Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family with Jim Daly

Teaching Kids About Christmas

Teaching Kids About Christmas

Veggie Tales and What's in the Bible? creator Phil Vischer explains how parents can help children understand and celebrate the true meaning behind Christmas.

Original Air Date: November 29, 2012


John Fuller: This is Focus on the Family and your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and, Jim, it’s pretty hard to believe, but we’re already here at Christmastime!

Jim Daly: That’s right, John– we’re in the home stretch and Christmas is just a few weeks away, which most of you are probably going, “Oh, no!” It can create a lot of stress for families and we’re busy and we’ve got lots to do. One of those stress points can be “How do we deal with Santa?” I mean…and you know what I’m talking about, Mom and Dad, I want to be careful with the little ears listening. But that’s a big issue. It was a big issue for Jean and I to figure out how do we address this? How do we navigate Santa and the birth of Jesus at the same time? And it’s important to have a game plan, Mom and Dad, that’s for sure. We don’t want Christmas to be all about presents! I know a lot of parents struggle with that because we want our kids to have fun and enjoy this season but we don’t want them to miss the point of the celebration which is the birth of Christ.

John: Mhm. Yeah and that you mentioned the dilemma there and this is a perspective that might illustrate that.


(Singing) Why is Christmas what we call it? Why the impact on my wallet? Why the presents, why the tree? What’s with Santa; who is he?! (Oh my.) How do meats and smelly cheeses celebrate the birth of Jesus? Now perhaps I’m overthinking when I should be eggnog drinking. And I hate to sing the blues, but Christmas time has me confused!

End of Excerpt

Jim: (Laughter)

John: And that is a great little bit. It comes from a wonderful DVD called Buck Denver Asks Why Do We Call It Christmas? and it was created by Phil Vischer. Jim, I’ve watched this video; it really is so creative and really explores some of that confusion and stress and angst that families have about this time of year.

Jim: It’s a great way to broach this topic with your kids. The best part is how Phil makes the topic so much fun! As we’re gonna hear, he helps us understand the differences between Santa and the real Saint Nicholas, who was a devout Christian man who embodied the spirit of generosity– that’s how he came on to the scene of history. A few years ago when I was out of town, Phil Vischer came to visit and you recorded a delightful conversation, John, with him about Christmas and why we celebrate and how to help our children engage with their faith through this holiday.

John: Yeah, Phil Vischer has some really great perspectives on the topic and is best known, of course, for creating the popular VeggieTales series. And today he hosts the JellyTelly Network, which is online and offers fun, family entertainment presenting God’s Word in a fresh way. And right now, let’s go ahead and listen to that conversation I was able to have with Phil Vischer on today’s Focus on the Family.


John: Alright, so Phil, since early October my kids have had Christmas wish lists posted in the kitchen.

Phil Vischer: Really?!

John: And they’re long lists.

Phil: Wow!

John: Now, I, eh, we’re not list . . .

Phil: Is that something you’ve taught them to do? To encourage . . .

John: Absolutely the opposite of what we —

Phil: Let’s do it sooner kids!

John: –we’ve taught them to do. No!

Phil: Why wait so long kids?

John: My wife and I have worked so hard to make Christmas not about stuff. Um, am I bad parent?

Phil: Uh, no! You’re not a bad parent!

John: Oh, thank you.

Phil: It’s impossible to really avoid that without, you know, packing up the kids and moving to a desert island. You know, it’s impossible to avoid that. And what we have to recognize, because we, we feel like all this materialism has encroached on Christmas, you know, and we assume it’s just like in the last, I don’t know, ten years, 20 years,

John: It’s all advertising’s fault, right?

Phil: It’s all advertise, er … TV or something like that. Uh, Christmas, you go back a hundred years, the first people to make a really big deal out of Christmas in North America, a really big deal, were department stores.

Okay, churches didn’t put on Christmas pageants. That wasn’t part of the culture, a hundred, a hundred-fifty years ago it wasn’t the Super Bowl of holidays yet. It’s become the Super Bowl of holidays really just in the last hundred years and the biggest drivers, the ones that put the huge choirs together and started putting on these huge pageants were department stores. Not churches because they saw the material benefit of it. So Christmas being the size it is in America, really was driven by the materialism.

John: Okay, now back to my question–

Phil: Yeah, your kids. (Chuckles)

John: –I’ve tried really hard not to make it about stuff and in early October they’re already saying, here is what I would like to get for Christmas.

Phil: Yeah.

John: So, I, uh … th … this is a frustrating holiday for a lot of us–

Phil: Yeah.

