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Celebrating Christmas and Celebrating Santa --
Testing Our Christian Liberties
Copyright © 2005 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

Introduction

Celebrating the birth of Jesus was neither a festival day nor a Sabbath day that was ever observed by the early church. Most historians will affirm this as fact, and certainly no such churchwide observances of Christmas were recorded in the New Testament. Further, Paul proclaimed that having been freed from the Law of Moses (the Law having become obsolete--Hebrews 8:13) the church was no longer captive to the Law, its ordinances, and its festal days. This left the early church without any prescribed feast days or any formal days of celebration.

In those early days of the faith, after Jesus fulfilled the Law for us, we find that the church had no consistent calendar of or schedule of holidays, Sabbaths, or festal days. Every man, every church, rightly and properly established their own memorial days, and some, established no special days at all.

Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:4-6)

With regard to the propriety of observing special days, such as Christís birth, Paul instructed the Christians of the first church that they were not to subject themselves to the men who forbade the use of festal days; for such decrees as "do not celebrate this holiday or that feast day" are just as steeped in legalism (manmade law) as was the religion of the Judaisers.

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day--things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (Colossians 2:8, 16, 17, 20, 21)

In Christ, we have the freedom from the Law and freedom in Grace to celebrate any holiday, new moon, feast, or Sabbath as we deem will most honor God. It is for that precise reason that the early church stopped worshipping on Saturday and began worshipping on Sunday as their new Sabbath day (Acts 20:7)--the day on which Christ was found to have arisen from the dead. Later, John refers to it as "the Lordís Day" (Revelation 1:10).

As the years progressed, new converts around the world redeemed their pagan celebrations, converting them into Christian feasts (just as they themselves had been converted), adopting both the birth of Jesus (Christmas) and the resurrection of the Lord (Easter) as feasts of remembrance unto God. Such practices as adopting days of feasting to honor God no man may deny before the Lord, for this is the freedom of Christ at work, converting the pagan heart and mind into one which is transfixed on the Lord and ever mindful of Him.

As Christians free in Christ, we may celebrate the birth of Jesus in a holiday named Christmas if we so choose. Yet, if we so elect to celebrate Christmas, and without any prescriptive law on how to celebrate, are we free to embrace any and all aspects of such a celebration as either culture or believer may introduce? Is it proper to celebrate the birth of Christ around the winter solstice (December 25) instead of on a date more likely to be the actual date on which Jesus was born? May we adopt Santa as the personification of that holiday? May we indulge in the practice of drinking to excess at a Christmas party? Is a Christmas tree too pagan a decoration to be redeemed?

Recent Christmases Past

Christmas Morning!! You are five years old. Remember the feeling you had as a child? An air of excitement was tangible as you got out of bed. Then the realization you had slept through the night after all your resolve to remain awake, and still you missed Santa's visit. You literally ran down the stairs in your pajamas, not quite grasping the railing. And there, under the tree were presents, some of which were for you, from Santa!

This is the cherished memory that many loving parents wish to leave with their own children. Sometimes they even implement this childhood fantasy through more elaborate husband-in-Santa-suit schemes.

In sincerity of faith we must examine this practice in light of Godís grace. Not that we wish to establish any new laws (and thus new legalisms) around the use of holidays, but rather to test our honesty and integrity with regard to our love for Christ. Is this invocation of Santa into the birth of Christ in any way a compromise to the worship of the Savior?

At the center of our being is the adoration and love for Christ. This is our greatest duty, Godís chief expectation of us, and Godís highest command for us:

"You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up." (Deuteronomy 6:5-7)

"Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the LORD'S commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?" (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)

One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, "What commandment is the foremost of all?" Jesus answered, "The foremost is, 'Hear, o Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31)

It is fair to say that any activity or celebration that imposes love for anyone or anything else in front of love for Christ is a violation of the greatest commandment "love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength." Even greed (the love of receiving pleasant things) is called idolatry in Colossians 3:5, "greed, which amounts to idolatry."

Christmas, as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, places the Lord God and our Savior right at the center of our attention, worship, and love. If we should find that Christmas strays from a pure celebration of Christís birth and wanders into becoming a celebration of other persons, or, even into an occasion of celebrating greed, we may find that Christ has been dethroned as the central focus of our love, and an idol has been born.

As we give gifts to each other, we have traditionally emphasized that the giving of presents to each other is merely an outward application, reminder, and symbol of:

Yet, when the giving and receiving of presents becomes the central point of the day, is it possible that Christ is moved out of the center of our affections? Has greed been enthroned, and the day dedicated to idolatry?

