As the father of five kids who are now in their teens and twenties, I can still remember the complicated conversations my wife Grace and I had about Santa when they were little. Santa is such a towering figure in our culture that you cannot ignore him, as your kids will have questions about him.
For starters, we wanted to be careful not to lie to our kids when they were little, because it would break trust when they grew up. Our concern was, if we told them that Santa and Jesus were both real, performed miracles, knew our behavior, and judged us, only to one day tell them that Santa was fake, but Jesus was real, we could really confuse them. So, here’s what decided: we would tell our kids three things about Santa.
One, there was a real historical person named Saint Nicholas and his life story was combined with numerous myths from a variety of cultures to create Santa Claus. Born in the third century, Nicholas’ life started in a small village in what is now Turkey. His devout Christian parents were wealthy, but tragically died when he was a boy. Nicholas used his inheritance to help the poor, especially children, including hanging socks for them filled with presents and treats. On one occasion, he helped three poor Christian sisters who were unable to pay their wedding dowry. Facing a life of prostitution, Nicholas purchased their freedom.
Nicholas was a godly Christian leader appointed as the Bishop of Myra, a port city that the apostle Paul had previously visited (Acts 27:5–6). The vital Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) that defended the deity of Jesus Christ had Nicholas in attendance defending Jesus as God. After dying on December 6, 343, Nicholas was canonized as a saint and gifts were given each year on the anniversary of his death in tribute to his generous life.
Catholic and Orthodox Christians alike were very fond of Nicholas, naming a few thousand churches after him. Since Christmas and his memorial day were only a few weeks apart, the two were eventually combined. During the Reformation, however, Nicholas fell out of favor with Protestants, who did not approve of canonizing certain people as saints and venerating them with holidays. His holiday was not celebrated in any Protestant country except Holland, where his legend as Sinterklaas lived on.
Two, over many years, various cultures added numerous myths and folklores to the story of Saint Nicholas. German pastor Martin Luther replaced Nicholas with the Christ child as the object of holiday celebration, or, in German, Christkindl. Over time, the pronunciation changed to Kris Kringle, and curiously became another name for Santa Claus.
A common myth in Nicholas’ day said a demon could enter homes to terrorize children, but that Nicholas could cast the demons out, which likely explains why some started saying he came down the chimney to enter a home. Not far from the North Pole, there was a Siberian myth that a holy man who could fly would come down people’s chimneys to leave them hallucinogenic mushrooms that Reindeer also liked to eat. This may explain the myth of flying reindeer, and Santa travelling from the North Pole (near Siberia) to come down the chimney to leave gifts. These stories were brought to America by Dutch immigrants, and by the 1900’s, stores began having Santa Claus present for holiday shopping, and children began sending him letters to the North Pole.
Three, it is not a bad thing to use your imagination, create fun imaginary stories, and dress up in a costume to pretend. For example, our boys grew up dressing like superheroes and sword fighting, and our girls grew up with a lot of princess dresses they liked to wear while playing out fun roles they thought up in their creative imagination.
In summary, we tried to help our kids know the difference between the real and godly Saint Nicholas, and the other pretend stories that people made up, dressing up like Santa Claus for fun.