David and Heather Kopp write regularly--sometimes individually, sometimes jointly--on spiritual parenting. This column is by Heather.

You better watch out.
He's coming.
You better not shout.
He's coming.
You better not cry. You better not, you better not, you better not!

The visions dancing in my head on Christmas Eve the year I was 5 weren't of sugar plums, or even the '60s equivalent of candy canes. They were of stolen cookies, whining fests at doctors' offices, and shouting matches I'd had recently with my little brother.

He knows if you've been bad...

Tossing in bed, I fretted into the night. How far back does Santa's list go? Does shouting include playing? And why does he have to check his list twice?

Then it happened. Sometime around midnight, my sister, who was older by three years and shared my room, finally told me the "big secret": Santa isn't real. Santa is Mom and Dad.

"You're just trying to be mean," I insisted. And indeed she looked gleeful about the prospect of eliminating Santa for me. But after she told me all she knew "Santa" was giving me this year, because she helped Mom buy it, I was convinced.

My first reaction was shock. Shock that my parents had lied, and not only lied, but lied to cover up their lies!--something I'd been taught ensured worse and worse punishments. Then quickly on the heels of shock, I felt something else: immense relief. While many "good" children might be disappointed to discover Santa was a farce, being certain I was mostly "bad," I was thrilled. Santa wasn't real! He wasn't dressed in red and reading a list of all the bad things I'd done or said. Because he didn't exist...the presents would come regardless!

Once I became a mom myself, I had to decide what to do about Santa. Should I tell the cute, well-intentioned lie? Should I use Santa to inspire good deeds and guarantee less tattling and squabbling, at least in the few days leading up to Christmas?

This last part was particularly tempting, especially when Noah and Nathan were old enough to turn a trip to the mall into a miserable event. But a nagging memory of a frightened 5-year-old gave me pause. Maybe abusing Santa's legendary generosity wasn't such a good way to influence my kids' behavior--any more than making God a punishing tyrant would be. After all, wasn't the original Santa legend about a Christian doing random acts of goodness?

Another concern I had about Santa is one shared by many Christian parents: When my children eventually discovered there was no Santa, would they feel betrayed, as if they couldn't trust their parents--and eventually conclude the Christ of Christmas wasn't real either?

After all, aside from one being real and one being make-believe, they have so much in common. Santa has elves. Jesus has angels. Santa has an enemy--Scrooge or the Grinch or the Abominable Snowman, depending on the story. Likewise, Jesus has the devil, always trying to wreck everything for everyone. Both Jesus and Santa have many songs sung about them at Christmas. And both bring gifts.

But here's where the comparisons really start to break down. Santa has that list. Have you been bad or good? Naughty or nice? What you get depends on how well you've done. Not so with God. Before He sent His son to earth to die for the world, I imagine He looked down the list and saw the names of every person, stretching all the way out into eternity. Naughty, bad, rotten! All of them. He didn't need to check twice. In fact, he didn't even need a list. He truly does see us when we're sleeping or awake. He knows if we've been bad. He knows.

He knows, but knowing doesn't stop the gift of his Son. In fact, knowing inspired the gift. He gives not in spite of our naughtiness or to overlook our sin, but in response to it. Not to punish us for it, but to take it away.

When Noah and Nathan were small, my husband and I incorporated the story of Santa into Christmas, along with the story of baby Jesus. For a while, the boys seemed to want to believe in Santa. We didn't contradict them. But neither did we "use" Santa's list to scare them into obedience.

Instead, we told them another story, year-round, about what became of that baby asleep on the hay. It's a story so true and so large that it encompasses and, in fact, illuminates the entire Christmas message. A story of such amazing grace that one can hardly take it in no matter what our age. A story that assures us that His love reaches past our sins. And the gifts will come...regardless.

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