December 7, 2010

how I pull off St. Nicholas

I received this comment, and I think it has a lot of good points and good questions.  I'm going to repost it here, and respond.  I know that many of my friends have gotten rid of Santa and just have St. Nicholas visit their home during the holiday season.  I would love for you too to respond and share how you make Catholic culture jive with the rest of culture - I think it's important that we not ruin other kids' Christmases filled with Santa, elves, and reindeer!

How do you deal with the culture, the friends, the strangers, preschool, asking your child what they want from Santa? have you been a good girl for Santa? is Santa coming to your house?

When they are in school are you going to tell them that there is not a Santa from the North Pole? Is it okay that they tell their friends that? I have not told my 3 year old anything about Santa, but she knows from others. We talk about Jesus' birthday, but it almost confuses me how to fit in the birth of Christ, St. Nicholas, and Santa?? How am I suppose to explain it all to a 3 year old.

I hate the idea of making a big deal of Santa, but I also feel like I can't escape it??

What are your recommendations?
My Answer:
What we do is explain that other people call St. Nicholas "Santa Claus". When L sees pictures of Santa she calls him St. Nicholas. Also, we tell her that he lives in Heaven with Jesus. That hasn't been challenged yet, but I guess we'll just tell her that some people think the North Pole is Heaven, but we call it Heaven.

I don't have a problem correcting L's understanding of St. Nicholas.  Ex: "Some people think St. Nicholas lives with elves, but really he lives with angels, Mary and Jesus."  My hope is that when my children talk with Santa-believing kids they will say the same types of things.  "At our house, we call Santa St. Nicholas."  It will take training, of course, but I think it's important not to mess up the traditions other families are doing, while teaching my children to be little apologists.  Then if little Sally goes home and asks her mommy about Santa's real name it's up to that mom to do whatever damage control she wants - just like I have to do damage control.  But when kids still believe in Santa/St. Nick (just different variations) there is little damage control to do.

If a grandma tells L that Santa left some gifts at grandma's house for her, I instantly say something like, "Oh L, wasnt' that nice of St. Nicholas?!" I don't want to "ruin" everyone else's fun - because Santa IS fun - but I do want to slightly edit it so it can fit into what is important to our family. And usually, grandma will then refer to Santa as St. Nick when around my kids.

For people who don't know my family (store clerks, nurses, etc) I say things like, "We celebrate Advent before we celebrate Christmas." or "St. Nicholas fills our stockings for his feast day on December 6th." A nurse recently told my kids that the vent was a camera that Santa watches to make sure kids are good. I said St. Nicholas watches us from Heaven so he knows how he should pray for us.

About this comment:  "We talk about Jesus' birthday, but it almost confuses me how to fit in the birth of Christ, St. Nicholas, and Santa."  This is the very reason I took Santa/St. Nick away from Christmas completely.  I didn't know how to do it, either!  And by consolidating Santa and St. Nick - well that made things a lot easier.  Now, I'm slowly easing my way into all this, but I do hope that through the years we can spend equal amounts of time talking about St. Nick, the Immaculate Conception, Juan Diego, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Lucy - all saints with feast days during Advent.  My hope is that will make St. Nick just one of many saints who help us get ready for celebrating Christmas, minimizing his role in our household even more.  I mean, as great as St. Nicholas was and is, his rightful place is waaaaay behind Jesus - and I think St. Nick would be the first to agree to that.

All of this can be hard, and I know I don't do it perfectly.  In fact, we have a loooong way to go.

I would love to hear how other people work with St. Nicholas to keep Christ the center of Christmas.  How do you address the issues the commenter mentioned?


  1. I'm not catholic so I don't know if my opinion counts, but I am the director of our kids ministry at church and I intend to have kids someday so here's what I do.

    I say that some kids believe in Santa and that's ok. We celebrate Jesus' birth and that He came to earth to save us. I like to teach that other people have different religious beliefs that we should respect. We don't tell people that Santa doesn't exist just like it's not my job to tell someone that Allah doesn't exist. It's my job to love people and share my beliefs and my story.
    So I like to use the santa thing as an opportunity to teach respect for others as well as setting our belief in Jesus aside.
    But again, that's me.