John: –’cause that’s not what I want, but that’s what they’re getting from friends and culture and just being kids.

Phil: Right, right. Christmas is a very complicated holiday ‘cause it was actually two holidays that we put together. It was Christ’s Mass, which was the, you know, in Europe, in the old country it was the Catholic Mass that celebrated the birth of Jesus once a year. But we combined it with Saint Nicholas Day. And Saint Nicholas Day was kids’ favorite feast day because Saint Nicholas would come the night before Saint Nicholas Day– it was December 6th in Europe– Saint Nicholas would come the night before and if you were good he would drop presents, drop toys and cookies into your shoes.

John: Ok.

Phil: If you were Dutch, it was into your wooden shoes. If you were German, it was into your stockings. And so that was a whole separate thing. So there were two different holidays. There was Christ’s Mass which was about Jesus’ birthday.

John: Very religious.

Phil: Yes! And people didn’t give gifts. That wasn’t … gift giving isn’t a part of Christ’s Mass, it’s a part of St. Nicholas Day. And it got messed up, during the Protestant Reformation when we decided we’re gonna throw away everything that’s Catholic.

John: Hm.

Phil: And so we threw away the saints. So we threw away Saint Nicholas, but kids loved that tradition so much of this guy visiting in the night and giving us presents that their parents basically said, alright, well we’ll just do that on Christmas Eve, instead of on Saint Nicholas Day ‘cause we’re Protestants, we’re not supposed to celebrate saints. And that’s where it got complicated. So, gift giving really comes out of a whole different holiday. It comes out of Saint Nicholas, and Saint Nicholas was a wonderful guy who helped kids, who saved kids from slavery by dropping … coins in through their windows.

John: Now, now, we’re talking about the real Saint Nicholas?

Phil: The real Saint Nicholas!

John: There was a man —

Phil: Yes! John: — Nicholas who became a saint.

Phil: Fourth century. He was a real man, he was an orphan. His parents were wealthy and they died in a plague of some kind. He went to the Holy Land, had a deeply moving spiritual experience in the Holy Land, came back. Went into the ministry full-time, became the Bishop of Greece and he used the money that his parents left him to help kids and help the poor. So, and the most famous story is there were, there was a poor man who had three daughters and had no money for their dowry. Which at that time you couldn’t get married if you didn’t have a dowry.

John: That was crucial.

Phil: If you didn’t get married, quite often you’d end up in slavery. So he didn’t want them to end up in slavery, so Saint Nicholas walked by their house in the middle of the night and tossed three bags of coins in through their window. Now, the legend then became, they fell into their stockings, that the three girls had hung up to dry —

John: Ah!

Phil: —after washing them.

John: Ok.

Phil: And that story spread throughout Europe and started the practice – first of all he became a saint, Saint Nicholas, and it started Saint Nicholas Day, which started the practice of hang up your stockings ‘cause Saint Nicholas, if you’re a good kid, if you’re a good girl or good boy, Saint Nicholas will come by and throw something through the window into your stockings, and kids loved that so much. See, and that’s where it gets tricky because I have Christians friends who say we’re not even, we won’t even say “Santa.” You know we won’t let our kids say Santa.

John: I was just, I was just gonna observe that St. Nick sounds a whole lot like today’s Santa Claus.

Phil: Yes! Yes. And that’s where the legend came from because kids were celebrating Saint Nicholas and then at the Protestant Reformation we said nope, nope, no more Saint Nicholas. In fact, the Puritans in Massachusetts, if you said the word Saint Nicholas, would fine you five shillings. Cause it was–

John: There was a penalty for even bringing up the name of Saint Nicholas.

Phil: (Chuckling) Yes!

John: Despite the great–

Phil: And this is–

John: –historical–

Phil: This is, this…

John: –background here.

Phil: This is the funny part, because I wanna, you know, I’m thinking we’ve got to get rid of all this materialism, let’s go back to Christmas the way the Puritans celebrated it. The Puritans made it illegal to celebrate Christmas, in Boston, in the 17th century, when they were in control, because it was Catholic. And … and if, if you sang a Christmas carol, you got a five shilling fine. (Chuckling)

John: Oh my goodness! Ok, so we can’t go back to the Puritans, uh, —

Phil: So you can’t go back to the Puritans!

John: Um, how about, oh, I don’t know, 1800, 1900?

Phil: Then you had the beginning of Saint Nicholas turning into Santa Claus, which happened with the Dutch immigrants. Dutch immigrants came over and they brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas. Uh, the Germans had thrown away Saint Nicholas and were now waiting for Christ Kindle to come visit them, which meant Christ Child. So then everyone came to America and everything got all muddied together. So we had the Germans waiting for Christ Kindle, which turned into Kris Kringle

John: I was just gonna ask, ok.