Keeping Christ as central to the day, even amidst the gift giving, is essential. Perhaps this can be accomplished by reminding each child to thank the gift giver and also to thank God for each gift. Perhaps each child can be asked to explain how each gift will be used to serve Christ during the upcoming year. Possibly, it may be just enough to remind each child of the three reasons we give presents (as mentioned above) on Christmas morning before the first brightly wrapped package is handed out. Be mindful of doing whatever it takes to keep Christ central to the celebration activities. Always ask yourself, "Why am I celebrating?"

 

"To: Susie, With Love From: Santa."

A growing element of many cultures is the use of Santa within the Christmas celebration. Santa Claus is a fairy tale figure expressly created for the purpose of delighting children and to keep them behaving properly throughout the year. Santa is the virtual personification of generosity who promises children maximum toy benefit in exchange for nothing more than their being good and their undoubting belief in him.

Yet, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, a holiday invented by Christians for the purpose of honoring Christ. In what way does the Santa Claus mythology enhance our focus on God and sharpen our love for Christ?

At risk of edging into legalism and being accused of making too much of a petty and trivial element of the Christmas observance, this author postulates that perhaps Santa Claus is used improperly by Christians. Santa Claus, as the all-seeing gift giver, can become the central theme of Christmas to children, can push Christ out of their heartís mind, and capture the place of adoration and delighted worship during this season.

This author does not deny that the Santa myth is fun. Fun, however, represents only the human perspective on this issue, and not the spiritual or eternal reality.

Children, by nature, are very trusting individuals. They tend to believe every word we utter. Once I heard a speaker discussing how he had attended a movie with his young child. As the theatre lights dimmed, he pointed to the air conditioning ducts and told his youngster that the dark was coming from out of those vents. Naturally, his child believed him. And, just as naturally, when I took my little girl to her first movie, I did the same thing to her (shame on me). That deception seems always to work if the child is young enough. My daughter looked at the ceiling, at the accumulated dirt around the vents, and declared, "Youíre right, Daddy, I can see the dark coming out now." On the way home I had to let my daughter in on the "joke". It was not the first time, nor the last, that I heard that exasperated little voice cry, "Daddy!".

The reason I did not let my daughter go on believing my little practical joke was because of a very serious biblical principle: as a Christian I am under divine command to lay aside deceit and falsehoods and to speak the truth (Ephesians 4:20-25). Applying this principle to the celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus, the Christ, should lies, fairytales, and mythology be introduced into an already miraculous and supernatural event, or should only truth and honesty be spoken with regard to this tradition?

Certainly it is valid to ask ourselves the question, "Is teaching a child the Santa Claus fairytale the same thing as telling a lie?" A lie, we know, is told for the purpose of hiding or obscuring truth and historical fact, usually with the intent that the truth remain undiscovered for a considerable time. And what is the truth in this circumstance? The truth is that there is no benevolent magical person who possesses awe-inspiring powers of flight and stealth who is the source of Christmas toys for children.

Nonetheless, is telling a child the Santa Claus fairytale, and encouraging him to have faith in this magical being, truly a deception? Dressed in any colorful metaphor one desires, the answer is still simply, "yes." For what duration do parents contribute to the myth and hide the truth? In most cases, it is left up to the child to discover by means of their own wit that the parent has not been truthful, which they always do after they have sufficiently grown in both their discernment skills and their skepticism. Rarely is this revelation of truth a happy occasion, and rarely do the children increase their trust of their parents as a result; and in no way does this revelation enhance the childís acceptance of their parentsí belief systems.

Encouraging a child to embrace the Santa myth as if it was historical fact is indeed a deception. But is it a harmless deception? This is a valid question. For have we not now crossed the line of bundling cultural participation with spiritual efficacy? Therefore, it is entirely proper to apply some biblical criteria to answer this question.

Our highest calling is to love God, and His chief expectation of parents is to nurture a love for God in their offspring.

"You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up." (Deuteronomy 6:5-7)

The key criteria then must be: is the intent of the Santa-myth-deception to improve a child's love of the almighty God? Is the deception an attempt to bring the child into a more holy walk with Jesus? Is the fairytale designed to encourage reliance and gratitude in the Lord? Is the deception sufficient to foster trust within the child that the parents have valid spiritual beliefs and religious views? Will the deception in any way cause the child to doubt the parents or the actual biblical truths that the parents have been teaching the child? Will the fairytale in any way detract from the celebration of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus? And finally, will the child in any way place more value on the myth of Santa Claus than on the truth of Jesus?

In all my years of discussing this topic with other parents have I yet to hear an honest and logical means by which a parent has used Santa Claus to bring a child closer to Christ and more in love with the Savior. Santa, when he is introduced to a childís imagination as being a real being, becomes the unrelenting focus and source of joy in the Christmas celebration on Christmas morning. The eyes of the child are on the myth of Santa and his presumed bounty and do not wander to the reality of Christ and His love.