  2. I have 3 young children (5, 3, & 2) and they left their boots (because boots are bigger than shoes!) out for St. Nicholas to leave treats. In the morning, the 3-year-old asked, "Is St. Nicholas a friend of Santa?" Not quite ready to start the whole discussion, I just replied, "Yes." Then after the big girl got home from preschool, they watched CCC's St. Nicholas DVD. So the 5-year-old said, "I think St. Nicholas IS Santa" and I replied "Yes" again. Awhile later, the 3-year-old asked, "Is St. Nicholas dead?" Again, I said, "Yes" So she replied, "And he lives in heaven with Jesus?" And again, I said, "Yes." So she asked, "And he comes down from heaven to give us presents?" At that point I was kind of stuck! I think my options are to simply say "Yes" again, but there are obvious inaccuracies there regarding the behavior of saints (although we can receive the benefit of the prayers of the saints, they don't exactly drop off chocolates). Or, I could say that people do things in memory of St. Nicholas/to follow St. Nicholas' example, however, at that point, they know that there is no magical Santa out there delivering toys. I kind of stuttered my way into changing the subject yesterday and it hasn't come up since, but I'm not sure how to balance the cultural traditions with the religious ones, especially in a way that does not compromise religious traditions in favor of cultural ones.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this. This is a great solution to the Santa Claus dilemma. I know on the opposite spectrum there are some groups of traditional Catholics that believe Santa "the guy in red" originates from a pagan God. No kidding. I was shocked when I heard about that. Anyway, thank you again from all the new moms trying to figure this all out :)

  4. Bonnie, how I wish I could be more like you! I would love to remove Santa from Christmas and celebrate St. Nicholas on his feast day. However, that isn't flying with my husband or in-laws, and I'm not quite sure how to fight it. (Did you face opposition at first? Or maybe you still do?)

    A friend told me this week that her first grader recently asked a question about St. Nick/Santa Claus and she thinks he is getting close to not "believing." Around All Saints Day, the school had students dress up as saints and teach other children about them. One of the saints was St. Nicholas. They learned that all saints were real people who died and are now in heaven. He asked her how St. Nicholas and Santa Claus can be the same person if he is dead. She didn't really answer him because she wants him to "believe" for one more year.

    Kids are smarter than we think, and I remember trying to believe just because I thought I had to, even though it really didn't make sense. I would love to avoid these later awkward conversations by filling my children with the truth to begin with. Thank you for your ideas and insights on how to do this!

    PS- Way to be on the ball this Advent! Jesse tree, Advent wreath, St. Nicholas Day - you are awesome!

  5. Mary, you don't have to be Catholic to comment!
    One questionn: Why would you ever set aside your belief in Jesus?
    And I agree, it is important to respect each other's traditions and beliefs, and that we should never tell kids that Santa doesn't exist.

  6. Bonnie, Thank you for this! We have never told our kids that Santa didn't exist but we also hadn't told him that he DID exist. We have just been kind of downplaying Santa so far and our kids didn't really know the difference being that Simon is only 4. Well this year, we were at story hour at the library and the librarian mentioned Santa and going to visit him at the North Pole and Simon blurts out, "Santa is just pretend." for all to hear. I was mortified and couldn't figure out why he had determined that when we'd never told him that he was pretend. So I talk to him and he says that since Santa is only on pretend movies and shows (cartoons and the like) he must be pretend too. Sometimes he just too smart for me. Anyhow, I didn't know how to handle it at the time but this will definitely help as he knows St. Nick well so we can just merge the two together. Phew!
    Now I just have to get Brandon on board... ;)

  7. Hi, I'm not Catholic just a plain Christian ;). DD who's 3 has never been told that Santa is real, yet still, when questioned, says he's real. But then in the next breath will say that he's just pretend. We've made a point to tell her that Christmas is really Jesus' Birthday. I think at her age she has a hard time understanding pretend vs. reality. So I'm not too concerned that the real meaning of Christmas is still a bit foggy to her.

    To help her understand we read lots of stories that share the true meaning of Christmas, talk about it and play it. We have a Little People natavity set at is on the floor by our Christmas tree for DD to play w/it's a huge hit.

    I guess for me it's a little easier b/c we don't celebrate St. Nicholas and have (tried) to make it clear that Santa is just pretend and for fun. I'm trying to lay a firm foundation for DD in Jesus and I think she's getting it or will get it as she gets older.

  8. I tried combining the two, and I told her St Nick lives in Heaven with Jesus, and she said, "You mean Santa Claus lives in the north pole?"

    This discussion has given me even more to think about.

    Think this is hard, try explaining the Immaculate Conception!

