When my children were younger, this time of year was filled with dread of the inevitable question from well-meaning adults everywhere: “What do you want Santa to bring you?”. A pretty universal holiday question, but a bit of a stumbling block for my kids. Santa never brought them anything. They didn’t believe in Santa.
Is Santa banned from my house? Not at all. We can (usually) name the reindeer, we appreciate a jolly man in a red suit, and we proudly display our so-hideous-it’s-glorious dancing Santa figure who shakes his hips to the tune of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”. We have Santa in our house. I just never taught my children that Santa Claus is a real person. Just like I didn’t teach them that Elmo or Mickey Mouse are real. Santa’s a real story. He’s just not real.
Children don’t inherently believe in Santa. They’re taught to believe, just like they’re taught the names of colors, how to cross the street, and how to share with their friends. Children are born with instincts, not knowledge. Parenting is adding that knowledge. It’s years of the little daily monotonies and the giant life-changing crossroads. It’s the useful little thing I teach them about how to play a new game as a child. It’s the essential lesson I teach them about how to function as an adult. Living is about daily adding to our experiences as a human being. Even the painful things add something to how we understand the world around us. The millions of tiny, raw and real moments together add up to a life. There really is no taking away. There’s only adding. So, we didn’t take Santa away from our children, we just never added him into their lives.
What we did add was the lives of the Saints, including the real person named St. Nicholas. Saints’ lives are incredible stories. The “so good they can’t be made up” kind of amazing stories. Saints are real people with real experiences, successes, and failures. The more we meet them through their biographies, the services written for them, and most importantly, through asking for their prayers, they cease being a story and become a living person. We realize they are friends and family unlike any we have in this world. They only want good for us, and their singular motive is love. They have allowed God to work through them unhindered, and they are still very much alive in Christ and waiting to have a relationship with us.
Sure, I introduce all kinds of fictional stories to my children. I’m a homeschooler. It’s literally my job to read fiction to my children! I read them nursery rhymes, and picture books, and novels. I encourage them to play and imagine and dream. I leave room in their schedules for unstructured imagination. All of these things are good, but there is something even better. I also read to them the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints. I encourage them to have conversations with the Saints and get to know them personally. I leave room in their schedules for God to step in and work in the lives of my children more than I could ever imagine.
The Saints add so much value to our lives. We share joy and sorrow together. We worship God together. We live in Christ together. The impact they can have on our spiritual and physical life is so massive, addition no longer covers it. Because that’s how love is. It isn’t added. It’s multiplied.
When I truly look at the depth of love that knowing a Saint like St. Nicholas adds to my children’s lives, my only response can be to do everything I can to clear their path to knowing him. The holiday season starts as a blank slate. We choose what we want to add to it. Even when we think we don’t have a choice, we do. If we don’t step up and control our lives, the world will do it for us, and the result is never pretty. We decide what and who we invite into our celebration.
At Christmas time in my family, we hear stories about Santa Claus, but we meet a person named St. Nicholas. If I taught my kids that Santa was real, I would someday have to take that belief away from them. I would rather spend those few, precious years of childhood teaching them about the things they can believe for the rest of their lives and beyond. Instead of creating an illusion of a false person, I would rather add the truth of relationships with real human beings to their lives, who they can meet and know and love forever.
So, on December 6th, we join with so many around the world and remember the great man of God named St. Nicholas. We put coins in the shoes of the young ones to remember St. Nicholas’s love and compassion for everyone in need around him. We take our kids to church and ask for St. Nicholas’s prayers, not his presents. We teach our children to believe in a man worth believing in.
Holy Father Nicholas, pray for my family today and always. Do not give us presents of earthly things that will fade away. Give us rather the gift of a heart that is open to seeing and receiving Christ. In the manger, on the Cross, and in the Eucharist. Today, on Nativity, and for eternity. Help us to make the most of the remaining days of this Fast. To prepare for the gift of the light in the darkness, so our joyful hearts may be ready to proclaim in one voice with you and all the Saints: Christ is Born! Glorify Him!