He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

By Jeff Mallinson

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What should decent parents tell their children about Santa? This is trickier to answer than it might seem. It isn’t simply a question of whether we can play with pagan themes, or fib to our kids (leading to potential distrust about other matters), or obscuring the Reason for the season, or misleading children into thinking that the Jolly Old Elf doesn’t care about poor people.

The Man About Town and I discussed this topic on this week’s episode of Virtue in the Wasteland. One thing we didn’t explore enough was the way in which Santa serves to reinforce the Law, but not the Gospel. Santa is a moral bean counter. He cares, at least according to some, for those who have earned merit points, and gives only coal to those who’ve been naughty. Like the Almighty, he allegedly sees you when you’re sleeping … and knows when you’ve been bad or good. And when you’re bad, we don’t hear too much about the gracious nature of St. Nick.

Given all this, it might seem that we should limit our family Christmas fun to explicitly religious observances and stark truth telling. But I don’t think that’s all there is to this matter. After all, just because some Christians compose songs and talk about God purely in transactional, merit-based terms doesn’t mean that’s the only conversation we might have with our children. There are various ways we can talk about both religion and also the Santa myth.

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Recently, I came across an interesting letter from Martin Luther to his son Hänschen, reproduced in Joel Biermann’s A Case for Character: Toward a Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Kindle Location 2406-2411):

I know a pretty, beautiful, [and] cheerful garden where there are many children wearing little golden coats. [They] pick up fine apples, pears, cherries, [and] yellow and blue plums under the trees; they sing, jump, and are merry. They also have nice ponies with golden reins and silver saddles. I asked the owner of the garden whose children they were. He replied: “These are the children who like to pray, study, and be good.” Then I said: “Dear sir, I also have a son, whose name is Hänschen Luther. Might he not also [be permitted] to enter the garden, so that he too could eat such fine apples and pears, and ride on these pretty ponies, and play with these children?” Then the man answered: “If he too likes to pray, study, and be good, he too may enter the garden, and also Lippus and Jost. And when they are all together [there], they will also get whistles, drums, lutes, and all kinds of other stringed instruments; and they will also dance, and shoot with little crossbows.” And he showed me there a lovely lawn in the garden, all prepared for dancing, where many gold whistles and drums and fine sliver crossbows were hanging. But it was still so early [in the morning] that the children had not yet eaten; therefore I couldn’t wait for the dancing. So I said to the man: “Dear sir, I shall hurry away and write about all this to my dear son Hänschen so that he will certainly study hard, pray diligently, and be good in order that he too may get into this garden.

Here, Luther is obviously telling a fanciful tale to his son, though I hope he did pick up a youth crossbow during his travels. Biermann shared this quotation to show that there was a place for law-based motivation in Luther’s view of parenting. Instead of merely expecting the Gospel to do the work of motivating children to virtue, Biermann contends, he used other carrot and stick incentives. We might apply this to our present question by suggesting that Luther would have been cool with a story about Santa that involved rewards and threats. But three other insights occur to me here:

Luther im Kreis seiner Familie / Spang. - Luther amongst his family / Spangenberg. - Luther dans sa famille / Spangenberg

First, I believe there was backdrop of graciousness in the Luther home, and that makes all the difference. I can almost hear Luther smiling through his letter. I suspect his son knew that he was messing around. If he were seriously bribing his children here, he would indeed be a liar, unless he could produce a real pony ride party. If a father lives in such a way that his children know he has deep, agape love for them, such statements cause little ones to giggle and hug dad when he comes home, not doubt his goodness.

Second, Luther paints a beautiful picture for us to consider this Advent. We sometimes rightly worry that commercialism and kitsch dominate our culture. But Luther liked dancing and frivolity. Too often, however, well-meaning parents fear such joy, in the name of serious religious education. They are too stern about this Christmas stuff. If we don’t laugh and play as Luther did, I think that indicates we didn’t really catch the delightful tune of the Gospel in the first place. He doesn’t say, “Be good or get whipped.” He doesn’t say, “I’ll give you some money if you listen to mom.” His is a family that sings, plays instruments, and plays in the yard. That’s what the gospel does for a family, and we should at least make that a mark of our Christmas celebration together.

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Third, Luther’s approach here is what I was trying to get at on the podcast, but didn’t communicate as well as I could have. The question is: should we lie about Santa to our kids? The answer is: it depends. What kind of relationship do you have with them? Do you play make believe? Do you talk about magical tales? Are they the sort of people who want you to be straightforward and give them just the facts? Decide all this in your own context. If your kids know that you are the sort of playful, loving parent who likes to build forts out of couch cushions and sheets and make fairy traps in the back yard, then tell all the tall tales all you’d like. I think Luther would tell his kids that Santa was coming to give gifts were he alive today. He might do it with a wink. He would certainly do so with a smile. And on Christmas morning, he would likely have presents under a pagan bush (though the legend that he invented the Christmas tree is almost certainly apocryphal). He could have all this fun in Christian freedom, and in a home marked by grace.

Perhaps, then, the main question isn’t what precise formula you should employ when talking to your kids about Santa, but rather what kind of ethos you want to communicate this Christmas. So, as you finish up your Christmas shopping, don’t forget that one of the best parts of the season is our collective commitment to an attitude of joyous, gratuitous kindness. Don’t forget to make sure that item is on your list.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed between chapters of Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermons, sipping my best attempt at mulled wine.

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2 thoughts on “He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

  1. I think most kids, even the most gullible younger ones, just stop believing in Santa Claus earlier than most parents realize. They play along with the idea because of the gifts coming their way, and it dawns on them that Santa Claus is just a fable. However, it is the parents who often try to keep him alive in order to enjoy Christmas through their kids. Children are smarter than most adults realize, understanding that animals like bears and kittens which talk in the make believe books read to them at bedtime are just fictional. They just play along. I know I did it as a kid. My school friends in 1st grade and even later discovered that even the best parents often lie. Parents should just tell the truth about Santa early on, and focus on Jesus.

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  2. This article was a lot of fun, Jeff. I especially enjoyed reading that excerpt from Luther’s letter. My older son absolutely loves to pretend all kinds of things. Whether its superheros or cooking, ninjas or doctor, he just loves to make believe.

    I hope that I will be able to encourage that imaginative and playful spirit in him.

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