A pastor preaches on the true meaning of Christmas, warning about sins of selfishness and materialism. Then, in a moment of candor, disaster strikes. This time the dateline was Santa Fe Springs, California. Local newspapers, followed by national wire services, reported that Father Ruben Rocha of St. Pius X Catholic School did something shocking during a Mass for students in kindergarten through third grade. He told the children that there is no Santa Claus.
The church hierarchy sprang into action. “There's a time and place for everything, and this was not the time or the place or the age group to be talking about the true meaning of Christmas, at least in terms that young children cannot understand,” Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the media.
Father Rocha apologized in writing to parents. Few details of his sermon are known beyond reports that, in response to a child's question, he said that parents eat the milk and cookies left for Santa. As a public service to cautious clergy, it might help to review the few options available to those considering discussing the spiritual and commercial versions of Christmas with children. Santa is hard to avoid. Nevertheless, remaining silent is the first option. Many clergy and parents do not choose silence because it affirms the schizophrenic, secular-sacred Christmas split.
The second option is to nix Santa, right up front. Beliefnet.com columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green has offered blunt reasons for why Christian parents should gently reject the Santa Claus scenario.
“First, it's a big fat lie,” she said. “What kind of an example are you setting here? How stupid are your kids going to feel when they realize they fell for this? What else of what you taught them are they going to doubt?”
She's just getting started: “The Santa myth teaches kids ingratitude…. They learn that goodies magically appear and don't cost anybody anything. Their role in life is just to open packages and enjoy. It also teaches greed. We may say piously that we want our children to develop just and generous virtues, but filling them with images of a toy-wielding potentate with a lifetime pass on eToys will knock all that flatter than Kansas.”
There is a third option for tradition-loving clergy and parents and, truth be told, I have never read a headline about a pastor being nailed for using it. Call it the St. Nicholas option. It is especially easy for believers in Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican churches that emphasize the lives of the saints. The goal is to teach children about the 4th-century bishop known as St. Nicholas of Myra, while noting that elements of his story later helped inspire the secular story of Santa Claus.
According to church tradition, he was born into wealth and gave his inheritance to the poor. The most famous story about the bishop is captured in the Charity of St. Nicholas icon. It shows him visiting a poor family at night, carrying a bag of gold. The father could not provide dowries for his daughters, which meant they could not marry. Nicholas rescued them from ruin by dropping gold coins through a window. These gifts fell into their stockings, which had been hung up to dry. The rest, as they say, is history.
The feast of St. Nicholas falls on December 6 and, in parts of the world, remains a day for gift-giving and alms for the poor. It is also a good time to discuss the pre-Christmas season of Advent or, in Eastern tradition, Nativity Lent. The message to children is simple. Yes, there is a real St. Nicholas. But he is not what Christmas is all about. Playing the St. Nicholas card is the best option, but it is not without its risks, said Father Nicholas Bargoot, an Eastern Orthodox priest here in South Florida.
“With all the commercialism that surrounds us, we still have to be careful when we make that link that we do not to tarnish the reality of St. Nicholas and who he is,” he said. “It is still easy for young children to be confused. I mean, what is St. Nicholas doing at the mall?”
Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.