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.
As the Church year begins with December, so does this calendar. You get December 2018 through December 2019, thirteen months. Available for purchase here. Thanks!
Coupon codes are available from the publisher here.
Thanks for this, it helps! I was raised Protestant and there was NO Santa in our house (also, no other saints either). I'm (God-willing) going to have our first child soon and really want to navigate these Catholic traditions well.
That's pretty much how we do it too. No one has crossed over to the St. Nicholas helper phase but this might be the year.
I grew up celebrating St. Nicholas day and continue the tradition with my own kids, giving it a Catholic twist. My kids leave their shoes out for St. Nick on 12-5 with their Santa/St. Nick letters. In addition to the treats they find in their shoes on 12-6 (Christmas PJ's, an ornament & a Christmas or other religious book & Chocolate coins) my kids receive a letter from St. Nicholas pointing to Christ as the center of the advent & Christmas seasons.
We do Cookies & milk (or beer…that's what the kids think Santa wants) on Christmas Eve and Santa/St. Nick gifts on Christmas, but Jesus is the focus of our Christmas celebration.
Santa likes a beer sometimes around here too! And at our house, St. nicholas leaves the kids a letter like that for Christmas morning.
Kendra, while I appreciate that you're happy with the balance you feel you've struck for your family, I am entirely VEXED that your whole platform is "liturgical living" and yet you are blissfully, publicly marring those lines and encouraging other faithful Catholics to do likewise.
St. Nicholas' feast day is December 6th. The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord is December 25th. The two should be completely separate. But while you're "confident that it's a(n) historically Catholic approach," to mingling them, I would contend that out of the over 2000 years of Christian history, only since 1823 (194 years ago), when "A Visit from St. Nicholas/'Twas the Night Before Christmas" was published have the two been confused.
Furthermore, when you claim that the only things you insist that your children believe to be true are the dogmas of the faith, I question that. What about Tradition, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Natural Law? There are plenty of things that we want our children to believe as true, i.e. that marriage is for one man and one woman, that aren't dogmatic teachings of the Church.
While I generally enjoy your blog and appreciate your enthusiasm for encouraging others to celebrate the Liturgical Year with zeal, I think you are way off here. If you want to "do Santa" on Christmas at your house, great. But don't encourage others to do so by passing it off as "liturgical living" (and then justifying it with the dogma bologna). You're purely going along with the culture and incorporating it into your family's celebration.
I appreciate that we both have strong feelings about this! And, really, this post isn't intended to change the minds of people who already have strong feelings about the way they do Christmas. It sounds like you are happy with the way you're handling it, so you should keep on keepin' on. However, for people who'd like to do Santa, but have been told by others that it would be wrong as Catholics to do so, I want to share that WE do it and enjoy it and think it's right.
What I mean about this being a historically Catholic approach, is that Catholics have a long history of finding good secular traditions and allowing them to coexist alongside the more important religious traditions of the Church. Secular Christmas traditions focused on family togetherness, thoughtful giving, cozy fires, shared meals, etc. . . those are all GOOD. There is no reason for Catholics to set ourselves apart from those things. We can find the good in our culture and in our neighborhoods and extended families and we can embrace it, and through that, we can lead others to the fullness of the Truth.
And, of course, we agree about Tradition and the Catechism. The language I used there was a bit too strong. 🙂
Our approach is based on the fact that I think it's important that my kids learn to discern what is good and beautiful around them and be accepting of that, and to see what is immoral and wrong in the culture and reject it.
Additionally, I take issue with the claim that you're not lying to your kids.
From the Catechism:
2464 The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others.
2465 The Old Testament attests that God is the source of all truth. His Word is truth. His Law is truth. His "faithfulness endures to all generations."255 Since God is "true," the members of his people are called to live in the truth.256
Lying by omission, otherwise known as exclusionary detailing, is lying by either omitting certain facts or by failing to correct a misconception.
Just because you don't verbalize to your kids, "The Jolly Fat Man and his reindeer will land on our roof and come down the chimney, and that's a fact!" doesn't mean you're not lying.
Just because you don't tell your kids, "Santa bought this present for you and delivered it with his own hands" doesn't mean you're not lying.
