others, we Catholics are free to believe or not believe. There’s historical record in support of some of the stories, like St. John of the Cross and St. Nicholas at the council; there are alternate explanations for some of the stories, like that perhaps returning crusaders carried Our Lady’s home, stone by stone, to Loreto; there is physical evidence for some, like the fact that Juan Diego’s tilma, with the image of Our Lady, still exists and you can go look at it. Regardless of plausibility, we don’t HAVE to believe any of it. But these legends and stories are part of our Catholic cultural heritage. For thousands of years, Catholic parents have passed them along to their children as fun and inspiration.
The specific, exact point of all saint stories has always been to point to Jesus.
So, when talking about St. Nicholas, and all the saints all year long, I use words like “traditionally,” and “the stories say,” and “what I’ve heard is.” If they have a specific concern about a particular aspect of the story — flying reindeer, covering all that ground in one night, etc. — together we brainstorm possible explanations. But I always maintain that I’m trying to figure this out as much as they are.
This position comes in handy when discussing other aspects of the faith, like the Trinity and Transubstantiation.
And it means that once they’re old enough to be able to reason, they can be trusted to sort the True (the Resurrection) from the false (Santa brings their presents) from the rest (all the other amazing stories of miracles from the Bible and the lives of the saints). It also means they can appreciate that the story of the generosity of St. Nicholas the bishop, giving in secret to those in need, inspired their mom and dad to give in secret to them. And that they can in turn begin to give in secret to their younger siblings. It’s a beautiful thing.
Updated to add . . .
I read St. Thérèse’s autobiography over my retreat this weekend, and was excited to see this anecdote from her childhood:
“I knew that when we reached home after Midnight Mass I should find my shoes in the chimney-corner, filled with presents, just as when I was a little child, which proves that my sisters still treated me as a baby. Papa, too, liked to watch my enjoyment and hear my cries of delight at each fresh surprise that came from the magic shoes, and his pleasure added to mine.”
That’s the recollections of a saint, raised by saints, which has GOT to put to rest the whole “Santa is dangerous to Catholics” argument.
One less thing to worry about, everyone!
It features the all the feasts and fasts of the Universal Calendar and then some, illustrated with images featuring the traditional Catholic monthly devotions. It’s an easy visual way to bring liturgical living into your home. You can keep track of the feasts and fasts and seasons of the Catholic year, and be reminded to focus your prayer on a different aspect of our faith each month.