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"Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa Claus"

In 1897, The Sun newspaper was asked a doozy of a question. Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wanted to know: “is there a Santa Claus?” The little girl had first asked her papa and he, like a skilled matador, neatly sidestepped the question, telling her to write a letter to the editor. “If you see it in The Sun,” he told her, “it’s so.” You can imagine the tension that must have enveloped the newsroom when this letter arrived. On the one hand, the journalistic integrity of the paper was at stake; how could they do anything but tell the truth? And on the other... well, only a grinch would want to kill Santa Claus, so how could they possibly tell her the truth? Here, in part, is what editorialist Francis Pharcellus wrote: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.... Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Thanks to Pharcellus, Santa lived on for this little girl. At least for another year. Today it seems like we have the same two options facing us: to share the fun of Santa with our children, or to tell the truth about Him. We can either be liars or killjoys. Honest killjoys? The strength of the killjoy option is readily apparent. God loves truth, and hates lies. We teach our children to love truth and hate lies. So we as parents should be truthful and not tell lies. More worrisome is how similar the mythical Santa is to the real God. Both can’t be seen, both know when we’ve been bad or good, and both administer justice. So when we tell our kids that both are real, but later admit that, yes, that Santa guy actually isn’t, we’ve given our kids good reason to doubt what we’ve told them about God. That’s big. That’s huge! Fun So does that mean we have to give up on the fun of Santa? Nope. There is a third option that Francis Pharcellus knew nothing about. In our family photo album one of the pictures is of a kid, 5 or 6, who has just been given a Sesame Street Ernie puppet. In the photo we can see Ernie talking, and the expression on this boy’s face is of wide-eyed, mouth gaping, jumping up on his tiptoes, kind of joy – he could not be more excited! And yet, this is no dumb kid. He can surely tell that where Ernie’s legs should have been, there was his brother’s arm instead. And the voice he was hearing couldn’t have sounded much like Ernie’s. The boy knew this wasn’t really Ernie... but it sure was fun to pretend! The third option is telling our kids the truth, and then playing make-believe. Keeping the good If our kids know this Santa guy is just a story, then we can keep what’s good, and ditch whatever we don’t like. We can reimagine the story, skip the crass commercialization, and keep the generosity. We can pick the Saint over the Santa, and connect the Saint to his Savior. We can pick the 5th of December, or do our Dutch heritage proud and exchange gifts after Boxing Day when everything can be had for 50% off. Zwarte Piet can make an appearance, or not... but if he does show up, he’s going to be less scary, and a lot more fun because the kids will be in on the joke. We can put out the glass of milk, and make sure that whatever cookies we place on the plate are dad’s favorites. Children can still get their pictures taken with Santa, or skip it if the line is too long – no stress, no worries, because, hey, he’s just a guy playing dress-up after all. And if the line is too long, maybe dad will have to get out the ol’ beard and pillow for some photos at home. Because it sure is fun to pretend. Pretending is awesome. But lying to little Victoria? Ho, ho ho, well, that is sure to land you on Santa’s naughty list! This article first appeared in the December 2013 issue. The author is worried he might not need the pillow....


Merry X-mas

“Why in the world would you write that?” “What are you talking about?” “Obviously, that X in Christmas.” “What wrong with that?” “You don’t know?” “Nope. Tell me.” “Well, X stands for an unknown quantity. That’s no way to talk about our Lord!” “Whoa! You don’t have the facts straight!” “What do you mean?” “That’s no X, it’s...” “Looks like an X to me.” “Listen, the New Testament was written in Greek—which everyone wrote at that time.” X-mas isn't something new... “Yeah? So what?” “Here’s what – that supposed “X” in Xmas isn’t an English letter at all. It’s...” “Sure looks like one.” “Yes. But it is really a Greek letter standing for 'Ch,' the first two letters in “Christ.” The expression Xmas is an abbreviation – that’s all.” “Oh!” “If I were objecting to anything, and I’m not, it would be the ‘mas’ at the end of the word.” “Hmmm. You’d better explain that one too!” “Well, it’s a shortening of the word ‘mass.’” “A Roman Catholic word?” “Sorta. You see, Xmas is a ‘mule word’ – half Greek, half Latin.” “Hmmm…” “The latter part, mas, came from the Latin mitto which means ‘to dismiss’ or ‘send off.’ It was used in the early church to dismiss unbelievers before communion was served. But it has little meaning any more – it’s just an abbreviated ending. Get it?” “Think so. Uh . . . Merry Xmas” “Merry Xmas!” This article is reprinted with permission from

Children’s non-fiction, Children’s picture books

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914

by John Hendrix 40 pages / 2014 I was raised with stories of the Dutch Resistance and the Canadian liberators fighting against the brutal Nazis – war, it seemed, had clear villains and obvious heroes. Later, though, I learned that right and wrong in war can be far more confusing: for example, in recent years we’ve seen US-backed groups fighting other US-backed groups in Syria. John Hendrix’s Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 presents parents with a tool to give our children a more nuanced understanding of war. In a style that is halfway between realistic and cartoon, the author tells us the events of Dec. 24 and 25, 1914. On the day of Christmas Eve, 1914, all along the frontlines, the shooting slowed, and that night the Germans could be heard singing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht – “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Then the next morning, on Christmas Day, in spots up and down the frontlines, German, British, and French troops spontaneously came out of their trenches and celebrated Christmas together. The next day they returned to killing one another. Does that make this book sound anti-war? I’d say it is more an underscoring of just how horrible war is. Fighting is sometimes necessary, which is why we are grateful for the courage of the Dutch Resistance and the Allied forces in World War II, who understood that stopping the Nazis was worth risking, and even giving, their lives. We need to remember their sacrifice because it was noble, and selfless, and good. But if war gives us examples to admire and imitate, there is also much that is foolish, and which we must learn to avoid. To give our children a more complete understanding of war, we need to show them that there are those who, under the guise of patriotism, rush to war even though war should always be a last resort. There are leaders who do not treat their young men’s lives as precious, and World War One is an example of that right up to the last day when 11,000 soldiers died in fighting that occurred after the peace treaty was signed. Commanders who sent their men out on offensives on that last day – some from our side – should be remembered as murderers. Shooting at the Stars is a gentle way of teaching the ethical complexities of war. It is gentle in that no blood or gore is seen (making this suitable for maybe Grade Three and up). The most war-like illustration occurs on a two-page spread where we see three corpses, as soldiers on both sides work together to bury their dead. What is striking is simply that there were men on both sides who could praise God together one day and fight to the death the next. That is a shocking bit of history. And it needs to be remembered. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at


