Which brings me to the second part of the question, as I am sometimes asked, which is if we do St. Nicholas instead of Santa Claus. And, if you'll forgive me, that's an even odder question than the first. Asking if we do St. Nicholas OR Santa Claus is like asking if we prefer Saint John Paul II or Santo Juan Pablo II. It's the same guy, his name is just translated into a different language.
"Santa Claus" is just the German version of Saint Nicolas's name. Ni . . . claus.
Santa Claus was an actual historical, Catholic person. He was born in what is now Turkey in the third century. He became Bishop of Myra. He was real.
He continues to be real and to exist, because as Catholics we believe in an everlasting soul that never dies. The Catholic Church has recognized St. Nicholas as a canonized saint, which means we believe that he lives in heaven and can hear our prayers and intercede with God the Father for us.
Kids, and other people, are free to not believe in leprechauns or fairies (although I happen to want to believe in them, myself) since the evidence for the existence of those creatures is tenuous at best. But not believing in Santa isn't like not believing in unicorns, it's like not believing in Secretariat. I mean, you can not believe in Secretariat if you want, but I gotta say, I'd think it was weird if you didn't.
So now that we have addressed the questionable questions, let's address the question people really MEAN. Which is: do we and should we allow our children to believe that Santa brings them presents.
We do. I think we should.
When Santa brings gifts to my kids on December 6th for St. Nicholas Day and on Christmas, it allows ME to toil in secret, and to experience giving without receiving anything in return. Not even the thanks. I think that's a good thing, "And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:14)
I also think that getting gifts from St. Nicholas helps my kids to understand that the saints are real and that prayers to them are efficacious. Maybe not exactly in the "put chocolate in your shoes" way it might seem now. But it's a good start.
Here's the 7 Quick Takes version of exactly how we talk to our kids about Santa Claus.
Santa and St. Nick (and Father Christmas) are all the same guy.
He is a saint, so, like all the saints, he lives in heaven with Jesus.
He has a workshop at the North Pole, where he makes toys. (Maybe he has elf helpers, we can't know that part for sure.)
He brings birthday presents to all the good boys and girls on Christmas Eve (and probably the naughty ones too), to help us all to celebrate Jesus' birthday. Jesus is very generous, and, like hobbits, he likes other people to get the presents on his birthday.
Reports are that he has reindeer that fly. Saints are sometimes able to do miraculous things, with the help of God. St. Pio could bilocate. St. Francis could reason with murderous wolves. St. Joseph of Cupertino could fly all on his own for goodness sakes. It's really not that big a stretch for us that Santa could have reindeer that fly and somehow manage to visit houses all over the world in one night. But, like St. George and the dragon, it's possible that it all means something else somehow.
Santa visits most houses on Christmas Eve only, but, for kids who are waiting for Christmas and observing Advent, he also visits on his feast day on December 6th, and leaves some extra little treats as an attaboy.
Many countries, and many families, have different Christmas traditions, Santa is cool with that and abides by the customs and preferences of individuals. We are cool with that, too.
We feel like Santa makes our Christmas more fun and more reverent at the same time.
I guess it's okay with me if you don't. But, really, I can't see what's dangerous about believing in and loving Santa -- and getting presents from him -- as long as we are foremost a family that knows and loves God, and knows and loves the baby Jesus and the story of the first Christmas, and that understands the communion of the saints.
So, tonight, we are going to put out our shoes for Santa on his feast day. And on Christmas Eve, we'll hang up our stockings. And we will be grateful to God and the Catholic Church for little treats that we don't deserve, and for Christmas magic.
I'm going to let GK Chesterton have the last word here, from a letter he wrote to the Tablet of London:
What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. . . . What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.
Updated this year (2016) to add . . .
We do have older kids who know who's really bringing the presents, and that's okay. In our home it has been a painless and trauma-free transition from team little kid to team-parents-and-big-kid-helpers. My biggest kids now get to stay up late on Christmas Eve and help wrap presents in the special Santa paper and help fill stockings, and help eat the cookies on the plate, etc. So, it's fun for them too, and they get to share in the joy of secret giving!
In keeping with my general strategy of avoiding Big Important Conversations whenever possible, we just try to allow our kids to figure it out on their own by giving them knowing looks and whatnot. We try to protect their belief in Santa until eight or nine, then we get them over to the Santa's Helpers team. Before eight or nine, we try to encourage their belief and keep the fun by answering their questions in an open ended way with possible explanations, after that age if questions came up I'd just give them a kiss and a smile and say, "That's a very good question. . . . What do YOU think?"