Phil: Yes, another name for Santa Claus. We had the British waiting for Father Christmas, who looks just like Kris Kringle and just like Saint Nicholas.

John: Hm.

Phil: The Dutch, in New York especially, when it was new Amsterdam, the kids were still putting out their wooden shoes, waiting for Saint Nicholas, who in Dutch was Sinterklaas.

John: Sounds a whole lot like …

Phil: That’s Dutch for Saint Nicholas, which sounds a whole lot like Santa Claus.

John: Wow.

Phil: Yeah.

John: You … you have just taken, uh … hundreds of years of … of history, and practice and theology, and, uh …and religion and you’ve whirled it all together. My mind is spinning, Phil. (Chuckles) But what I hear you saying is that Christmas didn’t have particularly have religious or non-religious roots as, uh, at least as we practice it now.

Phil: What we practice today is a combination of lot of different traditions that developed in Europe, and all came over with immigrants and melted together, so just like we’re a melting pot ethnically, we’re a melting pot of traditions. And so we added our own on top of the Sinterklaas, and, and the Kris Kringle, and the Father Christmas and then because it used to be on December 7th, but we don’t do that because we’re Protestant, so we moved it to Christmas Eve and that made the real complication. So, if you go back to the early church, they didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

John: Ok.

Phil: And the reason they didn’t —

John: But why?

Phil: — didn’t celebrate, ‘cause they didn’t celebrate any birthdays. In the Roman Empire, no one really cared what day you were born on; it just wasn’t that big a deal, so birthdays were not celebrated. The center of church history, of the church calendar, was always Easter. You know, for Christians, Easter is the Super Bowl.

John: Um-hm.

Phil: Uh, and so Christmas kind of becoming bigger than Easter is a fairly recent development and has more to do with the popularity with children than with anything else. So what I’ve tried to do with my kids, is really kind of shift some of that emphasis back to Easter. You know, because it’s very hard to do Christmas without the focus on presents.

John: Uh-m. Oh, totally! I mean, it, it’s —

Phil: Very hard!

John: — as you said, if you don’t move to a desert island —

Phil: Yes.

John: — it’s going to be impossible.

Phil: And if you try to do it, if you shut out all the elves and the Santa and the presents and all that, you just, you look like Scrooge. You know (Chuckles), you just, and you feel bad about yourself. So we’ve got some Christians that say, you know, well we’ll never mention Santa and we’re … just, you know, 100 percent Jesus. And we’ve got other Christians who say, oh come on; I had so much fun with that when I was a kid, don’t take …

John: All the traditions —

Phil: Yes, don’t take Santa away!

John: — and the Santa memories.

Phil: So what we’ve done in our family is kinda tried to turn Santa back into Saint Nicholas.

John: Uh, let me push back on this and just, I mean, speak to me, ok? I’ve got kids in the home. How do I put the emphasis on Saint Nicholas? How can I do that?

Phil: Uh, every time someone, well … first of all, tell ‘em the story.

John: Uh, and I should say, full disclosure, we have never done Santa Claus in my home.

Phil: Never ever. Okay…

John: It’s not because we had some deep, heartfelt resentment.

Phil: Yeah.

John: I enjoyed Santa Claus as a kid, but when we got married we just looked around and said, you know, there’s so much stuff —

Phil: Right, right.

John: — and we don’t need Santa bringing more. We have very generous relatives. It’s gonna be plenty full under the Christmas tree, so let’s just not do Santa Claus. (Chuckles) Alright, so with that background—

Phil: Yeah, and we didn’t, I, we didn’t do it with our kids either, but you know I have very strong Christian friends and families, you know, and a few people that have worked for me, that their kids are eight or nine and they, they’re still sustaining belief in Santa Claus.

You know, and it always kinda knocks me back and I say, re … really?! You know, it’s like didn’t you get the memo that we’re not doing that anymore? Didn’t ya, you know, like in ‘74 when we all decided that we weren’t gonna do that anymore? You can tell the story of Saint Nicholas because it helps unpack – it’s so confusing for kids to go to church and hear about Jesus and then go home and turn on the TV and it’s wall-to-wall Santa. And it’s like are we talking about the same holiday?

John: That’s a good point. I … I don’t think I’ve ever thought of that.

