Curmudgeon alert: If the title of this entry offends you, read no farther. I wouldn't want to upset anybody. (Right? I'm always very careful not to offend anybody...) Seriously, I'm not implying that anybody is a bad parent for teaching his kids to believe in Santa Claus. To be sure, in giving one of my own chief reasons for not doing so, I mean to present this as a reason for others to consider not doing so, either. But I'm not trying to give anybody a hard time. End of introduction.
The story told here illustrates a major reason why I don't teach my kids--at any age--that Santa Claus is real.
Here's another anecdotal example of a child's linking belief in God and in Santa Claus dangerously: In March a young girl visited my (small) church, and my eldest daughter spent some time talking with her. My daughter ended up much concerned about her. The younger girl, age 9, had clearly been trying to test the waters to see what the 16-year-old wanted her to say. At one point she said, "I'm not even sure I believe in God. Well, I sort of believe in Him. I sort of believe in God and Santa Claus." This was not reassuring.
Consider what it means to teach a young child to believe that Santa Claus is real. You are teaching the child that a person exists who is benevolent and has super-powers, who can do incredible things, who sees his actions while remaining unseen, who rewards good acts, and with whom (if you encourage letter-writing to Santa) the child can communicate.
If you're a Christian parent, you are very likely teaching the child at the same time in his life and at the same stage in his development to believe in God--a powerful and benevolent Being who sees his actions while remaining unseen, who rewards good actions and punishes evil actions, and with whom the child can communicate by praying. In fact, you encourage him to pray to this Unseen Being.
To induce belief in your child in both of these teachings, you are relying on the fact that children naturally believe what their parents tell them.
But one is an unimportant falsehood and the other is the ultimately important Truth.
Belief in Santa Claus is temporary. Eventually kids figure out that Mom and Dad have been telling them a white lie and that the causes of the presents on Christmas morning are mundane. As the above story about the artist's daughter shows, it isn't that much of a stretch for the astute child to wonder whether the other story about an invisible, benevolent Being who is the cause of all things, seen and unseen, has also been a white lie and whether the causes of all the things previously attributed to Him are, instead, mundane.
Atheists trade on this. I'm sure my astute readers could find dozens of examples of atheist rants to very much the "when I became a man, I put away childish things" effect. And this trope can be very effective for older young people as well. A Christian high school or college student will no doubt at some point encounter the following line of thought: "Why do you believe in God? Because your parents told you that He exists, right? But you believed in Santa Claus on the same basis. If you'd been raised in another culture, you would believe a different religion, and they can't all be true. At some point you have to start thinking for yourself. Just as it turned out that Santa Claus doesn't exist, so, you'll find, it turns out that God doesn't exist either. You're old enough to figure this out for yourself."
Unfortunately, most Christian young people do not go to college primed with evidences for the existence of God and for Christianity. This argument against authority may well strike them as devastating. And--I'm sorry to have to say it, but it must be said--it will strike them as all the more devastating if the coin of parental speech has been devalued by those little white lies told them in their innocence for the sake of cuteness.
Very few teenagers or young adults like to contemplate the picture of themselves as cute, naive little children. Sometimes they don't even want to remember that they once were cute, naive little children. It is probably a fault in the age, but it's a widespread one. They want to distance themselves from anything remotely resembling wide-eyed pre-school-hood. It's embarrassing to think that they used to believe this or that crazy thing, that some older brother took them in with a tall tale...or that Mom and Dad did.
And if they come to believe that God does not exist, that would-be superiority will be turned against Christianity, too. "When I became a man, I put away childish things." Deconverts are some of the hardest to get back.
So if you want to "tell" your kids about Santa Claus, I suggest you just make it a fun pretend thing you share together, making it clear that it's a joke. That's what we do with the Tooth Fairy around here. My kids leave a newly lost tooth in a small ziploc bag on the fridge. Sometimes they leave a note for the TF to remind her to leave money. And the TF leaves a note back with the money, unless she's pressed for time. Everybody laughs about it. The five-year-old is under no illusions and never has been. She thinks it's funny, and she always has. "You're the tooth fairy," she says from time to time, and goes off into giggles.
But she never laughs about the "pretense" that God exists. And please God, she never will. Because He's different. He's real. And she knows that, too.