What Do You Tell Your Children About Father Christmas?
Ho! Ho! Ho! Tis the Season to Deceive
When I was a little girl I was a firm and faithful believer. In Father Christmas. I’d sussed out early on that the guys in the red suits were all fakes and the whole North Pole malarky didn’t fool me for a second. No, because I’d worked it out you see. The only way for Father Christmas to do all his miracle-working present-dropping was if he was a mystical being. In my mind, he lived up in heaven at the opposite end from Father God, and he was God’s cousin. Well, they both had the same first names, didn’t they?
Nowadays as a parent of two gullible little girls (I once told my eldest that the word mosquito was pronounced mojito) I have more of a moral dilemma about our old pal Santa Claus. It seems a bit tricky to be in one breath assuring her that no, I’m not lying, God is really real and, yes, Jesus lives in your heart, and then in the next be waxing lyrical about tooth fairies and men in red coats who will bring your heart’s desire.
I’m pretty sure my youngest (3) is confused about Christmas. We were talking about how Christmas was Jesus’ Birthday. That was fine. Then she went to the fireplace and looked up the chimney asking, “But Mummy, when is Jesus coming?”
"Can you remember what it felt like on Christmas eve?"
Last year, I couldn’t quite work through what I wanted to ‘do’ about my moral dilemma. I mean, I didn’t want to lie outright but then again I didn’t want to be the parent who told their kids it was all made up – and make all the other kids in England cry. So, in a rather British fashion I decided to sidestep the issue by letting others talk about Father Christmas but not really mentioning him one way or the other. I was taking the agnostic route.
What I hadn’t counted on was my husband being the world’s most enthusiastic proponent of the big F.C. On Christmas Eve, there was reindeer food (and glitter) sprinkled all over the lawn and mince pies, milk and a carrot ready in front of the fire. For his master stroke, he kept disappearing - giggling - and a bell would ring from another part of the house, then he would run back in wild with glee and announce it was Rudolf drawing near. As you can imagine there was total delighted HYSTERIA. It made my agnostic position look like a vegetarian chewing a stick of celery at a Brazilian BBQ.
Can you remember what it felt like as a child on Christmas Eve? Lying in bed, barely able to sleep with excitement, but waiting for a sackload of presents to magically appear at the foot of your bed or under the tree? Ooh, it’s hard to beat that feeling. It’s the stuff of which dreams are made. And to believe, at other times, that a tiny, fragile fairy had taken your tooth – her hand touching your actual pillow – as your little life met with an invisible and magical world. In some ways I think we spend our adult lives trying to re-create these feelings – that we are special and visited by unseen beings.
"I suspect wonderment and faith have a lot in common."
And of course it is true. We are surrounded by a generous, gift-bearing Father, winged messengers, even giants and dragons. It’s just they aren’t called tooth fairies and dragons – but angels and demons. We are part of the most amazing story of all time, and it does require us to have child-like trust and that most innocent of beliefs that good things will come to us.
I half-wonder if this child-like belief in fictional characters is more linked to faith than we know. After all, when it comes to exercising faith as an adult, we are all trying to grow down into childlikeness, not up. Imagination is a gift from God, and is somehow part of the vehicle he uses to communicate with us – popping pictures into our minds that speak from his heart to ours. And so I find for myself that I simply cannot burst the bubble of belief in Father Christmas, or fairies, or decry fiction because I suspect wonderment and faith have a lot in common. I don’t want to be the surgeon who rushes in with the scalpel to take out the speck of a problem and in so doing cuts off the whole heart.
As I seek my own heart on why I find this such a thorny issue, I feel the Holy Spirit gently put his finger on something ugly. It's not an issue of telling lies, but living with fear. He shows me that I fear that my children won’t believe in God because of things that I have done badly. Well, that’s an enormous pressure that he doesn’t want me living under. Jesus is the author and perfector of my children’s faith, not me. Yes, I pray for them, model life-with-God to them, but at the end of the day I have to trust God that he will birth faith in them by the Holy Spirit and not by my own efforts. I choose to trust him that he desires relationship with them even more than I desire it for them. That he has plans and purposes for them, independent of me. This is not a call to just abandon my children to their fate, but to hand them over to God in my heart as I do the best I can for them.
And perhaps the real problem with Father Christmasis this: He represents a Father-like figure who appears just once a year and with whom you have no relationship. Yet he watches your behaviour from a distance and rewards you accordingly. Don’t we feel so often, as Christians, that when good things come our way we are being rewarded for being ‘nice’? And when the favour of God seems to be far away and the car has broken down again, the boiler just blew up and the cat needs to go to the vet, we wonder if we are being punished for being ‘naughty’?
"Jesus may not wiggle his way down the chimney, but he comes to our hearts."
Perhaps this is what breaks Father God’s heart; that we are content to have only a Father Christmas-like relationship with him. And because of that we never fully unwrap the magnitude of his gift to us in Jesus. If we are always trying to work out if we are naughty or nice, we have missed the gift of grace that makes these questions irrelevant.
I don’t need to be afraid that I will be condemned as ‘naughty’ for how I handle the ‘Santa Issue’. Jesus has already decided on my heart as being neither naughty nor nice but rather ‘beloved’. I can tell my daughters that Jesus may not wiggle his way down the chimney to our hearth, but he comes to our hearts. And not only does he leave us a stocking of love that never runs out, but he sends away (if we let him) the sacks of fear that we are accustomed to dragging around with us. Oh and most importantly; he never ever leaves us.
So what are my conclusions on Christmas and Santa? Well for now I’d like to borrow a famous British advertising slogan from the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA): A puppy is for life, not just for Christmas.
Except in my version it is this: Jesus is for life, Santa Claus is just for Christmas.
What do you tell your children about Father Christmas?