Phil: Yeah, and, and so rather than saying, ignore it! Ignore it! Don’t pay any attention; pay no attention to the man in the red suit. No, instead of doing that, unpack it and say, you know what? We aren’t talking about the same holiday. Let’s talk about the two different holidays that became Christmas. We have Jesus’ birthday, which was called the Christ’s Mass and we have Saint Nicholas Day which was on December 6, until Martin Luther cancelled it. And people loved it so much that we moved it over to Christmas Eve. And you can actually explain to kids, look, that part, that’s the Saint Nicholas part, and this is the Jesus’ birthday part. There are two parts to this holiday and that’s ok.

John: Hm. Well this is Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller and our guest is Phil Vischer, uh, and we’re going to get to this video in just a moment, Phil, because I love it. I really do. We watched it and I told you before we started that I think it’s right up there with Linus and Snoopy in our home for Christmas memories now. Buck Denver Asks Why Do We Call it Christmas? Uh, but before we get there, one thing related to what you’re talking about right now. Where does the Christmas tree fit into this equation?

Phil: (Chuckles) Yeah, there —

John: What part of Christmas is that about?

Phil: There are so – I think as Christians, we can get so, you know, worried about, am I celebrating this right? Am I doing this right? And you, so you start looking around and say, ok stockings. You know, somebody said is that pagan? It’s like Halloween. Do I have to throw everything away? You know, because it’s pagan. Uh, and what —

John: That’s a whole ‘nother conversation

Phil: That’s a whole ‘nother conversation that we will not get into. Christmas trees, there was a longstanding tradition where evergreens were associated with new life because they don’t die. And winter, you know back, eh, 2000 years ago, three thousand years ago, was a scary thing.

John: Yes.

Phil: And you actually —

John: Yes, life and death. Phil: — yes, wondered sometimes, is the sun ever coming back? You know, is green ever coming back? Is food ever coming back? And so they would celebrate, uh, evergreen trees as a symbol of eternal life. So, but unfortunately, Germanic tribes also did things like to celebrate they would say this oak belongs to Thor. Uh, St. Boniface was called the missionary to the Germans, the missionary to Germany – sent from England, went to the Germanic tribes to teach them about Jesus. And he challenged them on this belief. They said we have the Oak of Thor and we sacrifice slaves on it. He said I don’t want you to do that anymore and he picked up an axe and he chopped down the Oak of Thor.

John: Oh, and they were probably quite offended by that.

Phil: They were quite offended and they said Thor is going to strike you dead! And he didn’t. Nothing happened. And they said, well, wait a minute, what does this say about Thor? And so Boniface said look, you need a new symbol. Look at the fir tree, the fir tree is evergreen. It represents eternal life, the shape of it points to heaven. It’s pointing to God. And later on it was reported that he actually used the triangular shape of the fir tree to teach the Trinity.

John: Trinity, ahh.

Phil: The three points of the fir tree could explain the Trinity, so he used the fir tree as a missionary tool in Germany. And Germans as they adopted to Christianity stopped, you know, saying that’s [the] Oak of Thor and that’s the Oak of Odin, and instead started cutting down fir trees and actually bringing them into their houses and actually hanging them from the ceiling, was what they did first to celebrate Jesus.

John: Well, that, that is so assuring, I know, for a lot of our listeners, because it, as we said at the beginning here, this is a confusing time of year. And it’s, I mean, there’s guilt because I’m not sure I’m celebrating it right as you said

Phil: Right.

John: There’s guilt because there’s so much stuff and we’ve made it about stuff and not Jesus. Uh, there’s guilt because I can’t celebrate it the way I seem to remember it being when I was a kid.

Phil: Right, right.

John: Really, all of these are the reasons why you poured a lot of energy into this video, Buck Denver Asks Why Do We Call it Christmas?

Phil: Yeah.

John: Give us a little more background and tell us a little more of your heart about this thing.

Phil: Well, I, I was trying to unpack it. And it really, back when I was working on VeggieTales, I wanted to do a VeggieTales episode about Saint Nicholas. And I didn’t get the chance to and they actually produced one based on my idea after I was no longer working on VeggieTales, but it wasn’t nearly as educational as I wanted it to be. So I was like, ok, there were like two or three facts in there, but I wanna tell the whole story. You know, I wanna tell it accurately. There’s such fun things about the story of Saint Nicholas that I really wanted to unpack it. Have you ever gotten gold coins in your stocking?

John: No

Phil: Chocolate?

John: Yes.

Phil: Chocolate covered with gold?

John: Yes, that kind, not, not real gold coins.

Phil: That’s because of Saint Nicholas. Chocolate covered with gold, gold coins with chocolate in them is the symbol of Saint Nicholas d

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