What being naughty means this time of year

Spoiler alert… if your kid is old enough to read and believes in Santa Claus, close down this window and open again in a safe place.

We put up our Christmas tree on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  After being out of town for the holiday, no sooner had we unpacked our things from the trip than we started unpacking and putting up the tree.

My four year old daughter Adina is much more helpful this year as she’s older and more patient.  She enjoyed helping my wife hang decorations and the lights.  When the tree was decked and the living room was complete with nativity scene, stockings, and decorations, it was time to get ready for bed.

And time for the Elf to make an appearance.

The Elf, you ask?

Why the Elf on the Shelf, of course.  Last year, our family started the tradition of having our own elf come stay with us through the advent season, watching our daughters every move throughout the day, and then reporting back to Santa Claus each night, just making it back each morning in a different spot in the house.

Our daughter loved the Elf.  She named it “Elfie” and quickly learned the rules.  You can’t touch the elf or she loses her magic powers to fly and tell Santa.  You can’t be naughty in front of the elf or she’ll tell Santa.  If you’re nice in front of the elf, she’ll tell Santa that too.

You can talk to the elf, however.  When Elfie made her appearance this year, I asked Adina if she’d talked to the elf yet.  I left the room to see what she would do.  “Elfie, for Christmas I want the dollhouse.  The biiiiiiiiiig dollhouse.”  She’s already picked it out at Target.

What does being naughty entail in our house?  Touching the tree.  Touching ornaments on the tree.  Trying to pick up her little brother or sister.  Not listening.  Not doing what she’s told.  Basic stuff.

The idea behind this elf is fantastic.  The creators, Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell, put the book and doll together to help explain why kids have to be nice for Santa and how Santa is able to keep up with all of the kids around the world.

But what do we have to say about this, theologically speaking, from a Lutheran perspective?  More importantly, what might Martin Luther have to say about being naughty or nice?

Part of me wonders what we are creating with our kids when we make them paranoid of every single move they make and the ramifications of their actions.  Are we teaching our kids that any false move can result in poor results?  Do we really hold up these standards and not give our kids presents because they’ve been “bad”?

From a parents perspective, getting our kids to have incentive to not get in trouble seems great.  But if you think about it as if there’s an omniscient being who can make a decision about whether or not you are worthy of receiving a prize, suddenly the theology behind this elf, or Santa, becomes a bit cloudy.

Who are we responsible to?  Santa, or to God?  When our kids are older, do we suddenly say “Gotcha, Santa’s not real!  But Jesus/God is, and now you have to be good or God will be mad at you.”

Ultimately, what is our moral responsibility in how we deal with Santa Claus? Are we confusing our kids further by telling them that things aren’t real after years of using these characters to push good behaviors?  Don’t be naughty or Santa will put coal in your stocking.  If you’re bad, the Easter Bunny will hop right by our house.

In my tradition as a Lutheran, I can’t help but be torn by how we deal with Santa Claus.  I grew up without Santa being a big deal in my house.  As a pastor’s kid, I’m not sure if it was a deliberate choice by my parents out of religious belief or personal belief, but Santa was never real for me.  I learned quickly that if I pretended, however, I could get more gifts by having a stocking filled in the morning.  My mom played along until one Christmas, coming home on break for college, it was empty.  I was devastated—no more toys!

Now as a parent, I wonder how the message of grace is perceived when dealing with Santa Claus, my Lutheran tradition, and how I teach my children.  Martin Luther used the phrase Simul Justus Et Peccator.  A follower of Christ is simultaneously saint (righteous) and a sinner.  A Christian doesn’t rely on their own actions but uses Christ’s redemptive work as a gift—we love, share, thank, give (basically, we are nice), because we are given a gift to do so through Christ’s death on the cross.  We don’t have to do all of these good things to counteract all the naughty in our lives.

Luther’s theology of countering the idea of good works wasn’t meant to say we can be bad and no matter what, our sins are washed away.  Instead, by grace, we are loved—given a gift we don’t deserve, and our response as believers/Christians/humans living in a broken world, is to love.

How do we teach our children to love, no matter what, in the Christmas season?  Is there a way to acknowledge the fun of the season and go along with the Santa story while also setting an example of how to love one another and not confuse our Santa with our Savior?  Is grace a contradiction to naughty and nice?

At the end of the day, if we treat our children with love and respect, then using Santa or the Elf as a behavior modification/incentive seems harmless to me.  The theological implications of the Santa lie isn’t something that most grown-ups would jump to and if a child does go there, this is a chance for a parent to explain what faith, love, and being a good neighbor mean to them.

As my supervising pastor, Marty Ericson, suggests, it’s not the churches place to spoil the secret of Santa.  This is a secret that should be ruined by friends at school or when the parents are ready—not in a children’s sermon or from the pulpit.  What the church can do in this season is reinforce a message of grace and hope, love and renewal.

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