Q. Is is appropriate to take my children to see Santa Claus? How much of the Santa Claus story should our family talk about at Christmas?
A. Santa Claus, of course, is a modern name for St. Nicholas, the holy and faithful fourth-century bishop of Myra, a city in modern day Turkey. St. Nicholas was a brilliant theologian, who defended the faith from the Arian heresy at the Council of Nicea.
There is a pious legend, which is probably rooted in real truth, about the generosity of St. Nicholas. He’d heard about a poor man whose daughters were living in poverty, and unable to marry for lack of a dowry. He knew they’d likely turn to prostitution without some assistance. So he gathered bags of coins, and, to avoid being detected, dropped them down the chimney at night. Another story told that Bishop Nicholas would often walk the streets of his city at night, and leave coins for poor families, often placed in shoes left in the doorway to dry. Those stories, which are nearly 2,000 years old, have over the years evolved into the stories and myths about Santa Claus.
Honoring St. Nicholas at Christmas, and celebrating his generosity, and the Christian spirit of service to his neighbors, is a good thing for all families. And helping children to marvel at the Incarnation in a way they can understand, by imbuing it with wonder at stories like St. Nicholas’, helps to form them in faith. Celebrating the pious and Catholic traditions of Christmas helps children to celebrate the presence of Jesus Christ.
But of course, replacing the Incarnation, or even the truth about St. Nicholas, with an overly-commercialized and consumeristic emphasis on Santa Claus and his sack of presents distorts the meaning of Christmas. Fostering not wonder, but belief—expectant and concrete belief—that Santa will come down the chimney with gifts for nice children and coal for naughty children is confusing, and disruptive to the formation of Catholic children. To foster wonder, enchantment, and hope through stories like St. Nicholas is very beautiful. To make Christmas an exercise in consumerism or unhealthy fantasies is not.
Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.