We Don’t “Do Santa Claus”—We “Do Christmas”

Nativity
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A recent article in Crisis by Sean Fitzpatrick promoted the concept that Catholics should encourage their children to believe in Santa Claus.

“Granting that Christmas has fallen under heavy secular attack, belief in Santa Claus is a right and proper thing for Catholics,” writes Fitzpatrick. “For besides such poetic household praxes enlivening the liturgy of the home, it also prepares children to grow in the strength of wonder and the security that there are benevolent powers at work in the world that affect us and which we cannot see. And if anything can save our children from the untruths of the age, it may be in large part the whimsical truth of Santa Claus.”

Stop the sled, Rudolph. Pull back the reindeer, Santa. Cease toy production, Hermie.

Did he really say that the “whimsical truth of Santa Claus” may be one of the main ways we can save our children from untruths?

That doesn’t make any sense to me. And Santa is certainly not true, “whimsical” or otherwise.

Here’s what makes sense to me. Here are some “real” truths that I teach my children.

Non-Whimsical Truth #1: St. Nicholas is real, a revered saint in Heaven whose feast is on December 6. In remembrance of his reported anonymous kindness delivering gold to those in need, our children receive gold chocolate coins in their slippers on that day. And, besides going to Mass and watching an animated movie on the life of St. Nicholas, that is the end of St. Nicholas until next year on his feast day. He came, he delivered gold coin candy, he left. And St. Nicholas is not Santa. 

Non-Whimsical Truth #2: Santa Claus is not a real person. Made up. Fake. A hoax. He does not have powers only God has, such as the ability to read hearts and know whether someone is good or bad, what they are wishing or praying for, the ability to be in many places at one time, and all of the “magical” accoutrements that go along with him (flying sleds, talking reindeer, elves, changing body forms to fit down chimneys, a bag big enough to hold all the gifts for everyone in the world, and other such nonsense).

Non-Whimsical Truth #3: Christmas is not about presents, Santa, St. Nick, Christmas trees, tinsel, The Polar Express, eggnog, choo-choo trains, mistletoe, or cookies. Christmas is about God becoming man and being born of a Virgin for the salvation of all. It’s about Jesus’ birthday. Keep Christ in Christmas, as they say. Jesus is the reason for the season, they quip. That’s it. It’s pretty simple really. All the rest of the “stuff” can either help us to celebrate the birth of our Savior or distract us.

Non-Whimsical Truth #4: There are many other things a family could do to get their children excited for Christmas and to instill wonder, awe, thanksgiving, and love for the gift that the Christ-Child has given to us with His birth in a manger. And belief in Santa is not one of them.

Let me elaborate.

Many Catholic children grow up with two competing worldviews when it comes to Christmas time.

On the one hand, there is the Child Jesus, born in a humble stable, without much fanfare, Who is to be the Savior of the world. Pretty cool stuff, to be sure, but not all that exciting for a kid. And there certainly does not seem to be much in it for them at their young age, since death and salvation seem a long way off.

On the other hand, there is a larger-than-life, happy, plump man who makes himself visible and available to every child in the world at every major department store and mall, happily lending his lap and his ear to hearing every wish and desire that each individual child has—and with a wink and a laugh. The child then waits in eager anticipation for what Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Give Me What I Want, will bring them on that magical morning. And not only does he give them what they want, he has all the coolest gadgets to go with it—flying reindeer, magical powers, immortality, infused knowledge, and character/soul reading abilities. And the songs, cartoons, movies, and lore that go along with him are incredible too—truly incredible.

Which of these two men would a child be more excited to meet and greet on Christmas morning? I’d venture it is Santa rather than Jesus. And that’s sad. In fact, from my own personal experience, this was how I viewed Christmas when I was a child. My mom tried to do Advent things to prepare us children. But to be honest, all we really cared about was what we were getting for Christmas. And then, once I got older and discovered the farce that Santa is, Christmas became just another day where I had to wash even more dishes than normal after dinner—but nothing worth getting excited about.

When my wife and I married and began having children, we did the whole Santa and presents thing, and we spent most of Advent “getting ready” for Christmas by shopping and wrapping gifts and all of that—but not much by way of spiritual readiness. 

