I thought long and hard about what I should call this post, because ultimately there are so many different views on Santa and whether we should teach our kids about him or not. I've read various blog posts from parents who believe it is wrong to "deceive" their kids, or that Santa personifies attributes that belong to God alone, and take away from the Spiritual Nature of Christmas itself. Equally, I've read blog posts from parents who believe it is a bit of harmless fun, and who enjoy the magic that believing in Santa brings to the family, regardless of what he stands for.
And there's one thing that all these posts have taught me, despite their many differences - it's important to know what he means to you personally, as that has a huge impact on how you discuss the idea with your kids. So I wanted to share with you my personal take on Santa and how we're approaching the idea with WB. I do this not because I think you should agree with what I say, but that by reading the thoughts of others you can sometimes develop your own ideas further.
What Santa means to me
Santa was a major part of my childhood and made Christmas a truly magical time of year. I fondly remember writing letters and making small thank you gifts for Santa and his crew, and desperately wishing I could meet Santa and help him with his special and incredibly important work every Christmas Eve.
I looked forward to Christmas for months, because that magic was so very real for me. In fact in my later childhood I'd listen to Christmas music all year round (driving my family crazy, no doubt!) and refused to stop believing in Santa until I was 10, even though deep down I knew the game was up. There was a part of me that just knew I didn't want to lose that belief, and to be honest Christmas has never been quite the same since.
That's not to say that giving up the belief of Santa has ruined Christmas for me, far from it. It's just that there is something truly special about bringing magic to life in the way we do for kids when it comes to Santa. Take, for instance, the many books and films about him, or the fact that parents encourage their kids to leave out a treat for Santa on Christmas Eve. When those around you act like Santa is real, it's hard not to believe in him. And whilst I know that it is what we do as adults that keeps that belief alive for children, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that we do this because there is an intrinsic nature within us to want to do so.
But why? Why do so many of us want to encourage our children to believe in something that ultimately they will one day discover is not real (at least in the sense of Santa being an actual person)? And why are some of us so terrified that doing so will ruin our children's relationship with God in some way?
I can't actually answer those questions for you. But for me the answer is that there is an inherent need within us to seek out that which we cannot touch with our bare hands. We spend so much of our lives seeking an understanding of and relationship with the Divine, and I believe that our childhood willingness to believe in Santa and our adult desire to enable that belief in our children comes back to this inherent need. We trust that there is more to life than what we can see, and Santa is a part of this.
And so I am hugely excited to see WB's belief in Santa blossom and grow year on year. I know there is only so much time in his life when he will have this ability to simply accept something without question. As we grow older we begin to complicate things with logic and reason, losing the magic in our efforts to "prove" something as true. And I think Santa also has a lot to teach us, as adults, about the nature of belief. That's what I call the "Spiritual Side of Santa".
The Spiritual Side of Santa
1. Santa teaches us what it is like to believe
A belief in Santa is a fantastic way of introducing kids to what it means to believe in something that you cannot prove exists, but which you know in your heart to be true. The same can be said about a belief in The Divine, whatever form that may take for you. Nobody has concrete proof for the existence of a God, and yet billions of people around the world believe in one, because in their hearts they know it to be true for them.
I am reminded here of the ending of the film, The Polar Express. Have you seen it? The main character spends the entire movie questioning the existence of Santa, because he has started to analyse facts and data which suggest it is impossible for Santa to exist and travel around the world in one night. Even as the boy travels on this magical train, meets a ghost, and sees Santa at the North Pole itself, he still finds he doesn't quite believe.
We do this so much in our own lives, don't we? When something happens that makes us question our faith, we look for quantifiable facts to cling to. But when, inevitably, things happen that we cannot explain with our science and logic (such as answers to prayers, gut feelings we cannot ignore, and synchronicities that seem impossible to have predicted) we continue to cling to facts and data, because choosing to believe feels like such a huge risk. We don't want to be fooled, and we certainly don't want to put our faith in something that might let us down. So we ignore even the clearest of signs of the Divine in our lives. Sometimes seeing isn't really believing...
But just like the Hero Boy in The Polar Express, there comes a time where we have to make a decision as to whether we want to continue in life ignoring those signs or whether a leap of faith is worth the reward it offers. At the end of the film, Hero Boy makes a decision to believe in Santa, and in the very moment that he makes that choice it all becomes real for him. He finally hears the ringing of the sleigh bells, and the film ends with the following words:
This is a great example of how our belief shapes what we experience, and draws on the use of myth, metaphor, and symbolism to express deep truths that are otherwise inaccessible to us. Our analytical minds get in the way so often, that we find ourselves needing to explain and justify everything. I always find it interesting when I come across an argument that states, "this can't be real because there is no proof for it," - we're so happy to accept a lack of proof as proof enough, that sometimes we forget the sheer beauty in believing because something feels right to us.
2. Santa is all about the giving.
What is the one thing that all children know about Santa? It's that he brings us presents. And whilst you may feel that this puts too much emphasis on the material side of giving, why not think about the fact that it is not so much the gift itself but the fact that a gift has been given?
Christmas falls right at the beginning of Winter, when the weather is becoming bitterly cold (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), and life can be quite tough. But at a time when bills are higher and life is harder, we still find the ability to gift each other with love.
The presents we give don't have to be huge - in fact, one of my favourite memories of Christmas as a child was spending my pocket money on small gifts at the local church bazaar, so I could wrap them up and give them to my family. My dad still carries around a lime green comb which cost me maybe 10p over 20 years ago!!
