Simon Camilleri, When Santa Learned the Gospel, self-published, 2017
It’s that moment when Santa appears at the end of the Christmas concert—the actor dressed in a red felt suit, cotton-wool beard scratching his chin. He walks up to the microphone, places his hands on his pillowed paunch, and utters the required “ho, ho, ho” in a voice meant to be deep and rumbling.
“So, who’s been a good boy or girl this year?" he bellows. “Meeeeeee!” scream all the kids, raising their hands in the air. As a bit of a joke, he adds, “And who’s been a naughty boy or girl?” To his surprise, the kids all raise their hands again and scream, “Meeeeee!”
Santa is clearly at a loss for words. After a moment’s silence, he says awkwardly, “Oh well… I guess you tried to be good.”
And there it is: the Christmas message according to Santa.
It’s also a pretty good summary of how most people think about the Christian message: God has us all down on two lists called “Naughty” and “Nice”, but everyone is pretty much "good enough". This is the concept behind When Santa Learned the Gospel, an imaginative tale that engages readers with the familiar character of Santa and explains the gospel to both adults and children.
The main characters are a reflective Santa and a diminutive elf. The elf receives a child’s request for “a Bible book” for Christmas, reads the story about Jesus, summons up her courage, and awkwardly tells Santa the gospel. There’s a beautiful illustration of Santa staring up at the sky, dwarfed by the Northern Lights, as he considers the difference between this gospel and his. He realizes that no one is really “good enough” to go on his “nice” list—including him—and that we need the love and forgiveness of Jesus.
When Santa Learned the Gospel is saved from preachiness by Camilleri’s gentle humour, the strength of the two main characters, the playful, unforced rhymes, and the stunning illustrations by Matthew Boutros. The message of Santa turns out to be a brilliant way to explain the goodness gospel, and the true gospel is described with clarity.
This book is a wonderful antidote to the tidal wave of Santa that kids absorb every Christmas through school, the media, and at shopping malls. I wish it had been available when my children were younger, to read together after all those school concerts where we always had to listen to ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’, a song that Simon engages with in his book.
This book will be greatly appreciated by parents who want their kids to grasp the difference between Santa’s message and the gospel. I can imagine it becoming a family favourite that’s read every year, as well as a widely used evangelistic and teaching resource for Sunday Schools, kids’ clubs, and Scripture classes. It’s been used as the basis for at least one Christmas carols event—and their Santa was much better prepared to deal with the reality of sin than the hapless actor was.
An earlier version of this review was originally posted on The Gospel Coalition Australia, and has been edited and re-published with permission.