The expression "Father Christmas" is commonly used in Commonwealth Nations of the British empire. That's how they refer to Santa Claus. Santa Claus goes by many different names in different parts of the world, and he's often a point of contention for some people.
As sincere as they may be, there are believers who take an antagonistic attitude toward celebrating Christmas, especially toward Santa Claus. Oftentimes, we're negatively orientated to things because we've never been faced with a living counterpart. The only counterpart we know is a dead thing of the past. If you are a person who grew up believing in Santa Claus but never having any understanding about Father God, then your transformation as a believer may have included accepting the view that says you shouldn't celebrate Christmas, or that the idea of Santa Claus is evil.
There are some things that have to do with celebrating Christmas and with Santa Claus that really are soured by carnality in the world, but there's another side to that. If you were told you shouldn't celebrate Christmas because it's an extension of an ancient, pagan holiday, consider this: It's also an ancient Christian take-over of a pagan holiday. Many of the things we associate with Christmas, like the yule log and the tree, have to do with things Christians did to sanctify the holiday with a living counterpart. They took the best of what was and reinterpreted it with life.
The Father of Christmas isn't Santa Claus; it's the living God who gave His Son. I came to understand the heart of the Father of Christmas because of the father that was closest to me in my first experiences of Christmas—my own dad. I was one year old when my mamma and daddy received Christ, and, so, I was raised by people who knew and loved Jesus Christ. Their fidelity to Him was unlimited and unqualified. They absolutely were committed to the truth of the Word of God, and the glory of the Son of God.
When it came time for Christmas, the Hayford family had Christmas. We weren't wealthy; my father was a switchman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. But our Christmases were full of splendor. We had some presents, and it seemed my parents went out of their way to make it as lavish as our budget could afford.
But what really made Christmas special was what was in my parents' hearts, especially my dad's. He fathered Christmas to me before I understood the eternal Father. The reason it's important to me to offer this illustration is because it all centered around my dad's being Santa Claus, though I didn't know that was what he was doing at the time. Let me share with you the story.
I can see the picture right now: it was before my brother Jim, who is 10 years younger than me, was born. My sister, mamma and daddy and I would be sitting at the table having dinner. It was about three weeks before Christmas. All of a sudden, my dad would say, "What was that?"
Everybody stopped. Then he'd say, "I thought I heard bells." Right now, my sister's and my eyes are lighting up. My father says: "Listen kids, you stay right here. I'm going to go outside and see if I can find it."
We were naive children. It never entered my mind that my father's going out to find Santa Claus was to do all the things that began to happen in the next few minutes. We'd be there waiting, and then we'd hear bells—little jingle bells down at the other end of the house. My sister and I would jump up from the table and go running to the window, but there was no one there. Then we'd hear bells at the other end of the house and go running down the hall. Remember, it never entered my mind that my dad was doing this!
Then, I don't know how he did it, but my father would get on top of the house. Talk about the ultimate evidence of Santa Claus! We'd hear the sound of somebody thumping around on the roof. Finally, my dad would come back inside the house, and tell us he'd just seen Santa Claus outside, and Santa wanted us to know that he'd be coming back in a couple of days.
Several days would go by, and we'd be at the table having dinner again when my dad would say, "Did you hear anything?" By now, all anyone needed to do was say that and even if I never heard anything at all, I heard bells. My dad would say: "You know, Santa said he was going to come back in a couple of days. I think this is it. Wait just a minute; I'm going to go check it out. You stay right here."
He'd go to the front room and step outside, and then call us excitedly: "Kids! Come here!" Now he must have either done it before dinner, or when he went into the front room he fixed it so that when he opened the door, there would be presents on the porch! There might be an ironing board for my sister or a tricycle for me. Remember, it's still 2-1/2 weeks before Christmas!
I came to understand that my father was himself so excited that he wanted to share his heart of love toward us kids not just in a moment on Christmas morning, but for as long as he could stretch it out before then.
Coming in from outdoors with the presents in tow, my dad would say, "Kids, I just saw Santa Claus out there, and he said that he's going to have to take these things back until Christmas, but that it would be OK for you to play with them for a few minutes tonight."
And it was really just a very few minutes—like two or three. I later learned that one of the things my dad was doing in these pre-Christmas previews was seeing if the tricycle was the right size and making sure my sister liked the kind of ironing board he'd picked out. He could check out our gifts in advance and exchange them if he needed to before they were really ours. There really was a practical method to the madness!
Then he'd say, "Now you kids go in the other room because I've got to get these back out on the porch." I can see my dad at the door right now. He's talking to the other end of the porch, but from where I'm standing inside, I'm certain that Santa is right there, just around the corner!
My dad would say: "OK kids, you go to your room. We have to give these things back but they'll be here for Christmas." And that was it.
This story is only a sample of things that were thrilling and fun about celebrating Christmas when I was a child, but what's important for you to understand is that it never once entered into our home, into my mind or into any of our value system as to what Christmas was about. Christmas ALWAYS was about Jesus. But it wasn't a stiff, stern Jesus forced on us in lieu of anything joyous. It was the celebration of Jesus' birth as nothing less than real and happy.
Before I ever came to know Father God per se, to understand the heart of the living God, I learned something about the heart of God through a father who loved us wholeheartedly, and who was happy and fun to be around. When I got old enough to know there was no Santa Claus, it never entered once into my mind to doubt the trustworthiness of my father when he talked about the living God.
The atmosphere whenever we would talk about the living God and His Son Jesus Christ wasn't the same as Santa Claus on the porch. We knew the difference. We had an in-built value system. No one even needed to even say to us, "We were just playing fun when we talked about Santa Claus, Jack, but when we talk about God, we really mean it." You just knew those things.
There are people who make a case against parents pursuing anything of the fun of Christmas with their kids either because they are afraid the child will misconstrue what Christmas is about, or because if you let kids celebrate all the myths of the season, they'll somehow get Jesus mixed in as a myth and grow up faithless because they don't know the difference between truth and legend.
There never came a time when I needed to retreat to something less that orthodoxy because my faith had been shattered on the discovery that Santa Claus wasn't real. Never even broached the question. I'll tell you why: because perfect love not only keeps out fear but all kinds of confusion.
God is the Author of the spirit of celebration and joy when, at the center of it, there are people that know that He is the Father of Christmas and His Son is the Gift we unwrap with a special sense of re-celebration each year.
Jack W. Hayford, Litt.D., is the founder of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California; chancellor of The King's College and Seminary and the president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.