  9. we've been married now 18 years and have kids ages 17 down to 2 months.
    Starting with our first, we decided to do things very similar to you, Bonnie.
    The first few years were a bit difficult with in-laws, who insisted on sending gifts labeled "from Santa" with explicit instructions as to how/when/where we should give them to our children. BUT because they lived 2000 miles away they really had no control over this, and really, my kids at age 3 and 1 couldn't read "from Santa" anyway.
    gifts from St Nicholas are small, traditional (nuts, clementine, chocolate coin, small stocking type gifts) and go into the kids boots which they awaken to discover Dec 6th. Dec 6th is also when we start the Christmas Music.
    Pink Candle Sunday the tree goes up.
    Christmas Eve and Day are for joyous feasting!!! We open gifts from relatives on this day.
    Epiphany the kids get 3 gifts each from us- which is actually very common still in Europe, and which also allows us to hit the clearance sales!! :)
    as far as dealing with the questions, we try to gently redirect, (re: heating vent spy) yes, St. Nicholas could see us whenever God wants him to!
    or smile nod and kind of change the topic just a bit.
    I loved it when my kids were younger and people would ask "are you ready for Santa?!" and the kids would shout- "He already came!!"
    interesting to note that not as many people bat an eye at that remark as they used to 15 years ago.
    in this gimme-gimme society often the gifting and presents start on thanksgiving or even earlier....
    The only "educating" I really let my kids do is when they are small, they like to use "St. Nicholas" instead of the term Santa and I let that slide, because Santa is "Saint" after all!
    I think it helps to stay away from a glut of the Christmas cartoons, shows, etc.
    for 12 years we did not get TV, just videos, and I think this helped!
    (though I am a sucker for a few from my childhood- what;s that one with the kid who wants to be a dentist? fire and ice? lol!!)

  10. Bonnie! Where were these posts and letters about Santa when I was emailing the Third Friday Group for Santa help?! Oh well, this is still helpful.

    We plan to address this in a very similar way. I'm just wondering how you explain the reason for all the gift receiving - from you guys and the rest of their extended family.

    I've thought of explaining it like a big birthday party for Christ that we get to be a part of and so we get presents, too. But the reasoning just isn't that smooth. But now, kids believe a big fat guy in red comes down a chimney and brings presents for no reason, so maybe my logic isn't as crazy as that...

    If we just say it's because Jesus is the greatest gift, how does that equate them getting extra gifts, if He's all we need? This is where I'm conflicted.

    And I also agree with Jen about being wary of St. Nicholas and his behavior as this crazy gift giver instead of an advocate in Heaven. Other than celebrating the feast days that you mentioned earlier and doing the Advent wreath, Jesse Tree, etc., I'm not sure how to keep St. Nick and the presents in the background. Are those attempts enough?

    I'm interested to know what you do. PS, we still think of and pray for baby James all the time!

  11. I love your comment about St. Nicholas watching from Heaven instead of Santa watching from the vent! Genius!

    I know we're a few years away from having to make any decisions, but I think we'll go in a very similar direction. Thanks for the post!

  12. Wow, these are great responses. As me being a Christian and my husband being agnostic, it's been a challenge in my home to combine culture with faith. Though my family understands what Christmas is really about (preparing for Christ), we tend to celebrate Santa. I have let my 3-year old daughter believe in Santa Claus, but I do my darndest to incorporate my beliefs in advent and Jesus' birth into the season, though without any symbols other than the nativity scene it's hard for a 3-year old to understand. As long as I can keep the idea in her head about the real season and that Santa is a little bit of fun thrown in there, each year she gives me harder questions I can give her more thorough "lessons." I do very much appreciate your responses to your children when it comes to others' beliefs; there have been a few childrens' parents in our local Pre-K program who are not as respectful of others' interpretations of the season, and the Pre-K teacher (who happens to be my neighbor) is struggling to keep all of the children satisfied about all of their beliefs.

    This time of year is my favorite time for Bonnie's blog because I think the season brings out the best in most people and everyone is so willing to share their ideas and struggles. Thanks so much!

  13. Not totally sold on this idea, but we do it like this:

    They write letters to Jesus, leave them in their shoes. St. Nicholas exchanges them for something Christmas related (nativity, christmas book, st. nick dvd, etc). On Christmas, he delivers a present from Jesus. I figure that's all pretty true, but I still downplay Santa talk and change the subject when there's too much St. Nicholas probing about present details (how did he get it into my shoes? when i die, will i be able to put things in people's shoes?). We do birthday cake (well, gingerbread man with a candle) on Christmas.

    I worry about the questions re: the giving tree that seem inevitable "Why doesn't Jesus have St. Nick bring the poor children presents?" but as St. Nick's gift from Jesus tends to be 10 bucks or less, I think the more logical question would be "Why don't their grandparents give them cool presents like mine do?"

  14. I don't know how they did it, maybe we were all just a little dumb, but my parents were able to do St. Nicholas, and Santa and somehow still keep Christ in Christmas.

    I think the big thing was that they kept St. Nicholas and Santa separate. We were always told St. Nick comes December 6 and Santa comes on Christmas Eve. It wasn't until much later that I even realized St. Nick and Santa were supposed to be the same thing. (Like I said, we might just have been stupid.) And I remember really enjoying Christmas Eve Mass. That's still probably my favorite Gospel and the music, of course.

