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Debate: Should children be told that Father Christmas isn’t real?

Or does that lessen the wonder and magic of Christmas?

By on Thursday, 16 December 2010

Santa Claus: a commercialised symbol of Christmas (Photo: PA)

Santa Claus: a commercialised symbol of Christmas (Photo: PA)

This week an archbishop in Argentina said that children should not confuse Christmas with “a fat man dressed in red”. He said that, “in reality, the gifts come from the efforts of their parents and with the help of Jesus”.

William Oddie, Herald blogger, is appalled. “I hope the archbishop enjoys his plate of gruel on Christmas day,” he writes. He argues that we should try to reclaim pagan traditions, to re-Christianise the wonder of the Christmas season, not just cancel them entirely.

Fr Ray Blake, on the other hand, is sympathetic to the archbishop. Although he says he never wants to be the Father who ruined Christmas, he explains:

“I think we Catholics ought to avoid implicating ourselves in deliberately deceiving children, just in case they see the Incarnation as being equally untrue.”

Parents, too, are in a delicate situation. Andrew M Brown wrote in the Catholic Herald print edition last week that, while he tries not to tell his children elaborate fictions about Santa, he does not want to be a killjoy either. Here’s his compromise:

“Our children are clear that at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Christ. I’ve told them the bare minimum about Santa – that he gives presents to children who’ve been good and that he’s connected with St Nicholas. Anyway, our five-year-old son is already showing signs of scepticism: all he bothered to produce by way of a ‘letter to Santa’ was a crude shopping list of items.”

So, should children be told that Father Christmas is a fraud, or be told very little about him? Or does that lessen the wonder and magic of the season?

  • Genera Davids

    I think the Argentine archbishop is right. Children should not think that Christmas is a fat man in a red suit. But it doesn't mean that Christmas need be stripped of its joy and jollity, of the magic that the Coca-Cola advertisers of the 1950s sold so convincingly with their Santa Claus ads or the jolly pagan Father Christmas of 19th century British popular imagination. In Spain, the Reyes bring children their presents on the Epiphany. In Germany and other parts of central Europe, where Christmas is celebrated on the eve of Christ's birth, the Christ Child (Christkind) brings the gifts under the Christmas tree.

    Combined with the figure of the Christ Child in the crib at Midnight Mass, Christ present in the Mass, there is a natural progression to the theology of Christmas and the Mass itself. And it avoids that hideous moment in parents' lives, when a child returns home from school distraught, and says, “Susy told me Father Christmas isn't real. Mummy, Daddy, he is isn't he?”

    They will probably return home from school with a far greater and more difficult question, but it is one that parents do not need to invent fictions about.

  • Scott P. Richert

    I think the better question is, How should Catholics prepare for Christmas? On this, William Oddie, Fr. Ray Blake, and Andrew M. Brown, I suspect, would speak with one voice. If we prepare ourselves and our families properly, then we're very unlikely to find ourselves in the situation where we have to explain that Santa Claus isn't real.

    Our children have grown up truly celebrating Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas. We celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6, and that brief respite from the “little Lent” of Advent has made a powerful impression on their minds from a very young age.

    One salutary effect of the dual celebration of Advent and the Feast of Saint Nicholas is that our children have never seen Santa Claus in quite the same light as other children do. They recognize him for what he is—a secular version of Saint Nicholas; Saint Nick for the masses, so to speak.

    And so Santa Claus's “reality” for them has always been a reflection of the underlying reality of Saint Nicholas, whose life is itself a reflection of the underlying reality of the love of Christ, Who comes into our world at Christmas.

    This is where so many well-meaning Catholic parents go wrong: They think that their children aren't capable of understanding the true meaning of Christmas or the lives of the saints, and so they see Santa Claus as something simple, which children can grasp.

    But children have a firmer grasp of reality than we realize. (Any parent will recognize the truth in Canadian novelist Robertson Davies' description of children as “literal-minded toughs.”) Any child who can grasp the concept of Santa Claus can understand the real Saint Nicholas, and, in understanding Saint Nicholas, can begin to understand the mystery of the Incarnation and the depth of God's love for us, which it represents.