Failing the key test and finding that the Santa-myth does not nurture love for God by elevating Jesus to the highest possible plane of adoration in a child, a second question must be posed. "Is the deception otherwise harmless?"

Mythology and the Attributes of God

Before fully addressing the question of harmlessness, contemplate the attributes of Santa which have been indoctrinated into virtually all school-aged children. Then compare those attributes side-by-side with those of the living God.

Attributes of Santa

Attributes of God

All Seeing, All Knowing --

perfect knowledge of every little boy and girl, knows every childís name, knows whether they have been good or bad

All Seeing, All Knowing

Judges Sin, Rewards Good Behavior --

Bad children will not get the toys they desire, good children will get their heartís desire of tangible gifts, keeps a list of names for judgement

Judges Sin, Rewards Good Behavior

Keeps the Book of Life

Immortal and Ageless

Immortal and Ageless

Virtually Omnipresent --

can enter every house in the world in a single evening

Omnipresent

Answers Prayers and Supplications --

children can tell Santa what they want in person at any department store, or, they can write him a letter

Answers Prayers and Supplications

Once a Year Becomes Incarnate --

every year children can see this magical, all knowing being, come to life in the flesh, sit on his lap, and talk with him about their heartís desires

One Time in History became Incarnate

Has Magic Powers --

Santa has a magic sleigh, pulled by magic flying reindeer, and resides undetected in the wastelands of the North Pole

Omnipotent

Attended to by Magic Immortal Beings --

elves, who live forever, work for him and answer to his every whim

Angels Attend to Godís Work

Almost every child, when asked, will explain that movie fiction is "just make believe." Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, and Superman are movie characters which children love, but they know that these folklore heroes will never come to their rescue. Yet, watch the tears flow if someone but questions the authenticity of Santa. Santa is no movie fiction for such children, he is a fact of life and an individual to whom they have given their affections and heart.

Children are Santa-believers. They have all given their hearts to that "dear old man," whispering their wants to him in person. This is an all-seeing, all-knowing, magical being with whom they have personally fellowshipped and who grants their wishes ever year.

Most convincing to the child that Santa is a type of god to be given reverence is the ultimate homage that their own parents pay to Santa. Each year they present their children to this living and breathing being. Parents squirm with delight as they tell their children to trust them and tell that "saint" what they want as a reward for being good, and that this "saint" will grant their requests. Any being that parents hold in such awe and would entrust their most beloved children to, must surely be in some way divine.

On Christmas Morning, whose name is most often is uttered from the lips of children, the mythical Santa, or the God for whom the day is named? Worship is not a church service conducted once a week. Worship is reverence and adoration shown to one who is loved, generally evidenced by devoted words, kind references, and expressions of gratitude. Does Jesus get more devotion, genuine love, and joyful gratitude on Christmas, or does Santa?

Thinking Outside the Gift Box

Is representing the imaginary Santa as if he were a living being genuinely a "harmless" tradition? Perhaps this can be answered with a role play exercise. For just a few moments, the reader will play "make believe."

Pretend you are a parent. Pretend your child is five years old and is entering Kindergarten. Imagine that four months into the educational program you find your child's printed education curriculum accidentally folded into your child's graded class work. In that curriculum you find that the teacher has been instructing your child that the Greek mythological god Zeus was no myth at all, but a real living breathing being, still ruling Greece from Mount Olympia. After questioning your youngster you discover that he indeed does believe that lightning observed during afternoon storms is Zeus' display of power.

What is your reaction? What action do you take?

Quite probably you would race to school to confront the heretical teacher who would sway your child from faith in the one and true God. Perhaps when you get to school the teacher points out that Zeus is only a harmless myth and you are over-reacting. As the teacher gingerly pries your fingers from around her throat she explains that she used this myth to make all the children feel better about lightning storms, to give them something substantive to believe in to alleviate their fears.

Is true belief in Zeus really harmless? After all, Zeus is just a myth. However, once a myth becomes the object of true belief it is elevated from the ranks of harmless storytelling and fairytales to the hallowed status of deity. Or rather, they become false gods.

Are false gods harmless? From a certain perspective perhaps they are. False gods have no real power or ability to affect real change in the world. On the other hand, God is adamant that false gods and idols be rejected and toppled wherever they may be found, "You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol...You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God..." (Genesis 20:3,5).

Merely believing that another "true" god exists apart from God is idolatry. God says of Himself that He is the "alpha" (the first God ever) and the "omega" (the last God ever); the beginning God and the ending God. All others are false gods.

