Here is my standard disclaimer about all things parenting related: I merely share what works for me, resonates with me, and interests me. Talking about what works for me is by no means a judgment about what works for other people, unless what works for you is abuse.
Trying to figure out how to celebrate Christmas with your own kids is fraught territory, especially in the age of Pinterest and Instagram. This is especially true for people of faith who are concerned about the commercialization of our celebration of the birth of Jesus. I find myself smack in the middle of tension between my desire for a meaningful time that reminds my family of who Jesus was and why he was born an also the traditional, but rather irreligious, magic of Santa and reindeer.
While we incorporate an observation of the liturgical season of Advent, a Jesse tree, and making sure to give back to others, I didn’t want to wholly ditch Santa and have my kiddos be the ones informing all their elementary school classmates that the man in the sleigh is a lie. I wanted to find a balance somewhere in between, one that involved celebrating Santa as an embodiment of God’s love and generosity to us, without actively lying to my kids or using Santa to manipulate their behavior.
I am also, admittedly, kind of freaked out by the Elf on a Shelf. I read enough crit theory in my English MA program to feel that the whole thing is rather Foucaultian, a panopticon for children. My general parenting approach is not to coerce good behavior out of my children through a surveillance state or through bribery or threats. I have largely been a student of the “peaceful parent” school, though I admit I have always yelled more than I want to. I think my kids behave best when they feel we are in a warm, loving, and cooperative partnership to have our best days together, and when missteps and misbehavior happen, it is a time for emotion coaching and learning. I just can’t find it in me to be all “SANTA IS WATCHING YOU” in order to get them to behave.
But kids absorb things in our culture, and this week, my kids have been asking me, “Mom, is there such thing as a naughty list?” As I pondered my answer, and clarified my “theology of Santa,” I decided this might be worth firing up ye olde blog and writing about.
My answer is this: there is no naughty list.
First of all: why does Santa give presents at Christmas? Why do any of us give presents at Christmas? Santa gives because Santa (a real man and saint!) loved Jesus very much, and wanted to share that love for others. Just like God freely gives not just the gift of Jesus to the world, but all good things to all people, Santa has a spirit of love and generosity and gives to share the love of God with the world. We, and Santa, give gifts at Christmas because we believe Jesus was a great gift to the world, and because we believe God is a generous giver of gifts.
And if Santa gives and loves like God gives and loves, how does God love? The God I know gives and loves unconditionally. There is nothing you can do to earn or un-earn the love and generosity of God. God lavishes love and gifts on us because of who God is, not who or how we are. Would it make sense for a Santa who gives in the spirit of God’s unconditional love to be doing it conditionally? If I believe in a God who does not keep a record of my wrongs but pours out forgiveness, then how could I teach my children about a Santa who keeps a naughty list?
I never want my kids to doubt for a minute that they are worthy of love and acceptance and belonging. People who believe they are loved and accepted act in loving ways toward others. People who think they are constantly working against a cosmic balance sheet of naughty or nice live in fear and strive to prove their worthiness.
Santa is pretend. A fun myth. Good fun. But the stories we tell and the myths we share shape the way we see the world, Christmas, and God. On Christmas morning Santa will fill my kids’ stockings (in our house, Santa only does the stockings) because he is sharing the love of God with them, a love that in turn should inspire us to love and give to others.