My first memory of Santa is having to wait in line to see the big guy at a makeshift workshop in my neighborhood in Miami, Florida. I don’t remember if I was frightened, but I do remember having to wait in line for what seemed like an eternity. I also remember not knowing what to ask for. Somehow, I always received stuff I wanted on Christmas morn. He always seemed to know.
On Christmas Eve, my parents, attempting to get me and my sister to go to bed, would say that they could hear the rumblings of Santa’s sleigh several blocks over. So, with a sense of excitement and an element of fear, we would rush off to bed listening ever so closely for Santa’s arrival on our rooftop, before helplessly drifting off to sleep. The fact that we did not have a chimney was irrelevant. I was told that, somehow, he was always able to get in. The statement made me curious and left me a little unsettled.
I was never being able to catch Santa in the act. But, on Christmas morn, I did see evidence of his handiwork. He always sampled my mother’s cookies and drank some of the milk. Why he just sampled several cookies and never ate the whole thing was puzzling. Did he not know there were starving people in China? No matter, Santa left glistening presents under the tree and I had a fear that questioning Santa’s ethics would have repercussions that would perpetually place me on the naughty list.
I fully understood the naughty and nice list and, every December, I did my best to rectify my fearful dilemma. To me, it appeared that the list was not binary, but more of a spectrum. Santa had favorites. One Christmas morn, I looked outside at the neighbors’ house and saw the family across the street playing with their new toys. Investigating further, I found that Santa had brought one of them a Power Wheel’s car. They were on the nice list. I thought about the inequity and wondered why I did not get one. Perhaps, Santa’s list had been compromised or maybe I had been exceptionally naughty that year (the latter would be closer to the truth).
I’ll never forget the Christmas season when my sister and I were jumping on our parent’s bed and I rolled off. I was not hurt but was now at eye level to look under the bed. I noticed boxes of toys tucked away. One of them was a really cool jet that I really wanted to play with. I knew that I had found gold, but I was on someone else’s land so had to simply cover it back up and let it play out.
My sister and I were hush hush and went about our daily lives until Christmas morning when, to my joy, I got the jet! Interestingly, it did not come from my parents. It came from a higher authority. It was my passageway into adulthood. From that point on, Christmas lost some of its sparkle. Santa got run over by a Power Wheel’s car. The mystery and magic faded into materialism and empiricism.
I did not become a Christian until the age of 19. That first Christmas was nothing short of spectacular. It was the first time I truly understood what Christmas was all about. A lightbulb went on and the sparkle returned.
After getting married, and having children, my wife and I struggled with the whole Santa thing. Like every family, it was a personal decision we had to make. But, for us, it didn’t feel right to tell our children that Santa and God were real—only to have them discover later that we had told them a partial truth. In addition, we wanted them to know that dad and mom worked really hard to try to provide something special for them at Christmas. We knew that one day they would realize that, in life, sometimes the neighbors get a Power Wheels and you get a skateboard.
In our family, we wanted all the attention of Christmas to be upon Christ. We reached a workable compromise by focusing on Christ, being honest with our kids, and also creating an element of mystery and fun. The kids got presents from dad and mom, the dog, cat, and the parakeet. It was always fun and electric. The presents were always put out Christmas Eve and were not hidden under the bed. Been there.
We warned our kids not to “spoil” the fun for any of their friends or classmates whose family chose to celebrate differently. I’ll never forget one of the kids coming home from school and saying defiantly, “my teacher says that Santa is real and he brings the presents.” This child’s face was serious and their hands were firmly on their hips demanding a response. I think I commented back by saying, “we love you and want to be honest with you. Dad and mom make Christmas a special time by getting the presents.” Our little one was not convinced. They folded their arms and blurted back, “well my teacher says he’s real.” I concluded by offering to do an experiment. I said, “okay, let’s do this. Dad and mom will buy all the other kids presents except for you and we’ll see if Santa brings you anything.” After a few thoughtful moments, she changed her tune.
As a pastor, I’ve done a great deal of research on the history of Christmas and could write extensively. In short, no one knows the exact day of Christ’s birth. We do know that in the fourth century AD, Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth should be celebrated on December 25. The date merged Christmas with the pagan celebration of Saturnalia. It was an unholy compromise that began a slippery slope that led to Frosty the Snowman.
If you look around at most Christmas celebrations nowadays, Christ is reduced to a small figure in a nativity set under the tree, hidden by the wise men, shepherds, and the little drummer boy, while Santa, reindeer, elves, snowmen, elf on a shelf, and a host of other holiday fixtures take prominence in the front yard and in the home. The true, historical celebration of the Messiah’s birth is easily lost, or worse veiled, through an endless array of holiday décor.
But we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s possible to have a Christ-centered, fun celebration. My wife and I love the lights, colors, and the celebration of Christmas, but we also try to keep Christ as the central focus of our celebration. We also like to make it fun. All of our four children are grown now and each of them say that they appreciated our honesty and plan on taking the same approach with their own families. None of them needed counseling.
So, here I am, shivering, fingers and toes frozen, nose running, attaching Christmas lights to the gutter of the house. My wife is inside trying to figure out where to put our six trees and the Christmas village. It’s best for me to stay out of the way. In the end, although under protest, my outdoor mission will be to try to rival the illumination of the Griswolds.
I love Christmastime. If, for only a brief season, the world pauses to consider the whisper of the birth of Christ, I’m all for it. For me personally, Christmas is another day to celebrate what I know to be true all year long. Christ came into the world to seek and save the lost. Christmas is more than an event.
The problem with viewing Christmas as an “event” is that in early January, the lights, tree, and Christmas village will all be put back in the garage on the shelf. The unfortunate thing is many people lose the Christmas joy because happiness that is found in a box is only temporary.
The beautiful thing about seeing Christmas as a “season” which last all year is that even after the bling comes down, the joy remains. The difference is keeping Christ central. Because of Christmas, I have no fear of being on the naughty list. I know that my Redeemer lives and life makes sense. I still have the sparkle of Christmas.