Naughty or Nice?

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The familiar holiday song about jolly ol’ Santa Claus rings out to remind children not to pout or whine because

He’s making a list,
And checking it twice.
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town.

He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good.
So be good for goodness’ sake!1

Believing that Santa is watching their every move and judging their actions to see if they deserve gifts may be an effective way of getting children to behave during the holiday season, but what message is this sending?

Be Good for Goodness’ Sake?

This popular song portrays the portly North-pole dwelling St. Nick as omnipresent and omniscient—he somehow knows what every child is doing everywhere in the world. Of course, those are attributes that belong to God alone.

It also urges children to “be good for goodness’ sake!” But some vague idea of “goodness’ sake” or the hope of reaping a reward from Santa (or anyone else) should never be our motivation for being good. And who defines what “good” is in this context anyway?

We should be “good”—as defined by God in his Word—because we love our Heavenly Father and do not want to sin against him, and because he has commanded us to be perfect as he is (Matthew 5:48).

Scout Elves Reporting to Santa

But maybe Santa is not omniscient or omnipresent. According to the folks selling the popular “Elf on the Shelf,” Santa uses magical scout elves to “help Santa manage his naughty and nice lists by reporting back to him at the North Pole nightly.” These scout elves operate on the same principle as Santa—be good and you get gifts. But, according to the “Elf on the Shelf” marketing song, every child is “good” and, as long as you are trying, you’re in the clear:

You [the Elf] watch as I try to do as I should, at night you tell Santa the news is all good.

The World’s Philosophy

The philosophy and message behind the idea of a man who delivers gifts to “nice” kids and coal to “naughty” kids—and the accompanying idea that everyone really is “good” and deserves gifts (does any parent really put coal in their “naughty” child’s stocking?)—fits perfectly with the world’s philosophy.

Every man-based religion operates on the principle that if you do certain things you will be rewarded.

Every man-based religion operates on the principle that if you do certain things you will be rewarded. It’s all based on what we do. Earning gifts (whether physical, emotional, or monetary) is our default mode of thinking. We also like to think that we’re basically good, that our good works outweigh our bad ones, and that we deserve good things.

A Message Upside-Down to the Gospel

But this is completely upside-down compared to the gospel. The Christian message is one that starts with bad news in Genesis. We’re all descended from Adam, the first man, who rebelled against God. Because of his sin nature that we inherit—and our own sin (Romans 5:12)—we’re all born into and continue in rebellion against God. We are sinners and deserve God’s judgment and the wages of sin—death (Romans 6:23).

And we can’t do anything about our condition! Our good works won’t save us. Compared with God’s righteousness and holiness, all the “good” things we do are just “filthy rags” in his sight (Isaiah 64:6, NKJV). Because death is the penalty for sin, we needed a perfect man to take our penalty.

That person can only be Jesus Christ, the God-man, a descendant of Adam and our relative (1 Corinthians 15:22). Jesus stepped into history, lived a perfect life, died on the Cross, taking our penalty of death for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), and rose victorious over death. Now he offers the gift of eternal life and freedom from slavery to sin to all who will put their faith and trust in him (Romans 10:9). And it has nothing to do with what we do—but it has everything to do with God’s mercy to us.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)

Our natural way of thinking about this is upside-down and backward to the way that God works. The greatest gift of all, salvation through Jesus Christ, is a free gift that we do not deserve and is given simply because of God’s amazing grace to us. Now that’s good news!

A Matter of Conscience

Of course, whether a family includes Santa or elves in their family holiday traditions is a matter of conscience and Christian liberty, since the Bible says nothing about Christmas or Santa. But, as parents and grandparents, we should be wary of the message we’re sending to our children or grandchildren by including Santa Claus in our family celebration of Christ’s incarnation.

We assume our good works earn us favor with God, but they don’t.

We should never buy into the world’s philosophy that you have to earn your gifts. We must teach our children the true nature of God’s mercy and grace and how it runs counter to what we as humans would expect, then compare that to what the philosophy of Santa teaches. We assume our good works earn us favor with God, but they don’t. As believers, we have favor with God because we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Our good works are an outpouring of our love for God (John 14:15) and are the physical reality of our salvation (James 2:14), enabled by our benevolent God himself (Philippians 2:13).

This year, as you remember and celebrate the incarnation of Christ, may you be moved by the amazing grace and mercy of our Savior, who does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10), but has given us grace upon grace (John 1:16).

Footnotes

  1. John Frederick Coots and Henry Gillespie, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” 1934.

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