WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–I’m not opposed to Santa Claus. I understand why many Christians are uncomfortable with the myth of Santa and respect their decision. I’m not convinced that the tradition inherently detracts from the celebration of our Lord’s incarnation. But there are problematic elements in the Santa Claus tradition, at least the one that seems to dominate American popular culture.
Many parents teach their children that Santa keeps a record of which kids are good and which are bad. As we sing, “He’s making a list and checking it twice; Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.” Good kids receive presents for Christmas. Bad kids either receive no presents at all or they receive lumps of coal in their stockings.
There are good reasons Christians should steer clear of this aspect of Santa Claus mythology. For starters, it makes a claim it doesn’t follow up on — does anyone know a kid who didn’t receive any presents because she was naughty that year? Have you ever met a child who received coal in his stocking in lieu of real presents? It’s an empty threat, which as a rule makes for poor parenting.
But far more troublesome is the sub-gospel message this tradition sends. Santa is cast as the judge of all children, the keeper of the scales, the one who determines which kids are worthy of reward and which deserve punishment.
But every kid deserves the coal. Every parent deserves the coal. I deserve the coal.
Scripture teaches that we are all sinners who fall short of God’s perfect standard of obedience (Romans 3:23). We are all naughty, deserving of eternal punishment (Genesis 2:16-17; Romans 6:23a). We have been this way since Adam’s original sin in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12-21). There is nothing we can do to change our circumstances and move ourselves from the naughty list to the nice list — even the nice things we do are really naughty because we don’t do them always and perfectly and for the right reasons (Isaiah 64:6; Matthew 22:36-40).
This is where the real message of Christmas comes in. Jesus Christ, the one who became Emmanuel in the little town of Bethlehem, perfectly obeyed all of God’s commands for every moment of His life. He died a criminal’s death upon a cross, bearing God’s just wrath against human sin. After three days in the tomb, He came back to life and dealt death the death blow. And He did all of this on our behalf.
This is the good news of Christmas — God became a man so that men can be reconciled with God. Whoever turns from their sin and trusts Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior will be saved. We are moved from the naughty list to the nice list, not because of something we do, but because of what Jesus had done for us. We escape a punishment worse than coal. We receive a reward better than the best Christmas present.
I deserve the coal. But Christ changed everything. And it all started when the eternal Son of God became a real son of Adam.
Not even the mythical Santa Claus can do that.
Nathan Finn is assistant professor of Church history and Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.