Santa is "freaky." That's the conclusion the youth I work with on Wednesday nights reached.
Last night, I had the youth compare two songs: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "O Holy Night."
When they actually looked carefully at the words of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" they immediately and as a group called out "freaky." It really bothered them that Santa was watching them while they slept. That he appeared to know everything about them. That he had punitive and reward power in his hands.
Out of that song, they described Santa as male, fat, bearded, and red-cheeked and knowing way, way too much about them.
When we turned to "O Holy Night" and it's somewhat archaic words, we spent a lot of time just defining words. Key for them: What does "Divine" mean and far more, what does "Holy" mean?
As the lively and energetic discussion kept going, the question came up: "What is God really like?" "Is God a man?" "Does God have a beard?"
Suddenly, they all made the connection: we have indeed turned Santa Claus, the one from the children's story written in 1862, into God. After all, Santa does know when we've been bad or good.
And the youth asked, "If we stop believing in Santa Claus, do we stop believing in God as well?"
At this point, we began to discuss the nature of God and what in means to be "holy."
And also at this point, something became more clear to me than it ever has before: we do our children a huge disservice when we offer them a "Santa Claus" god. Almost all young people will go through a period of questioning their faith as they go through high school and especially enter the more rigorous world of critical thought that the college and university years ideally bring. Most of them rightly reject the god of their childhood because they are rejecting the "Santa Claus" model. But we give them nothing to replace it with.
Why do they reject the Santa Claus model? Because it suggests that they can control God's behavior by their own. As long as they are good, Santa has to perform.
So it is Santa's (i.e. God's) job is to give them what is on their wish list. When life's wish list is not honored, when unemployment strikes, when romantic attachments fail and disappoint, when friends are killed in car wrecks or destroy themselves with drugs or other bad choices, or sent off to fight foreign wars and are either killed or returned utterly traumatized and Santa doesn't come through to fix it and make it magically right, then Santa, i.e., God, gets tossed.
So, when they reject all they know about God, they are left with a void.
They don't know what "holy" is. They have no tools to begin to address the mystery of a God who uses these words as self-definition, "I AM."
Confirming our youth at 12 or 13 or 14 does not solve the problem. They are just beginning to understand the power of critical thinking. I think the reason we lose most of them after Confirmation is that all we've done is give them a slightly gussied up version of Santa Claus and they know it doesn't really work.
What are we going to do?