I take issue with Santa Claus.

Not the real Santa, of course. I’m talking about the mall Santa. The Santa in the songs that play constantly on the radio and in every store from Halloween till New Year’s Eve. He’s a petty Santa, who keeps a list of your wrongdoings in order to hold them against you for an entire year. He’s the boyfriend who keeps score all year long, then reminds you that you weren’t good enough this year to deserve his love. He’s a fair-weather friend whose love is conditional. If you’re good, you’ll get presents, but if you mess up, you get nothing but coal and switches. That’s not love, people.

So yeah, I hate that guy.

A few weeks ago, when we were filling shoe boxes to send to Operation Christmas Child, I told my daughter, who is four, “We’re sending these to boys and girls who wouldn’t get Christmas presents otherwise.” She asked, “Why? Because they were bad?”

She didn’t get that from me, but from school and songs and Christmas specials and commercials and other kids and strangers in the mall who stop and ask her in the same breath both if she was good and if Santa is bringing her presents. Who can blame her for drawing that conclusion, when the sentiment is everywhere she looks? It’s a consumer-driven society that taught her that only the good people get to have nice things. I certainly didn’t tell her that, because in my experience, it’s exactly the opposite. Most of the people I know who are truly good don’t have nice cars or the newest phones. In fact, goodness is very rarely the quality that is rewarded with material wealth. To teach that being good = having a lot of stuff is to imply that poor people are poor because they’re bad, immoral, and unworthy of nice things. If we believe that, then we weren’t paying attention during any Christmas special ever aired on ABC. If we’re teaching that, then we don’t believe that George Bailey really is the richest man in town. If we buy into the good person = wealthy person mentality, then we can’t be inspired when Della sells her hair to buy a watch chain for her beloved. We wouldn’t be ticked off when Clark Griswold’s hard work all year long was rewarded with a jelly of the month club membership instead of a fat bonus check.

I hate this judgy-pants Santa so much, I don’t let him in my house. Yup. That’s right. This sanctimonious Santa does not visit my children. He can look at them over his fake half-moon spectacles and say, “Have you been good this year?” all he wants, but I will not let his fat judgmental butt down our chimney. I will not allow his obsessive list-making to operate as my kids’ moral compass. I mean, they’re mostly good, but they’re human, and the process of learning how to act is one of trial and error, so the answer to “Have you been good this year?” is more than likely, “No, not particularly.”

I think all of us, if we’re honestly taking stock, probably have a similar response. Have I been good? Well, I tried to be, but sometimes people cut me off in traffic and I say bad words. I like to think I’m a good person, but I occasionally snap at my husband over something petty. I want to be nice to everybody, but a lot of people said some dumb stuff on Facebook this year, and it was a struggle. So was I good this year? No, not particularly, if I’m being completely honest.

Fortunately for me, and for my not-always-perfect family, this Pharisee of a Christmas spirit is not who brings me my gifts. Because I’ll let you in on a little secret: that’s not the real Santa. Oh, Santa is real, sure, but it’s not that guy. The real Santa is more like Fred, who invites his uncle Scrooge to dinner even though he’s a jerk. The real Santa is like an indulgent grandparent, who sends you a birthday card with a check in it even if everyone else is mad at you for drinking too much at your cousin’s wedding. The real Santa is more like Jesus, who sat with the sinners and chose the company of whores and outcasts and tax collectors, and not just people who were good and followed all the rules. The real Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good, but understands that we are all by nature sinners, so he doesn’t hold our mistakes and imperfections against us.

I cannot- and will not- give my children every toy on their list, not because they’re bad, but because I’m a human person who does not have unlimited resources to dole out gifts based on merit. This is why I won’t use Santa as a threat or a bribe; it doesn’t matter if my kids are angels all year long, my bank account is still going to look very much the way it did last year, when they were monsters. The number of gifts they receive depends on what we can afford to give them, just like every other family. And what about the kids who are the biggest jerks ever, who call your kid names and hurl dodgeballs at his face? They’re still getting gifts, right? Is that injustice, or is that a beautiful metaphor for grace?

Never have the words, “Don’t make me tell Santa that you won’t brush your teeth” been uttered in my home, because Santa doesn’t care about your teeth. Just, really, not at all. I think a much more realistic finish to “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why” is “because other people have to share this planet with you.”  I expect you to be good because being good is the right thing to do, not because you want a reward for it. You don’t get a trophy for putting your socks in the hamper. You put your socks in the hamper because you live in this house, and that’s part of being a considerate person. My goal as a parent is to raise kids who are kind because it’s the right thing to do, not because they expect something in return. Do I want my kids to stop running in the grocery store or arguing in the backseat? Of course I do, because parenting is hard and exhausting and frequently embarrassing.  And yes, the threat of a present-less Christmas morning would be, in the short term, effective, but does it teach your kids to be good or does it teach them to play the system to get what they want?

Be good for the sake of goodness, for goodness sake.

My kids still believe in Santa, but they don’t stay up worrying if they’ve been good enough to get presents from a manipulative, voyeuristic toymaker. As tempting as it has been to use Santa as a disciplinary tactic, we haven’t done it. There isn’t an elf who comes to our house after Thanksgiving to spy on us, and I don’t have his number at the North Pole so I can call and give reports on their behavior. There isn’t a list of who has earned love and who hasn’t. Santa loves you unconditionally, just like mom and dad love you unconditionally, and just like God loves you unconditionally.

In our family, we celebrate Christmas as a holy time, a time to joyfully celebrate the birth of our Savior. Every Sunday, we light a candle in the Advent wreath, anticipating the birth of a baby king, of a Savior who was sent for all of us, both the naughty and the nice. We weren’t given the ultimate gift because we had been good; it was given out of love. When humanity deserved a cosmic lump of coal, we were given grace and redemption.

Santa will come on Christmas Eve, my sweet children. When you’re tucked into bed, trying to stay awake to hear reindeer on the roof, Santa will come. He’ll fill your stocking with candy and trinkets instead of coal, and leave toys under the tree instead of switches. He’ll bring you presents because he loves you. Because your father and I love you, even though you have had three detentions and an in-school suspension this year. Because even though you have to be reminded to say please and thank you, we adore every hair on your sweet head. Even when you throw a tantrum, even when you whine, even when we are so tired of arguing with you that we hide in the bathroom with a glass of wine, we cannot imagine our lives without you in them. There will be presents under the tree even though you had to be asked nineteen times to go brush your teeth. You were loved from the moment you were born, not because of any good deeds you did, but because of the miracle of who you are.

Your parents love you no matter what.

God gives you grace even though you don’t deserve it.

Santa will bring you presents not because YOU are good, but because HE is good.