“Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” Gilead
I don’t dislike Santa. My wife has even said that for someone who isn’t a “Santa supporter” I enjoy a number of Santa related things. I like Santa movies (Miracle on 34thStreet; The Santa Clause; Elf) and Santa Christmas songs. I like some Santa decorations and knick-knacks. I like when local stores offer pictures with Santa for children. I’m not anti-Santa.
I’m not like “the church lady” Dana Carvey hilariously depicted in Saturday Night Live who saw Santa and Satan as one because their names shared the same letters. Nor do I think Christians need to be on the Holiday Crusades by making sure Jesus gets more attention for his birthday than Santa.
But as a parent, I don’t plan on convincing my children Santa is real and I don’t want to uphold the basic premise behind all Santa related stories. I’m not saying anyone who does this is a terrible person or a bad Christian, but my main problem with Santa is the underlying message in his stories (and yes, I also do have. The overall message of all Christmas stories—books, songs, movies, or TV shows—presents a gospel of works that is quite different from the gospel of grace in the Bible.
Grace vs Works
The story of how God treats us according to his grace is very unlike the tale of how Santa treats us based on our works. I understand why so many parents would want to get Santa on their side to help with behavior control. “You better be good or Santa won’t get you any presents.” I have an almost two-year-old and if that line worked with her I’d be tempted to use it. But as a parent, I just don’t think this message is how I want to motivate my child.
As I Christian parent I have to wrestle with this question: since Santa is presented as a god-like figure in many ways (all-knowing, all-seeing, ever-present, powerful, giver of gifts, judge and jury, etc.), do I want to reinforce stories teaching my kid to trust in their works and good deeds or to humbly admit they’ll never be good enough to earn God’s favor and gifts so they need to live by grace? I’ll take grace any day. And since by default we tend to relate to God by our works rather than grace, I don’t want to build stories into their life that construct a works-based way of living. That probably seems strong, but here’s some of my rationale.
The Santa story communicates a message of works and performance. If you are good enough, you get a gift and are rewarded for your work. If you’re good enough, you can make it on the “nice list” rather than the naughty list. What you get isn’t really a gift, it’s earned: either the present or the coal. As I Christian parent, do I want my kid to embrace stories teaching them that what they receive—gifts and blessing versus punishment—is based on their works and their behavior? (Again, the question isn’t can they watch a Santa movie but do I want to celebrate Santa in such a way it reinforces the basic premises in all the Santa stories.) For me, the answer is no.
As someone who believes we’re saved in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone, I’m willing to nail Luther’s 95 Theses to the door at Santa’s North Pole. While a “gospel of works” might be how the world works and how so many human relationships work, I want to do whatever I can to cultivate in my child a way of perceiving and living in the world where there’s a place for grace. The “Santa debate” at Christmas isn’t then a hill to die on for me but it’s simply another opportunity to show the beauty and goodness of living by grace.
God is not like Santa, sitting back and giving gifts to his children only when they earn it through their good behavior. God tells us if we try to relate to Him through our own works—through what we earn based on our good deeds versus bad deeds—this will never work out for us. When it comes to our standing before God and our relationship to God, our works aren’t the solution but they’re the problem. None of us are good enough (Rom. 3:19-23) to earn anything before a holy God because all of us sin or do bad things so often. Charles Spurgeon said, “Grace puts its hand on the boasting mouth, and shuts it once for all.”
But, through Jesus, God treats us not according to what we’ve earned but according to what Christ earned for us. We don’t get blessings based upon our works but because of his works. God relates to us from grace, not performance. God does not love me more or act with kindness on my good days, and he isn’t withholding good and sitting back in disappointment and anger with me on my bad days. On my own, every day is a bad day because every day I do something (some sin) contrary to God and His Word. I will never earn God’s love or favor or His kind gifts. That’s why I’ve placed my faith in Jesus and my whole relationship with God is based on who I am in Jesus, which means I receive grace and favor through him rather than what I merit on my own.
This means not just salvation but every good gift is actually out of God’s grace. The two words are even semantically related in Greek (the language the New Testament was written in). Grace is charis whereas gift is charisma or charismata. Biblically, a gift literally means a gift of grace. So (undeserved) gifts are by nature different from a payment earned. This is true not just of salvation (Rom. 3:21-26) but of any gifts from God we’re given. Consider just a few verses assuring us everything we have is fromGod and is a gift of grace.
“John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.’” (John 3:27)
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17)
“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
God doesn’t watch us to see who is good, who’s on the nice list, and then give gifts based upon what we’ve done. God sees each of us and knows we belong on the naughty list, but despite us he still loves us. Rather than giving us coal or judgment we deserve he fills our life with grace and goodness. He relates to us not according to what we deserve but according to grace, which is completely purchased by and found only in Jesus Christ.
Good vs Bad
A second, related problem to this is that through the Santa stories it’s never clear what the standard of goodness versus badness is that might get me on either his naughty or nice list. Although people might not like God’s standards in the Bible, it’s at least clear what they are and what he demands. Not only is a lack of standards for making it onto the nice list a problem but the Santa story has a wrong understanding of goodness. Santa stories suggest our status (naughty or nice) is based on whether or not our good deeds outweigh our bad.
Not only does the Bible make clear that God doesn’t weigh our deeds on a scale to see if we’ve been good enough, but our courts don’t work like this either. True justice is comprehensive, not comparative. I don’t get out of a traffic violation because the other 99% of the time I’m a responsible driver. Law-breaking and committing a crime stands by itself. It’s not measured against my overall performance nor is my guilt based on how I compare to others. If I break the law, that violation is seen as a crime and judged accordingly.
The Bible says sin, which is breaking a holy God’s Law, is similar. My good deeds don’t erase the bad. Specific sins are examples of breaking God’s Law, and that law-breaking results in a guilty verdict which a Just Judge will uphold. I’m not judged based on whether I’m a good or bad person overall. God isn’t unjust and so he won’t look the other way or let crimes off the hook because of other nice things we’ve done. Again, this is why we desperately need the grace of forgiveness rather than relating to God based upon my works.
My point in this extended rant isn’t to be anti-Santa or to tell anyone they shouldn’t watch Santa movies. I’ll continue to watch Santa movies and listen to Santa songs and even have some Santa décor in my house. But at least for me, that seems different from actively and intentionally trying to convince my child that Santa is real and upholding the basic Santa premise that we will get what we deserve on Christmas day.
Tim Keller writes, “This is the God who saves by grace. The Gods of moralistic religions favor the successful and the overachievers. They are the ones who climb the moral ladder up to heaven. But the God of the Bible is the one who comes down into this world to accomplish a salvation and give us a grace we could never attain ourselves.”
I can tell you as a parent, I buy my daughter gifts because I love her. I don’t get motivated to go shopping and get her gifts on the days she’s been good, and I’m not motivated to return her gifts and give her nothing when she’s bad. She’ll get a bunch of gifts on Christmas because I love her and because our father-daughter relationship and gift-giving is based on grace not performance. She’ll get gifts because she’s my daughter and I love her. Even though recently she’s been somewhat whiny, she disobeys us, she’s frustrated us, and she exhausts us at times, I still love her so much I have to restrain my fatherly impulse to buy her everything I see in the stores.
Christmas is not about earning but about gifting. It’s about grace, not performance. It’s about giving something to someone you love not because they deserve it but simply because you love them.
Thoughts? Pushback? Hate mail? I’d love to hear what other parents think or how they came to a decision on what they do or don’t say when it comes to Santa.
(For one of my blogs on what grace is and how it motivates good works, see here.)