But at some point, we had a family meeting where we discussed the meaning of Christmas. We all came to the conclusion that Christmas was, in fact, Jesus’ birthday. That was all that it was. It was not our birthdays, it was not about Santa, it was not about gifts for us, it was not about gift giving. It was about Jesus’ birthday. So, we decided to give our children gifts on their birthdays and give Jesus gifts on His birthday.

Now, about 20 years after that family meeting, my wife, eleven children, and I find Christmas season to be the most wonderful time of the year—and Santa and gifts are not a part of it.

How, you may ask, can a Catholic family look forward to Christmas without the promise of presents and the excitement of Santa?

Here’s the answer.

During Advent, we have an Advent wreath on our dining room table that we light each dinnertime and recite a relevant prayer after praying the Angelus and our prayer before meals. We do the rituals of the Jesse Tree and Advent Calendar each day throughout the four weeks leading up to Christmas. We set up the nativity scene in our house on the first Sunday of Advent, and we add various people and animals to the creche scene each week throughout Advent until Christmas—when we then put the Child Jesus in His place between Joseph and Mary. 

Our children have a container with little pieces of straw in it. When they do charitable actions, they can take a piece of the straw and put it in the manger to make the bed for the King of Kings softer. The whole family prays the St. Andrew’s Christmas Novena each evening after the Rosary, attends daily Mass together, and many of us try and give up something as a penance in preparation for Christmas. And finally, every year since 1999, our family puts on a Christmas play. The children produce, direct, act, and sing in the annual production, and they perform it for our family and guests on Christmas day—their gift to us and the Baby Jesus.

Once the O Antiphons begin in evening prayer, we begin to decorate the house and put up the lights outside. We also start to do Christmas baking—making cookies, fudge, and gingerbread. We play Advent music and the children practice singing Christmas songs to sing for the family and others throughout the Christmas season.

On Christmas Eve, we put up the Christmas tree and decorate it. We have a family dinner, followed by watching It’s a Wonderful Life. We go to bed that night with no stockings hung by the mantle with care, without any wrapping of presents, without singing Christmas carols, without any hustle and bustle of “whimsical” truths or straight-out secularism. We go to bed in anticipation of the birth of our Savior on Christmas morn.

We wake up, we turn on the Christmas tree lights and listen to Christmas music for the first time, go to Mass, come home and have a lovely brunch, and then we prepare for family visitors, the Christmas play performance, and the roast beef dinner, complete with plum pudding. The evening is finished off by playing some family games such as Charades or Balderdash, eating Christmas cookies, and singing Christmas carols.

And to some, that’s the end of Christmas. But not for us. We celebrate the entirety of Christmas by having a fun and festive family celebration each day for 12 days (or longer). We eat special foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that we only eat during Christmas time. I take off from work for the entirety of Christmas and sometimes beyond. We watch old movies together at nighttime, we eat tins and tins of popcorn, eat Christmas cookies, drink eggnog, and enjoy each other’s company.

On the feast of the Epiphany, the children give each other homemade gifts in imitation of the gifts that the Magi gave to the child Jesus. This is part of the preparation for Christmas because they are busy at work giving of their time and energy in making these gifts for their siblings, in an act of love and sacrifice, as Christ did for us.

And on February 2, the traditional end of Christmas, we put away our Christmas decorations, we turn off our Christmas lights, and we take down our Christmas tree.

Christmas at the McFaddens is all about the birth of Jesus and all that it entails, without any possibility of it not being about Jesus and His birth. And the McFadden children anxiously await this time each year, acknowledging that it is their favorite time of the year—without Santa, without presents, without secularism, without it being about them at all.

As recounted in the well-known tale of the Grinch, even after he had thought he had ruined Christmas by stealing all of the townsfolks’ things—presents, trees, food, candy—the Grinch was surprised to hear sounds of happiness, not sadness.

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing without any presents at all!
It [Christmas] came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!
Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!

Christmas does mean more. Don’t lessen it by bringing an imaginary magical man and his pointy-eared elves into the story. They don’t matter. They do not exist. Christmas does not need anything else to make it the greatest event in human history. Celebrate that, and be happy.

[Image: “The Nativity” by Zanobi Strozzi]

Tom McFadden

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Tom McFadden is the VP for Enrollment at Christendom College, where he has worked since 2000. He holds a BA and MA in Theology from Christendom College. He and his wife, Amanda, are the parents of 11 children, aged 29 to 5 years old.

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