Teaching Our Kids the True Wonder of Christmas

Besides that angel-baby with wings and a bow and arrow on Valentine’s Day, probably no other saint has been more transformed by culture than Saint Nikolaos of Myra. Blame Dickens or Macy’s or the Grinch, but Santa Claus is simultaneously a source of joy and frustration for Christian parents.

It is understandable that parents feel a sense of trepidation regarding the cultural narrative of Santa. In a season of so much busyness and activity, it is challenging for any of us to focus on the “true meaning of Christmas.” How well do most of us do keeping up with Advent devotionals? I repeat the creed of Wham’s Last Christmas far more than Philippians 2.

In truth, it can be hard for parents, in the chaos of cultural Christmas, to remember the reason why we are dragging trees into our houses, putting lights on our roofs, and hanging socks on our mantles. But God, through the least assuming teenager, in the least assuming village, on the least assuming night, sent the One who holds together all that is seen and unseen. He climbed down the back entrance of earth and into humanity. He came to be born in the likeness of men. He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-7).

This mystery of all mysteries is not easily accessible; I don’t think it was ever meant to be. But this leaves us as parents in an incredibly challenging position a Christmas. How do we help our kids focus on the Advent of Christ when the Christmas of Santa seems to have way better PR?

I wouldn’t dream of telling another Christian parent what they can or cannot do with the Santa story. Typically, my parenting advice is limited to: spend more time with your kids and let them know you need Jesus. But I do have three encouragements for the parents who choose to incorporate the Santa story in their Christmas celebrations.

First, acknowledge that we all focus on what we care about. One of my favorite singer-songwriters, David Ramirez, has a song called People Call Who They Wanna Talk To. The song is a rebuke to the “I’ve been meaning to call you,” and the “I’ve been wanting to get together.” Ramirez simply states, “You would call if you wanted to.” If Santa or elves or presents rule the narrative in your home, don’t blame Hallmark – we talk to our kids about what we want to. The imperative is on us as parents. If we are looking for our secular culture to change and to become the surrogate promulgators of the Reason for the Season, we are succumbing to the marshmallow world in the winter.

It bears repeating; If something matters to you, it will show up in your life.

The strong current of cultural Christmas will direct your family as much as you let it. Too often, it is our silence that permits the culture to tell our children a different narrative. Like Mike Cosper says in Recapturing the Wonder, it’s our job as parents to tell a better Story. Which leads to my next encouragement.

The wonder of Santa Claus is no match for the wonder of the Incarnation. Right now, I don’t know any parents deliberating on how to handle fictional characters like Mickey Mouse or Star Wars or Princesses. We aren’t afraid that we are deceiving our kids when we read to them about a pigeon who wants to drive a bus. Fantasy is part of childhood. Encouraging imagination is part of preparing a child to engage the sheer wildness of the God who came to be with us. If we teach our children only to consider what is within reach, we will fail to foster a worldview wherein humility is strength, service is leadership, and death itself can be crossed over into life (John 5:24).

Lastly, Santa isn’t the problem, unless we let him become the problem. There will certainly be families in your community who will take the general set pieces of Christmas (Santa, reindeer, presents, etc.) and develop a recognizable but inert, cultural Christmas that does not require the pains of a Virgin giving birth to the divine-human conceived through the Holy Spirit, who will be a ransom for many.

See why wonder is necessary?

A pastor I work closely with shook my parenting world when he encouraged me to let my kids in on the fact that we Christians are the strange ones. Our choices, commitments, convictions, and creeds – we are the strangers in this world. Peter graciously and accurately lets us in on the calibrating reality that we are the ones who are pilgrims traveling through this wearisome land (1 Peter 2:11).

If you choose to include Santa in your Christmas celebrations (I support those who don’t and who advise against), but if you choose to, take all the good you can: all the wonderful, the imaginative, and the delightful. Set out the cookies and the milk and listen for hoofprints on the roof. Because, dear parents, you are inviting your children into a much wilder and far more outrageous narrative this Christmas; Immanuel – God with us!

Through the fasting and the feasting, you are inviting your kids to receive a King who comes to make His blessings flow, and not simply with presents under the tree. But if those little presents given and received on the feast of His birth are a tiny taste for your children of the sweetest delights of Christ and His Kingdom, then may the merry bells keep ringing and may your every wish come true.

4 Practical Suggestions

  • Ask your extended family to help you reign in the cultural Christmas tendencies of overbuying presents, overemphasizing Santa, and under-celebrating Jesus. Invite the grandparents, uncles, and aunts to help you set the Christmas scene for your kids. This is also a great way to engage your family in the good news of Jesus.
  • Commit to talking about Jesus Christ more than Santa Claus. With young kids, they won’t know to celebrate any differently than what you show them. They must know without question that their parents are celebrating the birth and longing for the return of Jesus, far beyond anything else.
  • Ask your children questions about Christmas, everything from candy canes to Bethlehem. Asking them questions about how they understand Christmas validates their thinking, helps you understand what they are thinking, and promotes a family approach to shaping your celebration.
  • Invite your kids to experience waiting, longing, and expectation of Advent and Christmas. It is our privilege as parents to speak directly with our kids about what we are ultimately waiting for, longing for, and expecting in the return of Christ and the fullness of His Kingdom. Lesser narratives are only dangerous when we neglect to tell the ultimate Story. This renders the Santa Claus story as a wonderful opportunity for learning wonder and waiting.

Dr. Jeffrey Heine is Pastor of Teaching & Discipleship at Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, AL. A graduate of Murray State University in Kentucky, Jeff went on to get his MDiv and DMin at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL. Jeff is married and has two girls.

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