Last Sunday was a wild day at my field education site. The sexton, two pastors, the CYF director, all three music directors, and a big chunk of the leaders of the church were gone (one of the musical directors was getting married!). The one remaining pastor, her partner, and I were left in charge. Things went well, I think. I only forgot to uncover the baptismal font (and prepare water for it) during the 9 am service (which I also was an assistant minister for) and I was able to get help to cover for me during Sunday school. And my helping clean up broken glass during the 11 am service was a hit – they really liked when I genuflected before the altar while holding a broom. But between the 9 am and 11 am service is when Sunday school is scheduled. After I readied the altar for the next service, I wandered into the Sunday School classroom with a half hour of time left. I was worried that the kids were driving the new teacher up the wall. Luckily, that wasn’t happening. I was relieved.
The kids (between the ages of 4 and 9) were talking about the story of Thomas. Being the fantastic Lutheran Christians that they are, when the kids were asked if they had ever NOT believed in God, they all said “no.” But, organically and without and prompting from us, the conversation quickly turned into whether they believed in fairy tales and myths. One young lady brought up the Loch Ness monster which immediately led to one of the older kids using the dreaded S word.
She started talking about Santa.
She said she never believed in Santa Claus, though some of her kids thought so. And when she talked about watching her mom wrap presents, she was immediately interrupted by one of the younger kids who shouted, loudly, “HOW ELSE DO THE PRESENTS GET INTO THE HOUSE?” The floodgates opened. The older kids began talking about parents wrapping presents, the younger kids countered with presents appearing in the middle of night because the parents were asleep. And all I could think was “no way – they’re not finding this out at church today.” I quickly blurted out a question to all the kids. They stopped talking, looked at me, and answered me. I asked them if they had friends who told them that God wasn’t real. Being in a city filled with opinionated adults and children sometimes helps. The conversation quickly shift back to the story of Thomas. I have no idea if I saved the day (it’s possible that the arts and crafts that followed also helped) but I haven’t stopped thinking about that moment since.
Even with really young kids, there really is a stratification built on the topic of Santa. I’ve been aware of the social, racial, language, and just plain age differences between the kids but I never, for a moment, thought about Santa. But the fact that Santa came up during the chat about Thomas makes perfect sense. Besides Christmas, there is no other time when Santa would come up.
I’m not sure how other churches, pastors, or vicars would have responded when this happened. I guess, since Santa has never been a problem for me, I will always side on “wait till they’re older” when it comes to the Santa Question. I don’t recall when I ever discovered that [SPOILER ALERT] Santa wasn’t real but I am sure I heard it from my friends. And maybe hearing it at Sunday School would be the best and safest place for that to happen. But I don’t think that’s the “counter-cultural” aspect of the church that needs raising up in Sunday School. Telling kids to love, to believe, and that God loves them – even if they don’t understand what that means – I think helps. I know I could have used that growing up. But Santa? I’ll leave that to the kids on the playground. I have enough of a hard time dealing with a disciple who denied Jesus, a guy who betrayed him, a guy who had to stick his finger in Jesus’s side, and a church history of deprecating women – and trying to explain all of that to kids who know more than most people give them credit for – than having to talk about Santa. And I think answering the Santa question might even be too easy for the church. It’s easy to try and destroy Santa while ignoring even more important questions later. It allows the church to focus on “myths” while propagating myths about sex, about the role of women, about minorities, and about reality. Those things matter more than Santa.