Playing Santa

· some thoughts about Grace ·

December 29, 2017

Amongst the various articles circulating on the internet assessing what kind of damage we may have done to our children this Christmas–perpetuating the Santa “lie,” contributing to mass materialism, engendering a sense of entitlement in our kids–I found one author conveying a salient point about how we use gifts; are we using the promise of them to manipulate our children into good behavior? And if so, what effect will that have on them?

Of course, the comments indicated mixed reactions, ranging from attacks on “mainstream” parenting to a defense of enforcing consequences for bad behavior. Are you seriously going to let your kid get away with being a little jerk because it’s Christmas, even if he’s out of his routine and had too much candy?

But the essence of her argument is something I’ve pondered myself:

“This whole idea of earning gifts is archaic and cruel, and the exact antithesis of what gift-giving should be. Gift-giving should be unconditional. That’s the whole point. Gifts should be something that come from the heart of the giver, with no strings, and no expectations. Buying a gift, and then taking it away as punishment? It ceases to be a gift…even if they “earn” it back. You took something that should have been an expression of love and turned it into an ugly and void commodity.”

But who says? Isn’t is useful to teach our kids the traditional belief that Santa “knows if you’ve been bad or good,” so keep yourself off the naughty list unless you want coal in your stocking? I mean, it can be a pretty effective tool. The greater the child’s motivation, the more likely she is to fall in line when you present choices. And speaking from personal experience, being 6 months pregnant with back pain, and having a 3-year-old scream at me because I won’t get up and get him some water from the fridge, which he is perfectly capable of doing himself, I absolutely understand the need to nip things in the bud, and to use whatever tools I happen to have at hand to teach him not to be a self-absorbed sociopath.

And yet, what is it that I really want to teach my kids at Christmastime? Do I really want them to believe me when I tell them that Christmas is NOT about presents and Santa, but about Jesus? I can spend all month coming up with acts of service for them to participate in, finding ways for them to give to others, performing the nativity, and singing Happy Birthday to Him, and tell them that’s what Jesus would want, but the way I play Santa can either going to reinforce that message, or completely undo it.

I suppose the most ethically pure way to teach my kids the real meaning of Christmas is to do away with Santa altogether. But being a child of my mother, who worked hard to make Christmas magical–the cookie decorating, the Christmas Eve drives through town to see the lights, the tree adorned with the antique dolls, porcelain mice, crocheted angels, gold stars, and every handmade scrap of tissue she’d saved from our kindergarten crafts, all set into the tree in various depths, so that the colored glow that greeted us Christmas morning seemed extra miraculous–playing Santa is something I just can’t let go of.  

And I don’t think anyone needs to. The parallels between the Santa myth and what we believe about the Savior’s atonement are myriad, and can be faith-promoting: They both love children all over the world equally; they both care for the poor and needy; and they both offer something miraculous and infinite–the ability to give every child a gift under circumstances that defy logic and comprehension. Is there much difference between believing that an old man, pulled by flying reindeer, can carry billions of toys and deliver them in 24 hours, and believing that somehow, God could be born as a man, and whose death could somehow save billions and billions of souls from eternal torment?

So then: what do we teach our children about the gift they receive? Is it something they earn, and that can be taken away when they screw up? Or is it given unconditionally, regardless of whether or not they’re “naughty or nice?”

Of course, the concept of grace is something we as Mormons struggle with. We teach choice and accountability, that faith without works is dead, and that we are saved “after all we can do.” But grace is not earned, or it wouldn’t be grace. Mercy is extended to all of us despite our failings.

I have found a lot of comfort in a talk by Brad Wilcox, “His Grace is Sufficient” (which is worth reading more than a mere excerpt). He elucidates this concept of grace, and how we are supposed to balance it with works. He says this:

I have born-again Christian friends who say to me, “You Mormons are trying to earn your way to heaven.”

I say, “No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it.”

They ask me, “Have you been saved by grace?”

I answer, “Yes. Absolutely, totally, completely, thankfully—yes!”

Then I ask them a question that perhaps they have not fully considered: “Have you been changed by grace?” They are so excited about being saved that maybe they are not thinking enough about what comes next. They are so happy the debt is paid that they may not have considered why the debt existed in the first place. Latter-day Saints know not only what Jesus has saved us from but also what He has saved us for. [. . .] As Moroni puts it, grace isn’t just about being saved. It is also about becoming like the Savior (see Moroni 7:48).

[. . .]

One young man wrote me the following e-mail: “I know God has all power, and I know He will help me if I’m worthy, but I’m just never worthy enough to ask for His help. I want Christ’s grace, but I always find myself stuck in the same self-defeating and impossible position: no work, no grace.”

I wrote him back and testified with all my heart that Christ is not waiting at the finish line once we have done “all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). He is with us every step of the way.

This idea of Grace is what I want my children to believe in, to know in their bones, to feel every Christmas–that He has miraculously given to each of them, regardless of whether or not they deserve it, the gift of life and love.

So when my daughter asks me, point blank, “Does Santa give gifts to kids who are bad?” I say, “Yes! Because He loves us no matter what we do, the same way Jesus does, the same way Mommy and Daddy love you. Yes, honey. Absolutely, totally, completely, thankfully—yes!”


  1. Reply


    December 29, 2017

    Love this. Let’s keep talking about grace.

  2. Reply


    December 29, 2017

    I’ve never really done Santa with my kids, for all the reasons you worry about (and also because I grew up in a house where we didn’t really do Santa either). I don’t preach against Santa, but we don’t write letters to him and he doesn’t bring gifts to our house. I compromised by saying Santa fills stockings, but my two oldest kids have realized for several years now that this isn’t true. My youngest is almost 8 and talks about Santa a lot, but I’m not sure how strong her belief is.

    Part of my motivation was also being much poorer when my kids were littler–and starting with my oldest we’ve limited gifts to three things: something to read, something to play with, and something to wear (usually pajamas). Plus a few stocking stuffers. They usually end up getting a few other gifts from family and friends too. Although I struggle with the idea of Christmas becoming too materialistic, the joy of opening presents on Christmas morning really has no equal. I love to see my kids get excited about things I carefully picked out for them, and I want them to know I love them freely and would never withhold presents for any reasons (I do use other disciplinary measures sometimes, but Christmas does not feel like the time for it).