Santa and Myth (Gabriel Crawford)

May 11, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Thank you to many of you for reaching out and engaging around the topic of Santa Claus and how we as Catholics can with grace and truth and wonder approach the various stories of Santa.  In this email reflection, I’d like to respond to some of the inquiries I’ve had from our Souls and Hearts members.

Here are the questions… (and I have permission to reprint and use the names I’ve listed)

From a Souls and Hearts Member:

Q:  I appreciated your communication about Santa and lying. It is something I have pondered a number of times, and many of your points resonated with me.

I have a couple of follow up questions to it. How do you address the peer/social part? I think of this with Halloween too. Some kids feel left out to not go trick or treating with their friends. How can a parent support them to be connected when going against the norm?

From Souls and Hearts member David Edwards:

Q:  I really enjoyed your reflection on Santa and I agree on so many levels. I have a question for you. My wife and I have never perpetuated belief in Santa and have focused on other (real) Christmas stories. But we also haven’t directly addressed Santa as a myth and haven’t been sure about whether that’s the best thing to do. Last Christmas we heard from another family member, that our oldest, Maria (5), had made a comment along the lines that Santa didn’t bring her anything for Christmas. Obviously, she’s seeing her friends get gifts from Santa and noting that she’s been overlooked.

So, my question is whether you think it’s best to directly address it as a make-believe story, or to simply ignore it and focus on the real Christmas stories. I also don’t really want my kids shattering the myth for the friends whose parents choose to perpetuate it. Love to hear your thoughts!

I was thinking a bit further on this and had a bit of an expansion that may be helpful in your reflection next week. Obviously, the topic reaches outside of Santa, and into other areas of make-believe. My girls are into Moana, Encanto, Frozen, and generally all the princess stories. We’ve usually been pretty clear with them that these are make-believe stories and aren’t real – and we contrast this with stories about Jesus that really happened. Recently, however, my wife got upset with our oldest (5) when she saw her trying to convince another friend that she really had magical powers like Elsa and Anna from Frozen. It seems that she thinks this story is true, because about 6 months ago we went to a social event where there were some young actresses dressed as Elsa and Anna and taking photos with the children. She says “I know they’re real because I met them!” Now my wife is wanting to stop them from watching princess movies and this seems too much to me. But there is a concern about our daughters believing the stories, and lying about having powers. The lie about having powers seemed minor to me and I told my wife I didn’t think it was a big deal. But I’m not so sure. I also feel a need to tell her that those were just regular kids pretending to be cartoon characters – but I think I haven’t done that yet because she’s an emotional kid and this will be upsetting to her (she cried for about 20 minutes yesterday when I killed a spider). Even as I wrote that I’m convicted on the need to clear it up with her.

Anyway – I know I didn’t formulate a clear question there and am not exactly looking for a response or advice on it. I’m just sharing my reflection on the issue in case it gives you a little more to dig into for the reflection next week, or for future content.

From Souls and Hearts member David Freytag:

Q: My wife and I recently read your latest newsletter and were curious on a sort of counter-point to the Santa Claus “debate.” How do you maintain or emphasize the importance of exploring children’s imagination with the decision of telling children the truth about Santa Claus? I have a similar position on Santa Claus as your article as it seems like we start lying to children at such a young age and it’s odd. My wife made great points on the importance of having children use their imagination with figures like Santa Claus (or any fictional characters you see on TV, articles, books, such as a Disney princesses or heroes in stories) that they look up to and explore.  Then as they mature the “story” changes from the physical being visiting all homes to the idea of Christmas and Santa Claus and spreading joy and gratitude to others.

As newlyweds and the hope of starting our own family, topics such as these are entertaining for us to explore and learn about. Thanks for all of your work for the Church. We greatly enjoy reading and hearing your perspective!

And here are some of my responses:

On peers and the social part…

One of the things Pam and I have worked hard to do with our seven children is to have Christmas family traditions that our children really love. Children are less likely to feel envious of others’ Christmas traditions if they have a deep sense of the joy and peace in the celebration of Christmas in their own domestic church.

