December 6 marks St. Nicholas Day when people around the world honor St. Nicholas, a 3rd century bishop whose radical generosity inspired the idea of Santa Claus. Our family doesn't celebrate Santa, but we are planning to learn more about St. Nicholas this year. This isn't prescriptive for any family, but I hope it sparks some ideas for your own family's traditions as you navigate the Christmas season!
Who was St. Nicholas?
This article tells the history of St. Nicholas, a man who obeyed Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give money to the poor." His parents died when he was young, and Nicholas gave his entire inheritance to help the needy. Later, he suffered under the Roman Emperor Diocletian and was exiled and later imprisoned for his faith. There are countless legends about his life that we can't verify, but we know that he was a generous man whom God used mightily in his time. On the evening of December 5, a widely held tradition is for children to leave out a clean boot or shoe that will be filled overnight with treats like clementines and nuts and chocolate (symbolizing how St. Nicholas secretly left gifts without being seen).
Why observe St. Nicholas Day?
- We see this day as an opportunity to learn about how God used Nicholas in his time. He is part of the great cloud of witnesses that prompt us to love our neighbors well and give generously. Learning about St. Nicholas in early December - separate from Christmas day - helps preserve a Christmas that is focused on Jesus.
- Unless they have no access to the outside world, children will be bombarded by images of Santa everywhere they turn during the month of December. Studying the historical figure of St. Nicholas and his sacrificial generosity may help bridge the gap between two extremes: celebrating Santa as the best part of Christmas or villainizing him.
Our St. Nicholas Day plan:
We are keeping things very simple. We will read these three books to learn more about him:
- Just Nicholas by Annie Kratzsch* (my top pick!)
- Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins by Jim Forest
- The Baker's Dozen by Aaron Shepard & Wendy Edelson
- St. Nicholas gave secretly, without expectation for anything in return. We are planning to do the same! This can be as simple as paying for someone's order in the Starbucks drive thru line, or even filling stockings for the homeless with snacks and toiletries. Our kids are so excited about our little Christmas love mission!
Why don't we celebrate Santa?
This can be such a divisive topic, and I hope you'll accept these words as just one fellow believer's stance and nothing more. You have the freedom to choose how your family celebrates. What a wonderful thing!
- I've never felt comfortable lying to my kids, even if Santa feels nostalgic or like a "fun" tradition. The fun stops and the magic disappears when they discover that their parents have actively deceived them. We want to build a foundation of truth for our kids so they know they can trust us fully.
- As one who believes the gospel - that we are saved not by works, but by grace through faith - the modern-day message of Santa proclaims just the opposite. Children are taught that they receive gifts based solely on their behavior. Have they been naughty? Coals in their stockings. Have they been nice? Lavish gifts. In contrast, we want our children to understand that the gifts they receive (from us or from family members) are not based on their behavior, but because we love them. I believe this lays the groundwork for children to later grasp God's unconditional agape love for them.
- Our main reason: The celebration of the modern-day Santa is simply a distraction, taking glory from One who is far more worthy of our adoration! Jesus Christ coming into the world as a baby to be our Immanuel - God with us - is truly good news of great joy (Luke 2:10) and worthy of our utmost honor!
If you want to read John Piper's theologically rich response to the question of Santa, I recommend this article: Rethinking Santa.
What about family members or friends who do celebrate Santa?
I am well aware that many of my Jesus-loving friends do incorporate Santa into their Christmas traditions and we want to honor them. We've taught our kids not to argue with their friends about it or to look down on those who make different choices for their families.
I'll admit... there have been several occasions when friends or even strangers convey their disappointment that we "ruined" Santa for our kids at a young age by telling them the truth. Or that Christmas isn't as "magical" without Santa. I echo the words of John Piper: "If being Jesus-focused is a killjoy for your Christmas, you don't know him well."
My prayer for my own family and for you is that whatever traditions you choose to incorporate, that all of Christmas points to Jesus. May your hearts be lifted by the HOPE He came to bring!