This is a tradition we're passing on to WB, who spent his own pocket money at the church's Christmas Fair this year buying gifts for family members. He was so proud to use the money he had saved up, counting it carefully before we went and choosing to take half of what he had saved for presents. Being able to buy little gifts with his own money gave him such a sense of joy, and the stall holders were so lovely, knocking prices down here and there to help his pennies go that little bit further so he could buy as many gifts as possible.
Talk to your kids about how special is it to give as well as to receive. Help them choose little gifts for family. Or let them help with wrapping presents, before putting them somewhere safe for Santa to find and deliver to family who live far away (then post them and leave a bit of glitter where the gifts once lay, spread that magic while it lasts!)
Or get your kids to donate outgrown clothes and toys, or buy food for your local food bank or night shelter, and tell them how what they're doing is just like Santa does on Christmas Eve -spreading love and joy through giving to others. How excited they will feel to be just like Santa!
After all, isn't the whole message of Christmas about receiving a gift of light and hope in the darkness? The Nativity Stories themselves talk about a gift from God; the Wise Men travel from afar to gift the baby Jesus; and the Shepherd Boy brings a lamb. The message is not about what we give (or receive), but that it is blessed to both give and receive. Two of our classic Christmas songs even relate to this very thing:
Whilst you may argue that this focus on giving can be expressed without a belief in Santa (and you are right!), my reply here is that Santa embodies the very nature of giving itself. The mythology we have built around this figure (which originates from the 4th century Greek bishop, St. Nicholas) brings together the very best things we wish to remember about the joy of giving.
Santa gives because he loves children, and their joy is enough thanks for him. He comes quietly in the night, because he needs no recognition for his work. And he brings each child a gift that is truly something they want or need, because it is more important for the receiver to be blessed than it is for Santa to give the easiest gift he could find. How often can we say that our own gift giving is as thoughtful and selfless as that? But it's what we all aim for, isn't it? And so we have built those ideals into the very nature of Santa himself.
3. Believing in Santa is an act of trust (and an experience of Unconditional Love)
Coming back to my first point slightly, not only does Santa teach us about belief, he also teaches us about trust! We trust that Santa will make it around the world in one single night to deliver all the presents to children everywhere. But more than that, we trust that he will know each and every one of us by name, and know what our hearts most desire. Isn't that exactly what we hope for in a loving God too?
"Now wait just a minute!" I hear some of you say, "you're attributing God's qualities to Santa!" Well yes, yes I am. But there is a reason for this, and I do not think it is blasphemous in any way. We do not worship Santa, we haven't made a "false God" out of him. What we have done is recognised that within the mythology of Santa there is a portrayal of the qualities we hope to find in the Divine. That is not the same as making Santa like God, rather we are looking at the ways in which Santa may reflect or embody a quality of God.
I know some of you will not agree with me on this one at all, and that's okay. I'm not asking you to accept all that I say as true, only that you consider what is true for you. For me this side of Santa is really important, because it teaches me what it is like to trust that I am known, I am loved, and that all will be okay. That lesson can come in many ways, from my interactions with the people around me, from learning about the Divine, and from believing in Santa.
In fact, Santa was probably my first real understanding of this concept, even if I didn't know that's what it was at the time when I still believed in him. Just as my faith and trust in my parents to keep me safe was seemingly unbreakable as a child, so too was my trust that Santa would come and that he did so because he loved me, not because I had done anything special to deserve it. Now tell me, what does that remind you of?
I must add here (thanks to a friend's input when I was explaining the idea for this post) that the part in bold only works if you let go of the "naughty or nice" aspect of Santa and focus purely on the inevitability of his bringing gifts no matter what. And I thoroughly accept that for many people this isn't the case - our traditional idea of Santa is that he has a naughty and nice list!
But where does that come from, I wonder? A part of me cannot help but make the connection between the traditional idea we have about God and the nature of Heaven and Hell, and that only when you do the "right things" and live in the "right way" can you truly know God and experience Heaven. I don't believe that truly reflects an unconditionally loving God, just as I don't believe the naughty and nice list reflects this aspect of Santa. But I do know that it is a very hard pattern to release, as it has been within our combined cultural psyche and traditions for such a very long time. Which is why I think this aspect of Santa can truly help us in our own relationship with God.
I'm not saying we can't learn this lesson without a belief in Santa, of course we can! But I do think Santa offers a very tangible opportunity for children to begin to grasp the concept of unconditional love, which is something we struggle with so much throughout our lives. It is almost impossible to imagine someone loving us without conditions, because even our closest and most treasured relationships hinge on some kind of conditions.
So trying to get our heads around the idea of unconditional love can be pretty hard, because it is such an alien concept to us. No matter how much we may believe that this is what God offers, how much do we really understand what that means? And if we can't quite understand it as adults, how can we explain it to our children in ways that they can understand? Santa, for me, is one way to do this, and a fun way at that!
So there you have it - the Spiritual Side of Santa. I'm sure I have missed so much, and I have no doubt at all that every single one of you has your own experiences and ideas about Santa and how he fits into your individual and family lives. So I'd love to hear from you - please do leave me a comment below and share your story.
I'm linking this post up with Share the Joy hosted by Lizzie Somerset, because writing this post has brought me a huge amount of joy. All those memories of Christmas as a child - how could I not be filled with a warm glow? Check out the linky for a wonderful dose of inspiration and joy!