And by giving your kids the impression that you're "trying to figure this all out" just the same as they are is definitely lying.
Let's be real. You're lying with your actions and also by omitting the truth. (And you're doing it purposely to deceive them!) How you can claim otherwise is incredible.
I think that really, you just want to have the fun and ease of going along with the culture, and are attempting to justify the practices you've put in place to that end.
First, if I may, I'd like to point to my comment rules below. Please refrain from telling me what I really mean or want to do. I'll tell you what I mean, you tell me what you mean. That works better.
As for lying. Again, I think this is a case when it's better to avoid a scrupulous and rigid interpretation of the guidelines of the Church. The intent of Santa gifts is not to deceive. The intent is to delight.
I avoid lying. I teach my kids how critically important truth is. But I'm a mom and I also let my kids beat me at board games, which is a kind dishonesty. I tell them that such a good boy as they are would NEVER behave that way, which is something I HOPE will become more true. My husband tells me I look beautiful in that dress even when I just had a baby and probably don't quite.
This is a topic upon which good Catholics are allowed to disagree. I won't insist that you do Santa if it isn't something that feels right to you. But I hope you won't lob insults and accusations at others who do. There is a difference between big stuff and little stuff. There are things that are truly important and worth sacrificng for, worth literally dying for. But I would be concerned that by claiming to my kids that ALL things are THE most important thing, they'd just decide that none of it is.
Kendra I have missed your refreshing pragmatism and common sense this past year while the rest of the world has been anything but sensible! So thank you 🙂
I grew up with Santa in my home and have been saddened in my adult years when I've heard friends say finding out Santa wasn't "real" created some kind of crisis of faith. For me, Santa represents all that is good, generous, magical, and wonderous about the religious life. In many ways, the wonder and awe and joy I felt when anticipating Santa's gifts as a child became the wonder and awe and joy I feel when contemplating Christ's much greater and more miraculous gifts. Santa is a beautiful type of Christ. As a young mom, it has been hard to figure out just how to pass on those feelings to my kids, so thanks for passing on your experience and encouragement!
I apologize Karen. It really wasn’t my intention to be insulting.
So glad you are back to blogging!
I think some of your commenters have some emotional issues to work on. Their “not so” passive aggressive remarks are inappropriate.
Kendra, your post is great. Your kids seem to understand what you're trying to convey and it's working well for your family. Some of the comments were over the top uber sensitive.
I really appreciate your two additional points this year. Being lied to about Santa, etc., by my parents absolutely ruined my ability to trust them about spiritual matters. But… there wasn't enough good catechesis going on about what *is* true and how to tell the difference. There was only a little observation of the rest of the liturgical year, too, not an incorporation of traditions about many saints.
From a study on the eighth commandment in a Thomistic (i.e., logical and clear and awesome!) perspective, lying is 100% forbidden. It's the Eighth Commandment, after all, not the eighth general guideline. But just as not all killing is murder and not all taking is theft, by no means whatsoever are all things short of bald, literal, full disclosure lies in the context of moral theology. So it's one thing to tell your kids good stories about Santa Claus/St. Nicholas and allow them to imagine that maybe that's how gifts really do arrive. It would be another to tell my son that Santa literally lands on the roof via reindeer power, comes down the actual chimney at our house, and brings the presents he holds in his hands, making up elaborate explanations in response to his attempts to understand. Relatedly, social understandings that aren't literally accurate aren't lies in their contexts, so "You look perfect, dear" from a loved one; "He isn't in" from his secretary; fictional stories; etc. – it's *not* the case that these are some kind of acceptable lies but that they aren't lies in the first place, morally speaking, because they're commonly understood to be polite ways to mean things like "I love you" and "He's not going to see you now" that we often prefer to the literal wordings. We haven't found it difficult thus far to have good clean fun with it. We do shy away from things like faking letters from Santa (saints don't ordinarily send us personalized correspondence) and it looks like our kids will figure out the "secret" details earlier than is typical.
My older teen kids just thanked me this week for not doing Santa. My 3rd grader was just told by a friend that Santa wasn’t real and he already knew. I was told at the bus stop in 1st grade and I didn’t know. I have friends that do Santa and others that don’t. I’m glad we are each happy with our decision.
A few thoughts from someone with young children who is thinking about all of this.