  • BarbaraKB

    Wow. A Catholic bishop buying into a Protestant's understanding of a beloved (albeit, over-commercialized) saint? Is this a first? Children, and parents, with any amount of sense, know that Christmas can be both Santa Claus bringing presents and Jesus' birth. Just last year, after my son opened presents, he proclaimed, “okay, now it's time to give our gifts to Jesus!” Catholics, let's not ruin a beautiful tradition of giving children gifts on Christmas day!

  • PhilipH

    I'm with the Archbishop on this. Santa is just a distraction and a symbol of all the commercialization of Christmas. I figured out pretty quickly as a child he didn't exist, and got annoyed with my parents who kept on going on about him. So yes, if I had any children I would tell them that Santa wasn't real. As it is, with my nephews and nieces I always have refused to discuss Santa with them – if it is mentioned, I just change the subject..

  • R Collinsassoc

    But Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus is real! He is a saint of the Catholic Church! What is Fr Ray playing at? I comprehend the dislike of how secular commercialism has hijacked the saint figure but, as children we were told that St Nicholas gave to the poor and that was how the tradition of a jolly man in a red suit began.
    I agrre with William Oddie – bah! humbug!

  • W Oddie

    Actually, my point is that Father Christmas (a.k.a., Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas) absolutely is real, is not a fraud. We kept his feast day earlier this month. He may have been paganised by secular culture: but the answer is not to say he doesn't exist but to de-paganise him, to reclaim him for the church. It's not such a bad thing that there are parts of our supposedly post-Christian culture which have a christian origin: it means they are there for us to reinvest with Christian meaning.

  • EditorCT

    What a very sad day it is, when the most simple little innocence of childhood such as belief in Santa, is taken away.

    I was at school with folk like you who didn't believe in Santa. I'll spare you my opinion of them.

    Tell me, PhilipH – are you in favour of telling children all about sex? As early as possible?

    I ask because, to date, in my experience, those who hate the innocence of childish belief in Santa Claus, hate innocence, per se.

  • EditorCT

    Scott P Richert,

    I have very intelligent little nephews who can tell me all about “the real Santa Claus – St Nicholas” but still believe in “Santa” who comes at Christmas with gifts. There is absolutely nothing wrong and everything right with that. The only reason that anyone could possibly object, is if their own soul is seriously corrupt and they cannot appreciate the beauty of an innocent child.

    I take it you are the same Scott P. Richert whose disgraceful article on the papacy in last week's Herald forced me to take some of my precious time and devote it to writing a letter to the editor which I'm told has not been published, although there is yet another letter in from the pro-contraceptive, pro-gay Elizabeth Price. I'll check out a copy of the Herald tomorrow, but if my friend is right and there is no letter of correction published to put right your errors, then I'll be sending Luke Coppen another email – in very much less friendly tone, be assured. For, the editor is unconscionable to allow your manifest errors about the papacy to go uncorrected and then, to compound his guilt by preferring to publish more error over a correction. God help him at his judgment.

    If you'd like a copy of my letter just email me at and I will forward it to you.

  • EditorCT

    For goodness sake, children for generations have grown up believing in Santa Claus without it interfering at all with the story of Christ's birth.

    Elementary, my dear Watson. Very, very elementary.

  • Daniel Hayes

    Surely what is more disturbing is that some Bishops are indifferent as to the existence of God?

  • Michael Whyte

    We have scientific proof that santa doesnt exist. I agree with the archbishop; we shouldnt lie to our children.

  • Angela1943

    I worked it out at five years old and never really went along with it with my children. St Nicholas is real and he story can be told to the children. Christmas is not about presents.

  • Guyfromspace

    Catholics. Pah. But you would know all about children though wouldn’t you.

  • Tom Fallowfield

    I’m surprised. I would have thought an early blurring of the distinction between real and not real in your children’s minds would prepare them nicely for the “virgin” birth and so on. 

  • Mikeharmer80

    What is wrong with you all. Whenever did a bit of fantasy do any harm to a child? They will grow up and learn the reality of the real, commercial, dishonest world soon enough as it is, without robbing them of a bit of enjoyment and wonder when they are tiny. Haven’t you ever looked at your children’s faces first thing on Christmas morning, and seen the wonder in theireyes? Any sensibly brought up child will (a) know that Christmas is all about Jesus’ birthday, and (b) have discovered the truth for himself by the time he is six, so why spoil it before then? In any case, we, the sensible parents, enjoy it just as much as they do!