I was doing some junk-store shopping with the kids this week, and the kindly old lady behind the counter asked my daughters whether they had been naughty or nice this year. My retort was, ‘It’s a good thing for their sake that it doesn’t really work like that.’
Thinking about it further, it occurred to me that this element of the Santa story is pretty much opposite to the Christian message that we remember at Christmas time. This would be ironic, I suppose, except that so much else about Christmas is also at some degree of variance with the Christian message.
We give gifts at Christmas to remember that God gave us the ultimate gift at the cost of the ultimate sacrifice, both in giving up His God-ness to become a human (and a low-status human at that), and in giving up His life to die as horribly and shamefully as a slave can. And all this to open a way back for people who don’t want it, and who rejected Him and killed Him when He was here.
So, Christian gift giving remembers grace: the idea that we’ve been given something huge that we don’t deserve (or more properly the opposite of what we deserve). Santa — at least in theory — offers gifts to children who have been ‘nice’, but withholds them from children who have been naughty.
I guess it’s good to teach children reward-punishment thinking — it is not a true and complete ethic, but a necessary first step — but it’s a relief to me (and presumably to our children) that gifts of the Christmas- and the eternal variety are not offered on this basis but on the basis of grace.