Are Father God and Father Christmas Fundamentally Alike?

Dec 24, 2019

Is God making a list and checking it twice? Is there a difference between the gifts of Santa and the gift of Jesus? Vince and Jo sit down for a special Christmas episode of Ask Away where they discuss the similarities and differences between Santa and God, and tackle the thorny issue of whether it’s a good idea to persuade your kids to believe in Santa Claus (Spoiler alert—they disagree with each other! Kind of…).

Want to hear more on this? Click here to watch a special Christmas message from Vince Vitale at the Zacharias Institute.

Question Asked in This Episode: “Do ‘Christmas’ and Christianity worship the same God?”

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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. With all the craziness and consumerism that has attached itself to Christmas, it can oftentimes feel as if there is nothing of Christ in the holiday. Complicating the issue further is that Christmas has become this catchall for all people and of all faiths. Having just slightly different understandings of the same divine being that gives you presents if you're good, or coal if you're bad—are Father God, and Father Christmas, fundamentally alike? Basically the same person in different seasonal attire, sandals for summer and a big red hat for winter. Who are we worshiping this Christmas and why does it even matter? But before we get started, Vince, can you tell our listeners a little bit about what is coming up at the Zacharias Institute?

Vince Vitale: Yes. This year for the first time we're doing a Zacharias Institute Christmas message and that has actually just been released. It was released on a Friday, December 20, at 7 p.m. and it's available on all our social media channels. We think it's a really accessible Christmas message. We're trying to recapture the wonder of Christmas a bit and if there's anyone in your life who maybe doesn't believe in the real story of Christmas or maybe just needs a bit of encouragement this year, we hope that you'll point them to that Christmas message. Then in January, January 18 on a Saturday, here at the Institute—in person, we're going to have “Understanding and Answering Islam.” And actually interestingly, that connects with our question for today. We're going to be asking this question about the relationship between Santa and God. Understanding and answering Islam. We're going to be asking: what's the relationship between other types of divine beings? In this case, the Christian God and the Islamic conception of God. Such an important question for us to consider. And that'll be January 18, right here at the Institute.

Michael Davis: Okay. Let's get to our question of the day. Do Christmas and Christianity worship the same God?

Jo Vitale: Yeah, I would say that is a great question that Michael has just asked us, but actually Michael isn't here in the studio with us today. He prerecorded those questions and then he took off. He claims on a work trip, but actually I have my own theories. I'm thinking that maybe this is some conclusive evidence that actually Michael Davis really is Santa Claus and he's just off to the workshop and that's why he can't be with us today. He definitely has...well, I would say he has the beard to prove it, but you just shaved it off, so I don't know. Maybe he's an elf instead. I'm not sure, it's unclear, but either way, my guess is that's where Michael is today. So you just have Vince and I instead. But we're going to have some fun.

Vince Vitale: I think he is actually in New York city, so maybe he's seeing the tree and ice skating at Rockefeller center and getting his Christmas cheer on. But we're missing Michael and we look forward to having you back. But thanks for pre-recording that. And we're looking forward to diving into this question. And Jo, we have not really talked about this much before, but did you believe in Santa as a child?

Jo Vitale: Yeah, I did. Yeah. We grew up believing in Santa. I actually, where my brother broke the news to my sister accidentally that Santa or can I say it? Am I my spoiler alert for any parents listening? Turn it off now. But that Santa didn't exist. My brother broke the news to my younger sister and I was so mad at him that I smacked him. So that's my...I know!

Vince Vitale: How did I not know this story?

Jo Vitale: I know, believe me, my brother never lets me forget it and I obviously burst into tears at the news. So that's my main memory around this topic is that she cried and I hit Ed.

Vince Vitale: Wow. That's traumatic. So, so how old were you?

Jo Vitale: I don't remember?

Vince Vitale: No? I did a little research. What do you think the average age is of children when they stopped believing in Santa?

Jo Vitale: I would hope it's quite young. I don't know. Is it like six?

Vince Vitale: Well, from what I read, it's eight.

Jo Vitale: Eight?

