CHICAGO — As the director of a north suburban Episcopal preschool, Mary Johnson hears all about Santa Claus from her toddlers. They can describe where he lives. They can tell her what he drives. They can name his nine reindeer.
Since the children already know Santa’s vital statistics, Johnson spends the days before Christmas teaching them about Jesus and the celebration of his birth that falls on Dec. 25. But in doing so, she never squelches their excitement about St. Nick’s impending visit.
“To be a faith-based program and deny Santa … is not realistic,” said Johnson, director of the preschool at Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Ill. “You can put it in a balanced context. But you can’t eliminate it completely from the culture and the world in which these children live.”
To many Christians’ chagrin, many children are focused on the North Pole on the night before Christmas, considering Santa Claus the man of the hour, not Jesus.
While some families welcome both to their holiday festivities — perhaps setting out cookies on their way to midnight Mass — others have disinvited Santa altogether, opting to make Christ the only guest of honor.
“Christmas can be a confusing time for parents who want to raise their kids with a clear understanding of the biblical reasons for the celebration of this season,” said Pat Cimo, who works in the children’s ministry at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.
Although Willow Creek doesn’t advise families to take any one approach, Cimo said the church does suggest activities to help keep children focused, such as singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus or retelling the Nativity story.
Meanwhile, Rossana Swiech, a member of The Moody Church in Chicago for 15 years, prefers to exclude Santa. After all, she will never forget the year she became enlightened about him.
Growing up in a high-rise apartment, she would gaze out her bedroom window on Christmas Eve watching for Santa’s sleigh and wake up Christmas morning to search for where he had playfully hidden her gifts.
After his mystery unraveled, Christmas was never the same, she said. To shield her children from the same disappointment, she has informed them that she only believes in Jesus.
“There’s more to Christmas than Santa Claus and getting presents,” said Swiech, who lives in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. “We get gifts because we want to express the love that he has given to us. … We are Santa Claus to people. We are the ones who bring gifts to others in need.”
Swiech’s pastor, the Rev. Erwin Lutzer, said there’s not necessarily any harm in the Santa story, as long as children understand it’s just a game.
“Most families would go along with the Santa Claus story but also let their children know that this is based on mythology and is not historically true,” he said. “You acknowledge the tradition, but you don’t encourage your kids to believe it. In fact, you probably do the opposite and let them know that we’re only having some fun.”
Lutzer recently told a group of young parents at Moody that parts of the Santa legend can be dangerously misleading. For example, to earn a visit from Santa, children learn they must behave. But that’s not what Christians believe about Jesus’ gift of salvation.
The Rev. Heath Howe, a pastoral associate at Church of the Holy Comforter, said she can see the potential for hiccups when the mystery of Santa ends for children. But prolonging that mystery can inject some additional joy into the holiday for children and parents alike.
“There’s a beautiful magic that little children really love, and they hold that for us culturally as a people,” Howe said. “Santa Claus is a piece of that, and it’s beautiful and lovely. There’s no reason to squish that.”
Howe also believes that children’s relationship with God starts in the womb. Despite what they eventually conclude about the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, they won’t lose faith in God, she said.
“They know in their soul that their relationship with God is real,” she said. “As a mom, I can see that. There’s a knowing about God that is greater than anything I’ve taught them. When we teach them something, we’re simply providing a sacred space for them to encounter this relationship they’ve already known.”
Much of the talk about St. Nicholas, Howe said, serves as a way to correct the legend that has grown so popular. Born to wealthy parents who died when he was young, St. Nicholas of Myra gave his inheritance to the needy. After his death, the Catholic Church named him patron saint of children. Many families — Catholic and Protestant — celebrate his feast day Dec. 6 (Dec. 19 on the Julian calendar).
Popular culture placed St. Nicholas at the North Pole, Howe said. In 1822, poet Clement Clarke Moore gave him a sleigh, eight tiny reindeer and a belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly. Rudolph, the ninth reindeer, appeared later.
The 1934 song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” added the “naughty” and “nice” distinctions. Even Chicago Cardinal Francis George, who grew up with coal in his basement, minded his p’s and q’s for fear a lump would appear in his stocking.
George and others believe that the legend of St. Nicholas or Santa Claus can serve as a gateway to understanding the spirit of generosity during the holiday season.
The Rev. Barry Moriarty, interim pastor at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church, said Santa makes an appearance at the Lincoln Park parish every year for pancakes, eggs and photographs after a Mass.
“Families look forward to bringing the children to department stores or downtown, but having him right there at the parish is a nice kind of twist,” he said. “Our advice to them is to continue being generous and good this time of year. It’s the same advice that Santa gives to kids as well. We fold the two together.”
Indeed, Susan DeLay, a spokeswoman for South Barrington’s Willow Creek, compares the evangelical megachurch’s strategy to a popular illustration of Jolly Old St. Nick kneeling before a manger.
“That probably says as much about what we believe as anything,” she said. “Every knee shall bow to Jesus — even Santa!”