Keeping children in the dark about Santa, and using the Christmas figure to coerce good behavior from them, can be spiritually and emotionally damaging to youth, says Cassandra Carkuff Williams.
It’s a message that hasn’t been all too popular over the years, especially among parents, said Williams, a former small-town church pastor who currently serves as national director of discipleship ministries for the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
“The reactions are understandably defensive.”
Williams opened herself up to another potential salvo after authoring a December article for The Christian Citizen in which she shares about her decision to come out “as ‘anti-Santa in the 1980s.”
The essay covers her concerns about how “the Santa myth,” which include its impact on marginalized families and bad theology.
“It reinforces the notion of an all-powerful being who rewards us or punishes us based on our merit,” she said. “It probably hasn’t done damage to a lot of people, but it has done damage to some people.”
This week, Williams spoke with Baptist News Global about the experiences – personal and observed – that convinced her it’s time to get honest with kids about Santa. The following are her comments, edited for clarity.
Did you believe in Santa as a child? If so, do you recall seeing through it?
Yes, I did. And I don’t remember when I stopped believing. Obviously, it wasn’t traumatic for me. But I grew up very poor and my mother told us she had to send Santa money for the gifts and that’s how I understood we weren’t always going to get what we wanted.
As a pastor, what was the final straw that led you to “come out” on this issue?
I just remember becoming uncomfortable with it. I was the pastor of a small church in the 80s and there was in general in the Church not a lot of awareness of the impact that these traditions on marginalized children. It’s not that I’m anti-Santa because I believe it’s not Christian or that it’s pagan. For me the main thing was that at Christmastime children are hearing about this nice guy who knows everything you do and if you’re good you’re going to get a lot of gifts. It was that piece that really bothered me because there are a lot of children who are very good and they are not going to get a lot of gifts, and they internalize that.
Doesn’t also require some level of dishonesty on the part of parents?
That’s the other part of it for me. I saw the effort and the lengths that parents went to keep their children believing in Santa. And those efforts were often so much stronger than the lengths they went to encourage them to believe in Jesus. Children are going to age out of that magical stage eventually, but parents take that personally sometimes. Just let them naturally age out of that. If you have to go to ridiculous lengths to convince your children that Santa is real, you don’t need to be doing that.
How does this play into notions of reward and punishment?
It can be problematic. It does feed into what I think is somewhat heretical in presenting Santa as an all-powerful being who is rewarding or punishing us. We believe that God loves us no matter how we fail but we still function with this reward-punishment model which is ingrained in us through our parenting and our schools.
Then what are some healthy ways to keep Santa?
I would really like to see Santa treated as a myth. It’s something we can we play with. Your 3-year-old is going to be either terrified of him or be enamored with him, just like when when you take them to Disneyland and they see Pluto – not as an all-powerful being, not someone who decides what you get for Christmas for being good or bad.