Vince Vitale: Yeah. Which I think…What made me feel a bit better because I believed in Santa quite late. I remember all of my friends had stopped believing in Santa before I did and I still did. Yeah. And so I felt, you know, bit foolish when, when I learned the news, but I learned the news because I was a science experiment. Really. I started putting my letters in the chimney in August because I thought, “you know what, if my parents are just taking these letters out of the chimney, they're not going to be looking for them in August. But Santa, you know, if he is who he says he is and he's going to be whisking these letters away all times of year.” So I put the letters in there in August and they just sat there. And so I came to the conclusion that I came to.

Jo Vitale: Find the truth. Yeah, your parents are quite sneaky. They went there because they went to a massive effort to convince you Santa existed, including having people dress up as him and like run out the front door. And although why he'd be going out the front door and not back up the chimney?

Vince Vitale: Well, it's a little hard to get yourself back up the chimney if you're not actually Santa.

Jo Vitale: The clues were there.

Vince Vitale: The clues were there, but you're right. They went to a serious effort. And this article I was reading, it was going through some of the reasons that people stopped believing. One child said it was impossible for such a big man to fit down the chimney. Very fair. And then some parents were forced to tell their kids the truth because Santa's scared the kids. And, and I guess, you know, I hadn't really thought of it that way, but that kind of makes sense. Right? This guy's going to come down the chimney in this weird outfit and this big beard and he's going to kind of be creeping around the house in the middle of the night. So yeah. Okay, well, fair point. So we have actually not had this conversation before. We have a 10 month old named Rapheal and before too long we're going to have to decide whether or not we persuade him to believe in Santa. And you know what better time to have that conversation and make that decision then right here on Ask Away and in front of thousands of people. So what do you think?

Jo Vitale: I lean towards no. Or you know, if you do it, do it in a halfhearted way where it's obvious it's clearly a joke.

Vince Vitale: How do you do Santa half-hearted?

Jo Vitale: I'm not sure, but I just, I don't know. I just feel like you're setting yourself up for trouble if you lie to your kids and then you know, once they realize that's not true. What else are they going to question you about?

Vince Vitale: Yeah, well it's interesting cause you know, Jo, you grew up in a Christian home. So I always wonder how this intersects with faith in the context of a Christian home. You know, I didn't grow up with a family that was centered around faith. So, you know, Santa was our thing and it's kind of hard to imagine not having the wonder of Santa, but I do, I do hear what you're saying. I came across an academic Santa survey and so professor Chris Boyle from your home country of the University of Exeter has pulled many people around the world internationally and it's interesting. One of his findings was that 15% of children had felt betrayed by their parents when they found out, 10% felt angry. And this was interesting around a third, 30% said that their trust in adults had been affected by their belief in Father Christmas or Santa when they found out that he wasn't true.

And I think you had pointed me at one point, Jo to this tweet by Ricky Gervais and he said, "Imagine if you carried on believing in Santa and the tooth fairy into adulthood and even killed and started Wars over it. Haha. Imagine that." And I could imagine, you know, that way of thinking, maybe it doesn't play out this way, but it's at least something worth thinking through. You know, if you've conflated the tooth fairy and Santa and the Easter bunny and Jesus, right. When you realize that, you know, some don't exist, then is it a natural conclusion to think that all of them don't exist? Now, don't get me wrong, I've seen this done well in the context of Christian family, so I really think it can be done well, but it's just something to be thoughtful about. I mean, even at the RZIM Christmas gathering recently, you know we had Santa there, but Santa was there talking about the question, “What is the real gift of Christmas” with all of the children? And he had clearly come to communicate about who the real gift of Christmas was and not just to give his own material gifts. So I think it can be done well, but it's a serious question actually.

Jo Vitale: Yeah. I felt like my parents did it well in the sense that, you know, there was a sort of element of Santa, but it really felt more like a joke or like a little token thing than the actual point. What I appreciated about them was the real wonder of Christmas was always so Christ centered. And so there wasn't any question about what it was really about. And I think for that reason there was no confusion in our minds that Santa was kind of the side gig, a little bit of Christmas fun, but not to be taken seriously. Whereas Jesus was clearly the big deal on Christmas. So yeah, I think they did it well. But I think personally I just, I don't want to set our son up for disappointment.