In our home, we celebrate St. Nicholas’ Feast Day with little gifts in our kid’s shoes.  We bring up the massive Nativity set over the course of the Sundays of Advent, starting with the cow, the donkey, with Mary and Joseph arriving on Christmas Eve and the baby Jesus on Christmas morning, with the angel and later the shepherd and then the three wise men on Epiphany.  On Christmas eve we make homemade eggnog for lunch.  At 4:00 PM, we string up our Christmas lights in our home and we start playing the Christmas music.

In the evening, I read the story of the Nativity from the Gospel of Luke by candlelight and then we all celebrate with a huge smorgasbord with the children’s favorite finger foods (some of which we eat only on Christmas Eve) for supper – and we have a “no limits” rule for the smorgie – you don’t have to eat anything you don’t want and you and eat as much as you want of anything.  If you want to eat 35 olives (taking out the pimentos) go for it.  Then we go to the evening Mass (sometimes with blankets for the little ones).  The children receive gifts from us on the Epiphany.

And our children have generally believed that our Christmas traditions are the “best.”  So, there hasn’t been much envy of others’ Christmas celebrations.

So in summary, you can just make Christmas really special, warm, and attuned to the children – and you don’t need Santa to do that.

“Spoiling” the Christmas story for other kids…

We tell our children from a young age that parents and other families invite their children to believe in the conventional Santa Claus story. We connect that back to the story of St. Nicholas, and we don’t judge those of their parents for it. We ask that our children not “correct” other children in some attempt to change their beliefs in Santa.

Our kids have confidently told their friends and peers that they get gifts twice, once on St. Nick’s Day and the other on Epiphany, and they don’t feel left out by Santa.  As they get older, they understand how an overly intense focus on gifts could get in the way of the spiritual meaning of Christmas – the joy at the coming of our Lord as a baby into the world to bring light and life and grace and peace and joy to those who embrace the Good News.

On myth and reality…

David Edwards’ young daughters have come to believe that Encanto characters are real people with real powers.  That is exactly the kind of thing that I was cautioning against – developmentally, young children have difficulty making distinctions between reality and fantasy.  Their thinking can remain magical about abstractions (like cartoon characters and Santa) until they reach what Jean Piaget described as the stage of formal operations at about the age of 12.

Many children taught about Santa in the conventional way make a seamless adjustment to accepting that elements of the story are not real.  But many may struggle, especially when they are attached to some element of the conventional story.

It may be likely that GK Chesterton would disagree with my approach to Santa.  Thank you to Gabriel Crawford for reaching out to me and sending me this very brief 1935 article in Commonweal by Chesterton titled Santa Claus and Science – you can download it here.

My email exchange with Gabriel was really interesting to me as Gabriel was emphasizing the importance of myth, wonder and awe within the Santa story in a reasonable way.  Having recently met him at the Catholic Psychotherapy Conference, he got me interested in his views, and I invited him to a recorded discussion for all of you – and to your benefit and mine, he took me up on the offer to talk.  Here is a link to listen in on our 25-minute conversation.  On some thing we agree to disagree – but I really enjoyed a cordial exchange of ideas, the ability to disagree and agree and to “be Catholic together” (Catholic with both an upper-case and lower-case “C”) with Gabriel.

Santa book recommendation

My dear friend and colleague, psychologist Andrew Sodergren weighed in with the following:

We exchange gifts on Christmas but we acknowledge the true identity of giver and receiver and I’ve never indulged in the Santa lives at the north pole with elves and sneaks into our house on Christmas Eve night story. That being said there was a book about Saint Nicholas that we got from the daughters of St. Paul years ago that told his true story and ended with the possibility that now that he is a saint in heaven Jesus may sometimes send him on missions to bless the children of the world. I found this was a helpful introduction to Saint Nick and it leaves the door open for parents to build off of that if they want to incorporate traditions involving Saint Nick giving presents.

Thank you to all of you who have read these emails and thought seriously about the topic of Santa.

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 Thank you…

Thank you for being with me on this journey together.  You are all in my prayers, please keep me in yours.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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