John Piper: Christian parents shouldn't replace Christmas story with 'non-gospel, pathetic myth like Santa Claus'

A man dressed as Santa Claus leaves for his annual Christmas journey from the Santa Claus Village at the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland December 23, 2014.
A man dressed as Santa Claus leaves for his annual Christmas journey from the Santa Claus Village at the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland December 23, 2014. | REUTERS/Laura Haapamaki/Lehtikuva/Files

Ahead of Christmas, theologian John Piper warned Christian parents against replacing the story of Jesus’ birth with “a non-gospel, pathetic myth like Santa Claus” as doing so demonstrates a “failure to be thrilled with the greatest story in the world.”

In an AskPastorJohn podcast, the Reformed theologian and former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, pointed out that it’s impossible for parents to teach their children that Santa Claus is real without lying to them.

“Are we misleading the children in telling them this story as a simple statement of facts?” he asked. “Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. Santa Claus flies with reindeer. Santa Claus leaves gifts under the tree. Santa Claus is served by elves. To present this myth as fact is not truthful to our children.”

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Made-up stories — like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or Jesus’ parables — are different, he explained, because they’re presented as fiction.

“The children should know that they’re made up and they should know why parents tell children made-up stories,” Piper said. “It’s a good thing, I think, to tell children made-up stories.”

But the biggest reason parents should avoid teaching their children about Santa Claus is that doing so obscures the “thrilling truth” about Christmas, the pastor contended.

“Why would a Christian who has found in Jesus Christ the greatest treasure in the world trade it for anything else? Why would they — who see in the incarnation and life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus the most amazing story in the world — tell another story?”

“Why would they replace it with such a non-gospel, pathetic myth like Santa Claus, whose message is ‘You better be good, and you better not cry’? I just can’t imagine it,” he posed.

The pastor went on to argue that laying the myth of Santa Claus over the story of Jesus demonstrates a “failure to be thrilled with the greatest story in the world.”

“It’s a failure. It’s a syncretistic compromise with culture: ‘Poor Jesus. He’s invisible. Santa Claus is not. You can see him at the mall. Poor Jesus doesn’t make any rounds on a sled in the sky, leaving toys under the tree,’” he said.

He concluded: “Dropping Santa is gain, or Christianity is a lie. If Christ cannot compete with Santa in the hearts of our kids, we don’t know the real Christ or there is no real Christ ... Your children have Christ-shaped empty spaces in their hearts. They don’t know this. You must show them, but it can’t be done with Santa Claus, only Christ.”

Research in the Journal of Cognition and Development in 2011 shows that 83 percent of 5-year-olds think that Santa Claus is real. Additionally, one in five adults says they are the parent or guardian of a child in their home who believes in Santa, according to a Pew Research Center study published in 2013.

Santa Claus' tale is inspired by Saint Nicholas, a monk who gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. Following his death, the legend of his generosity and gift-giving grew. As a result, he became a part of the Christmas holiday.

In a previous op-ed for The Christian Post, Shane Pruitt, director of Missions for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, offered a suggestion for Christian parents who want to include Santa Claus in their holiday festivities: Present him to children “like Cinderella.”

“He is not a real person, but he is fun to talk about, be entertained by, and see in art (movies, decorations, etc),” he explained. “This option allows them to know the truth and still participate in the fun. They don't have to sit out of any activities at school, can still have their pictures with Santa, can watch great movies (like the old Rudolph claymation), and see Santa decorations without being confused by them.”

“Whatever option best fits your family, just make sure that Jesus remains the number one focus,” he emphasized. “Teach your children that He is the reason for the season, that Jesus was the promised Son of God. He grew into a man to die as a perfect man for mankind. He was buried and came back to life three days later conquering sin, death, and the grave. He showed Himself for 40 days, ascended into heaven, and one day He is coming back for His people!”

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