Vince Vitale: As long as Santa is Robin and not Batman, then we're okay. Well, okay. Well then this sort of brings us to the question that we wanted to reflect on a little bit here. It's kind of a fun question, but “Do Christmas and Christianity worship the same God?” And the reason I started to think in these terms, kind of an odd question, but was because you know as apologists we often get asked the question about whether people of different religions and different faiths worship the same God. For instance, do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? That's something we'll be dealing with at our understanding and answering Islam conference. Do people worship basically the same being in a fundamental sense but just with slight differences and sometimes we can think of Santa and God in the same way. Are Father Christmas and Father God fundamentally the same, but just slightly different?

Jo Vitale: Right, which is an interesting question. Interesting you spoke about Islam in that context because as we go on to see, I actually often think that if you really want to lay out parallels, I think the God of Christmas, Santa Claus in some ways is that she has a lot more in common with Allah and some of the teachings around Islam and certain views about how God operates. Then it has to do with the God of Christianity. And so...

Vince Vitale: I think that's really fair. And you know, coming from my own background, that is interesting. When I finally began to read the Bible, I realized that actually my preconceptions about God were much closer to an Islamic way of understanding God then to a Christian way. And maybe that did have something to do with the fact that I had been so captured by this wonder of Christmas. And the closest thing that I had had previously to a divine being was Santa Claus. But you know, I can sort of see it, at least initially, right? There are some similarities. Both of them were very far away. Santa lives in the North Pole and you know, God lives on some distant far off heavenly throne. Both have supernatural powers. We write letters to Santa asking him for what we want for Christmas. We write in our prayer journals to God asking him for what we want and need.

We get to be in Santa's presence once a year, but he's kind of allusive. He never stays long enough to say hello and, and you know, a lot of people feel that way about God as well. That there's this sense that there might be something more, something transcendent in life, but it's elusive. And once in a while we sense that we're in the presence of God. But then other times he seems hidden as well. And somebody might think that both Santa and God are concerned with whether we are naughty or nice. They're watching how we live, they're keeping a list and they're going to either reward us or punish us. The main difference is just that Santa make that judgment annually, whereas God makes it eternally. So yeah, for some people I can see it, you know, as a starting point. I can see how people could get confused and think different outfits, but otherwise pretty similar.

Jo Vitale: Yeah, and you can see how actually it would lead to, I think a bit of a fear of the character of God in that sense. Because you know, if there's a child you're, you're terrified of doing the wrong thing in the year ‘cause you're going to get coal in your stocking, then that's going to transfer into a perception of how God sees you as well. So I can see how that sets you up in some ways for failure when it comes to understanding Christianity. But I think it is the most common perception.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's a good point. But I think the more we think about this, the closer we look, we do start to see deep differences between Santa and God. You know, it's almost like two people that you might see from a far distance. If you see people a good distance away, you might have trouble telling them apart, but the closer you get to those people, the easier it is to tell the differences between them and to see who you're looking at. I think that's often what happens when we're talking about the gods of different religions, but also when we're talking about Santa and God. And so I think that there are serious differences. And one of the key ones that comes to mind for me is that only the God of the Bible is based on evidence. And we can see this because you never met anyone who started believing in Santa as an adult.

Jo Vitale: You don't know anyway. Right.

Vince Vitale: You know what I mean? Maybe you have, maybe you haven't, I mean, I hope I meet that person, but I haven't yet. But I know all sorts of people, including myself, who as an adult, not only as an adult, but as an adult who was specifically intellectually looking into the question, became absolutely convinced in the reality of Jesus and of God. So that's definitely a distinction. And then, you know, there are other distinctions as well.

Jo Vitale: Yeah, I find that interesting because I think, how often do we hear people say, well, you just believe that because you grew up believing it. I think there's a common assumption that people hold that if you're a Christian or if you're atheist or you know, whatever, you couldn't have come through an informed decision on that. It must just be purely on the basis of cultural influence. But I mean, how many people do we meet all the time who've come to faith in, in Christianity. And what I love is that people from all kinds of different backgrounds and perspectives, whether it's, you know, we have friends who are former atheist, former Muslims, former agnostics former Jews, former, you know, you name it, but also people from all different kinds of backgrounds. You know, some people who are incredibly wealthy and have everything they need, other people who come from an incredible place of suffering and have absolutely nothing.