God, the real one, requires that parents, since they have chosen to be parents, instill in their children a knowledge of Himself, a working understanding of all the commands of Scripture, and above all the rest, a desire to love and obey God. Parents must ask themselves, "What does causing my child to believe in the Santa myth do to help accomplish any of these divine directives?"

Principles for Living in a Culture

Scripture is filled with principles for living the faithful Christian life.

Whether one is celebrating a holiday, going to work, or talking with the neighbors, these principles must guide the Christianís conduct. Does a Christmas tree honor God? It might, depending on the type of ornaments used in its decoration and the meaning ascribed to the tree by the owners.

What day is the proper one on which to celebrate holidays such as Christmas or Easter? Since the commemoration of these days is not commanded by edict of Scripture, and since the precise date for the original historical events is largely speculative, it is unlikely that such details matter. How one celebrates and the attitude of oneís mind and heart is more important than the specific date used for the celebration.

May a Christian participate alongside unbelievers in such cultural traditions as the Christmas office party? Jesus attended dinner party events with unbelievers in His own day. Rather than arbitrarily manufacturing laws about attendance at such events, the Christian is better advised to ask, "What impact will I have for the glory of God by attending such events?" Additionally, the Christian must ask, "What should be my conduct at such events should I choose to go?"

Christian liberty is not freedom to sin, it is freedom to live under the law of grace. The first law of grace is: Love God. The second is: Love others. Love is defined as doing what is best for the one who is loved. Do what is best for God and His glory, for He is most loved. Then do what is best for oneís neighbors and family members, for they are the next most loved.

Conclusion

Festival celebrations are no longer a matter of law. They are a matter of personal choice. Personal choices must be made based on principle of Scriptures. Chief among such principles are: love God, love others. Do what is best to advance Godís glory, do what is best for oneís acquaintances and family.

Is representing the Santa-myth to your child as if it were a real person doing the loving thing for Godís glory? Is it the loving thing for your child and is it nurturing his faith in Christ? Such are the questions a parent must answer before adopting cultural traditions into oneís Christian celebrations.


Addendum -- Frequently Asked Questions About Santa Claus

1) Where did the Santa Claus myth originate?

2) All his friends believe in Santa Claus, so what do I tell my child about Santa?


1) Where did the Santa Claus myth originate?

It appears that the modern Santa Claus myth is a hybrid or blending of older Norse mythology and an historical figure named Bishop Nicholas. Norse mythology is populated with gods, like Thor, who rode on wagons drawn by flying horned animals, clothed in red, lived in the icy "North Lands," and sported white beards, all the while seeking out the wicked for punishment. Such myths seemed to have been merged with the tales told about Bishop Nicholas to create an entirely new mythology.

Bishop Nicholas of Myra in Lycia is thought to have lived until about the year 252 a.d. Virtually nothing has survived in historical record about him from that time period. Most stories are from oral tales recorded many centuries after his lifetime. As such, it is certain that many, if not all, of the tales are embellished, including the raising of dead peasant boys who had been minced and pickled by their murderers. These unsubstantiated legends became the basis for his elevation to status of "saint," and are also the essence of the merging with elements from Norse mythology to create the contemporary Santa Claus myth.

Saint Nicholas (whose name became "Santa Claus" in the modern West) grew into a popular mythical/religious figure as the focus of winter celebrations in ancient Europe. In countries such as Germany he is said to still secretly deliver presents to children in the form of a glorified / resurrected saint.

Sadly, with Santa Claus, history (the recording of actual events), legend (unverifiable stories), myth (imaginary and unverifiable stories), and fiction (invented and feigned stories) all combine to erode and undermine the integrity of Christ as the center of the Christmas celebration. Santa Claus has become a quasi-historical being of a supernatural nature who competes with Christ for the hearts and imaginations of children.




2) All his friends believe in Santa Claus, so what do I tell my child about Santa?

Each Christian parent is obligated to lean upon the principles found in Godís Word to address this question for themselves. In our home, we decided to tell our young children that Santa Claus is the "Christmas Clown." We also told them that many children believe Santa is more than a clown and that he gives away presents, but that this was just a silly story that parents tell to their own kids to play jokes on them. We also told them that some parents do not believe in Jesus, so they use Santa Claus as the reason to celebrate Christmas.

Then we reinforced with our children that Christ is the reason we celebrate the holiday in our home. Finally, we also asked our children to be kind to children who still thought Santa Claus was more than just a clown, because it could hurt the other childrenís feelings and make them cry. We never encountered a single instance where our children unmasked Santa to other children, though we had expected it.



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Page First Published: November 27, 2005
Page Last Revised: December 18, 2005