When should we unwrap presents?

Should we open our presents on Christmas Day? No one asked this question during the panel discussion at the 2016 Always Reforming Conference, but two panelists decided to answer it, and though their disagreement was very civil, disagree they did. And because their disagreement was also illuminating we will share it below. Let’s set the context first. The panel was asked about joy, and whether Christians could manage to misuse even joy. Can a man, for example, so enjoy his wife, that his enjoyment can cause him not to thank God, but forget Him? Yes, the panel agreed, this was possible. But, they added, a more common danger in our circles might be harmful introspection. It is possible for a Christian to become so self-obsessed, so focused on navel-gazing, that we lose all joy in our lives. If we are always fearful about whether our joy is “pure” enough we can rob ourselves of the joy-giving gifts God showers on us. And here is where the discussion turned to presents and when they should be opened. DR. TIMOTHY EDWARDS: Let imagine this situation. It is Christmas Day, and I give my son a present. And for the rest of that day he’s sitting on my lap, or running around, saying, “Dad thank-you for that present, thank-you for that present, that’s just a great present, I just love that present, thank-you for that present. It’s so kind.” And he’s saying that all day, and the present lies there in the corner. I’m thinking “He doesn’t like the present.” if he says, “Thank-you for that present!” and spends the rest of the day just loving it, I’m thinking, “That’s a wonderful thing.” So when I say, you enjoy Christ…it’s not simply a spiritual thing. When I’m eating a nice meal, and enjoying a fine wine, I’m enjoying the gifts God has given me. When I’m loving my wife, when I’m playing with my children, when I’m studying a Hebrew text, or reading, doing some research and three hours goes by, these are gifts Christ has given me, and by enjoying them, Christ is looking down going, “That’s my boy. That’s what I want him to do.” Now we all know there are people who have enjoyed the gifts so much they have forgotten the Giver. But, again, if we are afraid of doing that, and therefore we never enjoy the gift, that’s a problem. The Jewish rabbis say that when you stand before the judgment seat of God you will not only be judged for the wrong things you did, you will be judged for the good things you refused to enjoy. When I first heard that, I thought, "Oh my, there is a lot of truth in that!" God has created this incredible world and He has given it to us, and He has given us Himself. And we are now able to, in Christ, to love Christ and enjoy His gifts to us. There are lots of gifts out there I would like to enjoy. Not for their own sake, but because they have been given to me, just like my son enjoying his present. And that is enjoying Christ. I remember back in England we’d talk about celebrating Christmas, and there would always be this attempt to remember what it is about. Don’t get distracted by the presents, don’t get distracted by the turkey, and all the food, and don’t get distracted by all those things. You are teaching people to sit there and feel sort of bad about the celebration, and constantly trying to remember, “Oh, it’s about Jesus, it’s about Jesus. I have to think about Jesus in my heart.” When actually, celebrating something biblically, involves tearing the presents open, enjoying them, eating the food, drinking the wine, laughing around the table. And that’s rejoicing in the Lord. DR. JASON VAN VLIET: Aren’t you being a little bit too optimistic about the level of sanctification in our midst? To make it practical, my wife and I have always separated the gift giving and the end of the year, from the actual day, Dec. 25th. We have a concern that if we start Dec. 25 with opening up all these presents, they may say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” and go off in a corner and just enjoy it, and that’s correct. then we go off to church and the sermon is about the birth of Christ, and the blessings from that, and my nine-year-old boy is sitting there, and all he is thinking about is getting back to that LEGO set and finishing what he started. Don’t we have to take measures that ensure ? I don’t deny what you are saying – to enjoy the gifts the Giver has given is part of the joy – but we are still a long way off from full sanctification. So at certain times we have to take measures that are going to ensure that we don’t just focus on the gifts and forget about the Giver. DR. TIMOTHY EDWARDS: ….One of my favorite passages – in Jewish it is called the second tithe – is Deuteronomy 14. If it was too long for you to go to Jerusalem you had to exchange it for money – take a percentage of your flocks and herds, sell it and take the money to Jerusalem. Verse 26 – this is a command: “And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.” So in the ordered, commanded, worship – Old Testament worship – probably three times a year, if they were obedient – take a considerable sum of money, go to Jerusalem and party. And rejoice. Now, there’s all sorts of dangers attached to that command. "You mean you want me to spend that much money?" ….There’s an element that…how will my children learn to rejoice in the good gifts that the God has given them, if I never give them an opportunity to enjoy the good gifts God has given them? If I’m always telling them, don’t trust that enjoyment…. Yes, my son might struggle on concentrating on the sermon because of the big pile of presents at home.….So I want to train them in that. I want them to think that as they are enjoying this gift they are enjoying something that God has given them. And when they enjoy that, it delights God. It’s a good thing. And I want him to know there are times when he will have to repent at the end of the day....