You know, some people who are very intellectual and really pursued or a rigorous quest. Other people who came to had some kind of experience, which led them to believe in God. So not just one group as so many different kinds of people who've come to that decision. So it really doesn't hold up this idea that, "Oh, we just grew up with it as a child and therefore you're crazy to go ahead and start wars over it now, or you need to take it seriously and not grow out of it." I just think that's quite a naive way to talk about it.

Vince Vitale: No, it was one of the most amazing things about the Christian faith, the diversity of people through which you see the same story, the same God, the same transformation. It really points to the uniqueness of who Jesus is. And I also think of, you know, just some fun things. I mean, Santa comes at night so he won't be seen, right? He intentionally, he's trying not to be seen. On the other hand, we have the God of the universe, of the invisible, immaterial God of the universe who takes on flesh and comes to earth specifically so that he will be seen. The one who is not visible who's unseen, comes to be seen. A Santa keeps a list of our wrongs. I think that's actually quite contrary to, you know, the heart and the desire of God. In the Bible, a God who says that he desires for our wrongs to be as far as the East is from the West and even in first Corinthians 13 specifically says that love keeps no records of wrongs.

Jo Vitale: Yes, it's the thing I love so much about Christmas actually is that so many people are struggling with that perception that actually got as far away that if even exists at all he's disinterested, kind of like Santa, maybe he'll show up once a year to hand out a gift or something. But really he doesn't really want to have anything to do with your life and but just what Christmas celebrates the idea of God with us. And Emanuel is just so profound. The lengths to which God would come close. I mean not just in terms of in a sort of experiential, you know, I sense him in a spiritual way, but the fact that he's tangibly taking on flesh that he comes in the form of an infant and I was thinking about that in the car just this week when I was driving around with our 10 month old Raphael.

And just the sort of noises he was making, the gurgling in the back seat and the laughing and I was thinking, well how amazing that God did that at one point that Jesus was actually made those kinds of gurgling happy noises. Like that is how close God came. That is how real it is that that God isn't far off at a distance. But he actually came into history to be, to be that close to us. But also how that applies today. You know, not just the God of the past, but we can't access him ‘cause it was 2000 years ago. But I love the line from the carol “A little town of Bethlehem” when it talks about God being born in us today. You know, that's what we pray at Christmas, that God would also be born in us today. And that sense of being that close again to us. And what a radical contrast that is between the Santa who is as far away at the North Pole and disappears before you even see him and the God who's looking to connect with you and show up.

Vince Vitale: Yeah. Now I think we're getting at the deepest difference between Santa and God. I would say Santa is not about relationship, right? None of us ever thought as kids, I really hope I deepen my friendship with Santa this year, right? Like that thought never crossed our minds. Our thought was, "I hope Santa gives me cool stuff this year," right? Santa was about giving us stuff. He wasn't about relationship. Our relationship to any extent that we had one with Santa was just transactional. We made orders, he gave us the gifts. Amazon prime, we make the order and it shows up on your doorstep anywhere in the world with no one in sight. Right? That's what we get out of Santa. But God is deeply desirous of relationship and you know you said it earlier Jo, that actually if you think of God as Santa and it's actually quite a frightening thought, right?

That he has this list, he's checking it twice. Are you going to be nice or on the naughty list? And if you are, you're going to get coal. You know that darkness, that is what is in your future, if you haven't lived up to what you're supposed to live up to. Each of us knows deep in our hearts if that's the case and so then what sort of judgment are we going to be under? Santa gives rewards and punishments.

God gives gifts and sometimes I think we mistake those two things, right? A reward is something that's given because you merited it, you deserved it, you earned it. And that can really bring with it a lot of anxiety because even if you live a good enough year to get Santa's rewards this year, what about next year? What about the year after that? Whereas God, you know, is not primarily about reward.

He's primarily about gift and that's something which does not depend on some sort of measurement of how good you've been. God given immeasurable gift, even though our measurements never could've lived up to what they were supposed to. Quite a different way of seeing things. And a question that I've been asking myself this Christmas, just to kind of encapsulate all that in a question that really gets at the heart of that difference between Santa and God is if I were offered a gift or a reward of exactly the same value, which would I prefer? So it's exactly the same value and worth, but one is something that I've earned and I could hold over my head as a trophy. The other is one that's been given to me even though I don't deserve it and I can treasure it as a gift. Which one would I prefer?

