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Santa, or Jesus, or maybe both?

19 December 2014

Pat Ashworth talks to faithful families about their Santa dilemmas

I HAVE to confess that my own best childhood memories of Christmas are almost exclusively Father Christmas-related. I can still recall the thrill of waking in the small hours of Christmas Day to find that this jolly benefactor had managed to stuff Five Go Down to the Sea into the top of my stocking. I read it by torchlight under the eiderdown in my very cold bedroom on the north-east coast, and my cup of happiness was full.

I was eight when somebody at school told me that Father Christmas was not real. When I confronted my mother with this revelation, she said in great surprise: "Well, you didn't really believe it, did you?"

Coming herself from a large Roman Catholic family where she was the fifth of eight children, and mostly got things third-hand, I think she took enormous pleasure in the stockings thing; and there was never any suggestion that Father Christmas was in competition with Jesus. The chimney was always swept before Christmas, and I drew my own conclusions about that.

A friend was not so lucky. Boys at his strict RC school were asked to put their hands up if they believed in Father Christmas. Eagerly, he put his up, to find that he was the only boy to have done so, and was subsequently regarded with severity by the master, and ridicule by his classmates.

The secular nature of Santa Claus, and the commercial frenzy that surrounds him, is something of an paradox, given his religious roots in the kindly St Nicholas. There is a movement in the United States to reclaim St Nicholas in order to help restore a spiritual dimension to a festive season deliberately domesticated in the 19th century, and overwhelmingly secularised since.

But it also acknowledges a double paradox: that the secular Santa helped to bring back Christmas observances. By the 1850s, Sunday schools had discovered that a Christmas tree, Santa, and gifts greatly improved attendance.

SO, HOW lightly do households of faith sit with Santa alongside Jesus at Christmas? The Revd Anna Alls, now assistant curate of Brinsley with Underwood, in Nottinghamshire, recalls being at the church Christmas party years ago, before her own two children were born. Every year, for as long as she could remember, Santa had appeared with a gift for the children.

"When Santa appeared this particular year, the vicar's eldest child, who would have been about eight or nine, began to yell: 'That's not Santa! Santa's not real!'" she says. "The Sunday-school teacher quickly muffled the child's cries."

Consequently, she says, "as a family, we hold the idea of Santa very loosely, mainly because I would hate my own children to be the bringer of bad news to the other children."

Holding Santa "loosely" means, she says, that you can put out a mince pie for Santa, and a carrot for Rudolph on Christmas Eve, and have a light-up Santa, along with the nativity scene, angels, and stars that decorate the house at Christmas. "We don't deny the existence of Santa, but we don't promote him, either."


THE Revd Tony Cardwell cannot recall his children having difficulty keeping the images of Santa and Jesus side by side, "with always the suspicion that Santa might be more imaginary than real".

The imagination of children "is a wonderful thing", he says. But conversation with a friend who had, on becoming a Christian, told her three-year-old daughter that Santa was not real evoked the dilemmas that can be faced.

When the children at nursery were writing letters to Santa, the child refused to join in the exercise. When her mother was summoned at the end of the day, the child whispered: "I didn't do it because Santa isn't real."

Kate Lyons, daughter of Bishop Roy Williamson, describes hers as having been "an unashamedly Santa household. Mum and Dad, with five children and not much money, always managed to create a wonderful, magical Christmas, with stockings at the end of our beds, filled when they got back from celebrating midnight communion.

"Santa only brought little things; but there was just something so exciting about discovering our socks with lots of lumpy gifts inside."

She cannot remember what her parents said to her, but reflects: "I don't think they ever lied, and I don't think I ever asked; so I never felt deceived. I would have been mortified if we hadn't had this tradition in our family. As Christians, we are taught so much about giving, but receiving is in there, too."

She and her husband, Matt, have followed the same tradition with their own three children, none of whom ever asked, either, and all of whom are happy to play along with it.

FAMILY memories around Santa for Dr David Curnock and his wife, Anne, are that he was clearly linked with the tinsel, twinkling lights, and Christmas tree, "and possibly in the same league as the tooth fairy. In contrast, the nativity story was part of our belief and Christian faith, and quite separate," he says.

The couple lived in Nigeria for two years, and discovered in their first Christmas there that the hospital where they were working was keen to celebrate the folklore parts of Christmas. "Our small children were bemused to see two Father Christmases at the same time: one had been visiting wards on the first floor, while the other went to wards on the ground floor," he says. "Unfortunately, they both happened to meet on the staircase at the same time as we arrived with our children at the bottom of the stairs.

"Our children's only problem was that there were two. The fact that each Father Christmas was a Nigerian doctor dressed in red, and not an old man with a white face, was not a problem at all."

Alison Rowe, a Methodist and RE teacher, reflects that if the question had been asked when her two boys were smaller, her answer would have been different: she would have had concerns about lying to them, and fears that the commercialisation surrounding Santa could detract from the true meaning of Christmas.

"But, in reality, things are not black and white. Unless you live in a bubble - only possible if you are home schooling - your kids are going to be exposed to Santa," she says, practically. "A blanket 'not doing it' seems unfair, because it's part of how Christmas is celebrated culturally. Many toddlers groups - a lot of them connected with churches - will have Santa come and give presents at the Christmas party: I've known it to be the minister. And, once they are in these groups and at school, there's no escaping it."

JANET and Tim Spencer have three children in their twenties, and are also parents to nine-year-old Zephaniah (Zeph), who has Down syndrome. With the older ones, Santa was always treated as a game, Janet says, and care was always taken over the language used; so that sight of a Santa was always of "a man dressed as Santa".

For Zeph, it is even more important to establish that this is a game, she says; otherwise, he would still believe that Santa was a real man when he reached adulthood. So the family regularly watches the Christian cartoon series Veggietales, whose story, "Saint Nicholas: A story of joyful giving", explains the story of how a little boy named Nicholas made a discovery that changed Christmas for ever.

"If you really thought about the theology of it all, you probably wouldn't do Santa," she says. "But, with a child like Zeph, when all the other children are talking about it, that would be very difficult. Our children have known all their life about Jesus, and because of how much they know that is the truth, having a character called Santa really is just a bit of fun."

For Christine Miles, the magic disappeared when older siblings told her, at the age of six or seven, that Santa was not real. "I felt a huge sense of loss and disappointment with the burst of that magical bubble," she says, reflecting that if she had not had that experience, she might have "done" Santa as she will do the tooth fairy, without worrying about the truth of it.

So she will not be doing Santa for four-year-old Olivia, despite the fact that "you can't escape Santa in books, or in shops, or Christmas cards. And Olivia has been to a Christmas party where she was given a present by Santa. So, while we won't make a big thing of it, we will probably have to explain the tradition at some point, if questioned about it."

The family, Christine says, will make up for it by seeking to build its own sense of wonder and delight around Christmas time, "with the family traditions that we will develop together in order to fittingly celebrate the fact that we are remembering the birth of Jesus. We don't need Santa. We have a birthday to celebrate."

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