    They also made a big deal about giving when we got old enough to understand. Christmas wasn't about getting things, it was about giving them, to the giving tree, the Red Cross and each other.

    Again, I don't know how they did it, but I wish I could remember because that's the way I'd like to do it.

  15. In our house (kids are now 13, 10 and 4) we have always allowed Santa Claus and Christs' birthday to co-exist peacefully. My children have always understood that Christmas is Jesus' holiday, not Santa's. That having been said, when my older girls were of an age where they started asking about the truth of Santa, I reminded them about St. Nicholas and showed them how St. Nicholas has evolved into different Christmas figures in different parts of the world. I tell my children that it is the spirit of St. Nicholas that inspires the giving and generosity of Christmas time and it is in the spirit of St. Nicholas that many parents spoil their children with a few extra gifts at Christmas time. I also point out that as St. Nicholas helped the poor, we - throughout the year - but especially at Christmas help those children whose parents might not have the means to provide for them - just as St. Nicholas did. My four-year-old is especially taken with the idea that we are getting ready to celebrate Jesus' birthday and has insisted that we eat birthday cake for Him on Christmas Day - he has requested white and confetti cupcakes with green frosting - and so we will sing Happy Birthday to Jesus on Christmas morning.

  16. This is part 1 My next post is part 2 of my comments.

    I read your blog about St. N. to Steve. Well, with 6 children ages 25-11, I thought I would give you my two cents on this. We have always interchanged St. Nick with Santa. We do shoes with little toys and goodies on Dec. 6 and we do lots of gifts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We have never felt that it has to be one or the other. I guess when you look at the big picture, really, children under about the age of 6 aren't much able to conceptualize the fact that Almighty God sent His only begotten son to us to be our Savior and open the gates of heaven. Tons of theology there about sin, redemption, and love. Interestingly enough, by the time our kids caught on that mom and dad were Santa, they were beginning to grasp these concepts. In the mean time, Santa/St. Nick(I use the names interchangeably on the gifts and have our entire marriage) has blessed all of us, even mom and dad. How blessed we are that on Jesus' birthday we all get presents! Everything we own, every breath we take is a gift from God! Every year we start our Christmas eve with Mass. After Mass we come home and the youngest member of the family takes baby Jesus and we all take a candle and process all around the house singing O Come All Ye Faithful. We have years and years of these memories on tape that we dearly cherish. After that the feasting and fun begins. We eat tasty appetizers, have drinks of many kinds and open gifts from kids to us and kids to each other. We then watch the movie It's a Wonderful Life. Christmas Day we open gifts from St. Nick and then entertain extended family, sing and have tons of fun. Many years, between Mass and home we visited a nursing home, sang, and brought cards to the residents giving them lots of big hugs. Meanwhile, I am a sucker for all the secular traditions and love the songs like Rudolph and Frosty. I guess my concern is in a way that kids at a very young age may feel somehow punished by the fact that they didn't experience the joy as others have because they weren't allowed to believe in Santa. And you know, Bonnie, that all 6 children practice their faith and the oldest two are Catholic missionaries. I would say that there really isn't much materialism in their personalities either. Most of them give away much of what they have and often to the poor. Every one of our children has told me over and over again that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are their absolute favorite days of family time of the year.

  17. My comments Part 2

    We also have many many memories of when they believed in Santa how creative we were about this. We read the night before Christmas and all the neat books as well as the story books about the Birth of Christ. If you asked them when they were little -what is Christmas- they would all say..the birth of Jesus. But we fully enjoyed all the fun of the secular stuff, too. Steve's party for work used to include an appearance from Santa. We always admired the generosity and spirit of service to our children. I would encourage everyone to not deny their children that bonding time with their grandparents. When they do figure it out they will most likely feel even closer to Christ because they have felt the love and generosity from those around them who dearly love Our Lord and have made sacrifices for them. CHILDREN NEED FUN and JOY and LOTS of IT!! Being a Christian is about being joyful!! I believe these joyful memories as a child enable young adults to find more love in their hearts as well as a spirit of service. Great childhood memories go a long way! A few other things. Many years we, with our children, adopt a family in need and our children get to play St. Nick and feel how wonderful and heartwarming it is to anonymously leave a large box of things on the front porch, ring the doorbell and leave. Goes a long way in sharing the joy of the newborn Christ Child!! Also forgot to mention the Advent Wreath and singing twice a day the song O come O Come emmanuel as we light the candles and we also use an Advent Calendar. my soapbox now!!! You are all free to disagree with me. The beauty is that God gives every parent the grace of state to know how to parent their own children! How beautiful it must be to Our Lord to have all of you lovely mothers trying so hard to teach your children to love Him!!