So, Santa and John Calvin Walk into a Bar…

Post Author: Erica Schemper


Kinda looks like Santa, no?

It’s the time of year again, when we try to figure out what to do with Santa around here. And this year, I’ve reached some new clarity on the issue, with the help of Zora’s continually astute questions and a little assist from my dear John Calvin.

To review, we never really told Zora about Santa. She caught on when she got to preschool. Now in her third year of formal schooling, she asks if Santa is real. My stock answer is, “Well, what do you think?” (Good, huh? Feel free to steal that line. It’s definitely one of my finer parenting techniques.) I’m with my good friend Martha on this (well, truth be told I’m not quite as freaked out by the whole thing as she is, but I like her thoughts about gratitude.)

Around here, we do stockings. We also do shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas and give the kids one early toy (instead of a bunch of candy or crap they don’t need). We read the Demi book, The Legend of St. Nicholas. I recommended it to my friend John a couple years ago. And while he enjoyed it, he did point out that the stories about Nicholas from ancient Christian tradition are much much stranger and freakier than the creepy old guy who invades your house by chimney.

There are things, though, that bug me about the Santa tradition that I haven’t always been able to articulate.

But Zora, perceptive little being, helped me identify my  biggest issue with Santa this week. We were walking home from school and she was describing the class “trip” to Holland that day. (Her class is “travelling” to different countries to learn about holiday traditions this week.) Now, I don’t know exactly what was said in class, but, while there was no direct discussion of Zwarte Piet (aka Black Peter), there seems to have been some kid who brought up some version of the idea that someone travels with Sinterklaas and punishes the bad kids (curiously, it was also a different version than David Sedaris’s treatment of the subject in his hilarious description of Dutch holiday tradition).

So this gets Zora into discussing “the naughty list”.

And it hits me. I hate the naughty list. First off, it’s an empty threat. I mean what modern, with-it parent is going to actually act on the naughty list threat? This is basic parenting, folks. Don’t propose a consequence you have no intention of following through on.

But, I don’t believe in the naughty list.

Now, don’t get me wrong here: I don’t think kids should have “Santa” as their main model for how God is. But, at its best, the Santa tradition does embody something of the truth about God. Demi puts it well:

Throughout the world today, whether he goes by the name of St. Nicholas, Sinter Klaas, or Santa Claus, this figure who shows enormous generosity, a love of children, deep care for the poor and needy, and a completely selfless nature is considered to embody the spirit of Christmas and the true spirit of the Lord.

And I don’t completely agree with the argument that a kid whose parents lie about Santa will make the leap to an idea that the parents are lying about Jesus.

But, I do think that we get some of our image of what a benevolent higher power is like from the cultural version of Santa.

And I would prefer not to have a God who keeps a naughty list. We’re accountable, of course, for the awful stuff we do. But the naughty list comes without a hint of grace.

We don’t get gifts (or “graces”) because we’re good. We get gifts because we are loved.

These thoughts all coalesce in my brain in about a half block of walking. I have 2 blocks left before we get home. And I have to figure out how to explain it to Zora.

So, here’s what I say:

Me: “You know, Z, I don’t like the naughty list. I think that’s just something parents tell their kids to try to get them to be good.”

Zora: “So, is Santa real?”

Me: “What do you think?”

Zora: distracted by water in the gutter…water is a novelty here in California

Me: “And, here’s the thing: I think you should be good not to get on a list, or because you’ll get presents. You should do good things because you’re glad that there are people who love you.”

And that, friends, is Calvin’s Third Use of the Law (*see brief theological explanation below), right there, boiled down to first grade level (yes, it is more complicated than first grade level, but we have to start somewhere).

God doesn’t keep a naughty list that determines whether or not you are graced (gifted) with the presence of Jesus. God just loves you.

And being good isn’t about getting on the right list: you’re already on. You’re good because God loves you, and you’re thankful.

And that’s my biggest gripe about Santa. The naughty list. I can keep hedging a little on whether Santa is real or not, mostly for the sake of Zora’s classmates, because she doesn’t need to disillusion them quite yet. But there’s no way I’ll be propagating the myth of the naughty list. I just like the idea of grace way too much.

* Here’s an oversimplified tutorial just to get you up to speed theologically:

John Calvin, sixteenth century theologian who is one of my intellectual ancestors, had a way of thinking about the purpose of “the Law” (i.e. the stuff the Bible says we should or should not do) that has come to be called “Calvin’s Third Use of the Law”. Luther (who came before Calvin) said that the Law’s function was mainly two things: to remind us that we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing; and to keep us from doing even worse. Calvin added an additional use: it’s a guide for living thankfully because of what God has done for us. Different Protestant traditions used to fight about this a whole lot, but in my household (Presbyterian pastor married to a guy who was raised Lutheran; family currently attending the Lutheran church down the block) we mostly joke around about it. Because we are nerds about theology.

Erica Schemper is a pastor and mother (current emphasis on the mother part) and displaced Chicagoan living in the San Francisco Bay area. She's learning to love life on this Peninsula. This post was originally posted on her blog, Don't Flay the Sheep, which includes her attempts to write regularly about whatever: life with little kids; church stuff; current events; knitting (sporadically); culture; running (hopefully not too sporadically).

Image by: El Bibliomata
Used with permission
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