I find that a challenging question. I've asked people that question this Christmas season and people find it really difficult to answer. There's something inside of us that wants what we've earned, but the gospel message is that we've been given something that we did not earn and that only Jesus could earn on our behalf and that we should be blessed by that. We should find peace in that because we don't need to re-earn it next year and the year after that and the year after that we can rest because a gift is unconditional. A gift is merciful. A gift is yours forever and it can't be taken back.

Jo Vitale: It's interesting—what a challenging question that is, Vince, because I think even last year we had some friends who are incredibly generous and throwing a really lovely baby shower for us and how hard we found it just received that gift without sort of wanting to pay them back by getting them something equally nice throughout the year. And it's sometimes it's a hard posture to be in, in that place of having received something that you feel like you don't deserve. And I think particularly when we're talking about your relationship with God and it's about forgiveness and the gift that we're receiving being a relationship that we don't deserve. And I think that's a hard place to be because when you have to admit you don't deserve that relationship with God, it means admitting that you've done things wrong. And I remember having a very hard time with that.

Even in our early marriage, actually, I found it really hard to say, “sorry.” When Vince and I first got married and it wasn't because I wanted to be a stubborn person who dug their heels in, well, not entirely anyway, and I'm sure there was some pride in that, but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that if I say I'm sorry, that means admitting I've done something wrong, and if I've done something wrong, then that means that actually I'm not perfect. And if I'm not perfect, then Vince will realize I'm not perfect. And if Vince realizes I'm not perfect, then maybe he won't like me as much anymore. And maybe he'll reject me and maybe he'll leave me and maybe I'll be alone. So at the end of the day, often it's very fear based. I think, you know, that fear of, “Oh, if we have to own up to stuff, are we going to be rejected?”

But that's what's so beautiful about the Christmas message is that Santa might reject us. Santa might give us a stocking full of coal. One of our colleagues, Shawn Hart was actually once given coal for Christmas because that's how badly behaved he'd been as a child.

Vince Vitale: All these stories I didn't know about!

Jo Vitale: But God doesn't respond to us that way. And I just think that is absolutely astonishing because you know, as great as Santa might be, how much better is God? You know, if anyone was in a position to be doling out coal, it would be him. But look at the gift that he desires to give. And this is the other thing that blows me away when you compare Santa to God, is that, I don't know if you've ever noticed, but Santa seems a little bit unfair. Like if you, if you look at across the world, the different kinds of gifts that kids get, it seems like the rich kids get more from Santa's than kids who don't have as much.

Some kids don't get anything at all from Santa, you know, many people in the world get nothing. They get no gifts for Christmas, they have nothing at all. But that's not how God gives gifts, is it? God desires to give the gift to everybody and it's not a cheap gift. It is a costly gift. It's the gift of himself. It's actually gift that cost him. Everything is the most priceless gift in the whole world, but it's for every single person and he's not just handing it out on one night of the year. That's the gift that we can receive on any day at any time, at any moment. We just have to be willing to hold our arms and God is dying, literally died to give that gift to us. And that is just the kind of extravagant generosity that blows the idea of Santa out of the water, I think.

Vince Vitale: Wow. So this Christmas, we're so glad you were able to join us. If Michael were here, he would say, “we're out of time.” Sum it up. Can you sum it up? It's hard to sum up, but first of all pray for us because we clearly don't know what we're doing when it comes to Santa and before long we're going to have to do one thing or another. With our son Rapheal. But boy, we're really grateful that even though we're very likely to get it wrong, even though we're very likely to not deserve whatever it is that we're hoping for from Santa, we believe in a God and we worship a God who does not give us what we deserve, who gave us that gift, which is unconditional and is there forever and we don't get to January 1st and have to start all over again to see if we can earn it for next year. But he came once and in full and for all and that's where we find our rest and our peace this Christmas and we hope that you will too.

Jo Vitale: I came across a great Christmas song this year and it says “Love is not a toy and no season can contain it. Love is simply joy that I'm home.” Thank you so much for listening this year. We have just loved receiving your questions. We've enjoyed the conversations we've been having and we wish you all a very Merry Christmas. I look forward to seeing you in 2020.

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