First, I have no qualms about the lying thing, at least in the way you are talking about it. First, the definition of lying given by some protestors seems incredibly modern and materialistic. We say all kinds of things, to each other and to our children, from the linguistically inherited – that the sun “rises and sets” (does it literally “set down”? No. We know better. That’s only a way of talking about what we see.), that the stars “twinkle” (they only seem to twinkle to us, “really” (if scientific materialism is your primary source of “real”) they burn as gigantic balls of fire, no in/out twinkle there), or that the Leviathan in the Psalms was made by God. That’s true. I can’t explain it, really. – to the metaphorical sayings (“there was a TON of snow in our yard” – probably not a literal ton), to the allegorical (the Virgin Mary as the “star of the sea”, absolutely positively TRUE, but I charge you to go out to the sea and point to the star we talk about ). Let’s not become modernists with some some scrupulosity based on misunderstandings of language and the world inherited in a world that wants to reduce everything to rationalism.
Second, there’s something about pretend that is important with us and with children. My children bring me pieces of wood, blocks or other items that they have “cooked” for me to “eat” and I tell them it’s “delicious.” We “drive in cars” and I do not precede each time I say “We’re driving to Chicago!” or “I’ve packed my bag” with “I’m pretending that…”. You may say these are contexts where children clearly understand that we’re playing and playing pretend, and that is surely so, but my point is this: we do and talk about things all the time with children (sword fighting, playing school, play coking) – not to mention READING BOOKS AND TELLING STORIES – that just don’t have to have a constant caveat that we’re pretending. In fact, I think this is a great way to train your children in learning that only the things we can see/touch/feel are “real” rather than encouraging imagination, intellectual co-creation, that is a wonderful gift. Telling stories and legends and integrating them into life practices that teach these is, in my mind, a way of playing pretend. My children see kids getting on the bus out the window to go to school and pretend to do that in our house. We read stories about going to the dentist and we pretend dentist at home. I don’t say “we’re pretending, this is NOT real.” And I’m not lying. Likewise, we read stories about St. Nicholas giving gifts to children and we pretend St. Nicholas is giving gifts in their shoes overnight. Now, if/when they get old enough to start making differentiations between real/pretend and asking those questions I won’t lie to them. At this point, (1 and 3) that’s not what their life is like. I have NO problem, when asked, (and even now), explaining that giving gifts represents, in a minute infinitely small way the generosity of our Lord.
My sense is that some of the discomfort with this comes from two things, other than what is deeply ingrained in all of us (including myself) rationalistic materialism based in scientism that is really hard to escape. One is the real overshadowing of the Christ-Mass with the beautiful trimmings that make a real Catholic culture. That’s real, and we should spend more time worrying about saying our prayers and going to Mass, but if we do just that without at thick Catholic culture we’re missing out. The second thing is the Saint Nick thing. I really do want to, and find it important to, keep the feast of St. Nicholas separate from Christmas. But that’s me. I also explain to my 3 year old why we’ll still see St. Nick/Santa Claus around Christmas (not so good: confusion, good: associating St. Nicholas’ generosity with the infinite gift of Our Lord’s birth).
Third, there is disagreement within the Catholic tradition, even amongst the doctors, about the definition of lying. As alluded to above, St. Augustine and St. Thomas have some disagreements about the cases in which saying something that we know may not communicate the entire truth of the situation is lying. So see above about the lying context.
Just want to add some thoughts that may assist in the discussion.
I’m obviously really late to this party, but I’m on team “don’t tell your children something you know to be false” (unlike the saint stories where we don’t know what happened 100%, I do know that Santa has never rocked up at our house with presents on Christmas Eve and the guy at the mall is paid to be there). However! I still think we can have our cake and eat it.
So in our house, we know that Father Christmas is a story everyone knows and a game everyone plays, which is based on a real person (St Nicholas). We can do all the fun stuff without pretending it’s REAL but enjoying it all the same. It’s all a bit nudge nudge wink wink, but kids pretend ALL the time and I don’t think it’s any different to playing fairies or playing Harry Potter except that EVERYONE plays the Santa Claus game. (And one of the rules of the game is that you can’t mention that it’s a game. Which is true of a lot of children’s games!)