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The minute I saw the Elf’s permanent grin, I knew I was in for a lot of work—or explaining. 

My daughter, who was on the cusp of being “in on” the Santa Claus legend, had just received grandma’s gift of a new and even stronger myth, the Elf on the Shelf.

The Elf was to be named by the recipient, and then would appear in various places around our house, watching for any misbehavior to report back to the “boss.” 

The idea of Elf on the Shelf is clever and fun—a well-executed holiday product. In practice, however, the elf lore is much more personal and open to a parent’s creativity than the Santa legend. And children have a remarkable tenacity to want to believe in it. My now 10-year-old daughter has classmates who still do.

Would anyone have guessed the lengths to which children would go in their belief? And you can understand how some parents are happy to perpetuate this myth now year-round: The bedroom gets cleaned.

Holiday lore like Santa and the Elf on the Shelf can make holidays and parenting much more complicated. Many of us wonder what we should tell our children about these things. Is it OK to let them buy into the Santa myth? What should we tell them about the Elf on the Shelf that their teacher said is reporting their behavior to Santa? Will believing in these things effect their faith later on?

It might be helpful this time of year to consider the basics of belief and ways you can be sure your child will not confuse fantasy with faith in Jesus.

Here are five ways you can keep holiday myths separate from the truth of Jesus:

Be Sure to Put More Energy into Your Child’s Experience With God Than With Santa. 

Children tenaciously believe in Santa in part because parents personalize him—and, in the case of the Elf, they give their children an ongoing personal experience with it.

All the more so, the life of faith in Jesus is grounded in experience. Even very young children can grow in their faith through personal experiences with God. Be sure to offer those opportunities by building an active faith community of church and family around your child.

Point Out Ways Different Families Have Different Holiday Traditions.

As you celebrate your traditions, ask your child how their classmates celebrate. Note the differences with curiosity, but without judgment. Doing so helps you avoid the comparison trap, and get it right out on the table that Santa and the Elf are traditions relative to a family’s interest, no better, no worse than anyone else’s.

If your child says, “John’s Elf stays with him year-round.” Just respond, “How interesting that traditions have so many differences among families.” Then, enjoy your own traditions. Don’t let your child subtly force you into playing the catch-up game. I’ve actually seen this happen: I’ve fallen for it myself. Just emphasize the cool things your family does together during special times.

Enjoy the Santa Story, but Have Greater Traditions About the Christian Meaning of Christmas. 

Of course, the main reason children want to believe in Santa is because gifts are linked to him. Make the best gifts of the season gifts from you personally, and the Santa gifts minor ones they won’t miss as they grow. Attach the sweets, treats and special meals to times of caroling, worship and praise for God’s amazing gift.

You can refer to Santa and the elf as traditions, as in, “Goodness, time flies! It’s almost time for the elf tradition.” Or point out the obvious together, “We just saw Santa at Target, and here is another Santa right down the street!” 

In public schools and elsewhere, children will be exposed to other cultural traditions of the holiday season. It’s a good thing to let Santa and the Elf fall into that category. Make your Christmas experience far more authentic by comparison. Make it about Jesus. And beware the Elf trap for rewarding good behavior.

No Matter Your Preferences as a Family for Santa, Never be Unclear About Your Belief in God. 

Belief is a God-given choice and capacity that is the foundation for faith. Children don’t need to have a full grasp of your doctrine, but they do benefit greatly from knowing God has primacy in your own life through simple, everyday ways, like giving Him thanks or asking His forgiveness in front of your child.

These are things you should practice year round, but especially don’t lose track of them in the busyness of the holiday season.

Keep an Eye on the Reveal.

The truth is, the more elaborate your Santa tradition, the more you will have to explain yourself later. And even then, you’ll have a certain amount of explaining to do whatever your parenting approach to the Elf or Santa. 

One day when my daughter was 7 years old, she said point blank, “Mom, Henry said there is no Santa Claus, that it’s the parents who give the gifts. Is that true?”

She probably knew the truth just by looking at my scrunched nose and blinking eyes. We all have memories of that disappointment.

The best response I could muster in the moment was, “What do you think? Do you really want to know?”

And like me when I was a child, she dropped the matter. Letting go of childhood fantasies is letting go of childhood. There’s no hurry for that.

Fantasies fuel imaginations. And as believers, our imaginations must thrive in order for our spiritual life to grow and give us hope for a future life.

When my daughter was very young she asked, “Mama, do you believe in fairies?” A boy had told her fairies didn’t exist, but she loved fairies and made up wonderful stories about them. That time, I answered her without thinking twice: “I believe in fairies as long as you believe in fairies.” 

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