Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
As we approach ever closer to Christmas, something I've always pondered (which I was surprised to find, interestingly enough, is a topic not addressed on the popular Catholic Answers website) is if it is actually a sin (venial, of course) for parents to teach their children to believe in Santa Claus. And by that, I am not talking about belief in St. Nicholas - obviously, as Catholics we recognize that St Nicholas is a revered saint in the Church and he's clearly the original inspiration for the fable of Santa Claus. But I'm talking about parents teaching their children to believe in the pop culture notion of Santa Claus: you know, the big fat jolly old man, white beard, red suit, reindeer and bag of toys, elves at the North Pole, and all. Is it technically a sin for Catholic parents to teach their children into believing these things? Is it a form of lying (which the Church condemns)? My own parents are devout Catholics, and they assured me that it is not a sin (they taught both my sister and I to believe in Santa when we were kids). But I'm still not entirely sure. It would be nice to have a more "official" answer on the matter. If I ever have kids of my own one day, I honestly want to know if I am sinning by misleading my kids into believing the pop culture notion of Santa Claus as parents commonly teach their kids to do. Perhaps you could do a blog on the subject if you get a chance; either way, I'd be interested to hear your take on the matter.
I tend to be loath to tell other people how to raise their kids, so I'm never quite comfortable with questions like this. But it's a question that comes up pretty much every year and since it's my reader asking for my opinion rather than me thrusting my nose into my reader's business and telling him what to do, here goes.
I'm not going to try to adjudicate the question of sin here, and I'm skeptical it's very helpful to try. I can pretty much guarantee the Church will *never* give you an official answer, because it's just not what the teaching office of the Church does, any more than the Magisterium issues encyclicals on whether you should get the creamed or whole kernel corn. The Church's teaching office exists to give us basic principles of the Tradition and some general guidance on how to apply them. But then it's up to us to form our consciences and act accordingly. Parents who tell their kids about Santa are typically carrying on a beloved tradition in which they themselves were raised. Accusing them of sin seems a rather harsh approach to me. That said, I think my reader's point is basically well-taken that there is, at the very least, a real danger involved in teaching our children to seriously believe in the existence of Santa Claus since the disappointment of discovering they were deceived about him can be an almost irresistible temptation in our post-Christian culture to conclude they were also deceived about the existence of the Christ Child. We are, like it or not, no longer living in a Christian culture where the natural reinforcers to assist faith in Christ are there to help children deal with the disappointment of finding out Santa is not real. I'm not altogether convinced, myself, that it was ever wise to make children believe the Santa story, but I also recognize that the vast majority of people who do so are trying to give their children a little experience of wonder at Christmastime and that they have in mind their own experiences of wonder that they treasure despite their own experience of disappointment at losing Santa.
The way our own family navigated the matter was to a) make sure that our kids understood Santa was just a story; b) make clear the connection to the real St. Nicholas (who is a pretty cool character); and c) to bring it around to the main (and fun) part: being a Secret Giver. Our kids still got to enjoy Santa and The Night Before Christmas and all the rest, but they never had to experience the confusion of "Mom and Dad lied to us." So that's what I would recommend. The bottom line, as ever in such matters, is "Is your conscience bothering you? Then it's probably best to interrogate your conscience in light of basic church teaching and find out why your conscience is bugging you, then do what seems to you to be loving toward your kids." People *will* come to different conclusions here, all in good faith, so we should avoid judging others. For our familiy's part, we basically concluded, like my reader, that teaching our children to believe in Santa being as real as Jesus was lying to them and setting them up for a fall, so we found another way to address Santa that kept the fun but ditched the lie. Others may find other paths and that's between them and God. But since my reader asked, that's what we have done at Chez Shea. So far, in the words of The Who, the kids are alright.