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Or, Which Grinch Stole
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Editorial - Richard John Newhaus
Mr. Frank Brain, on December 26, l978, the Feast of St. Stephen, gave a talk on the history of Santa Claus at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in East Haddam, Connecticut (where I was priest from 1971-81). He kindly consented to having his talk recorded, from which the following summary is taken. Mr. Brain himself lived in East Haddam. His elucidation of the growth of the Santa myth over sixteen centuries helps us study the meaning and impact of that myth on the Christian's celebration of the birth of our Savior.
One does not think of persons such as Santa as having a history. We like to think of him as always having been there, standing for something eternal in our lives. But a history he does have, of which most folks who celebrate Christmas are quite unaware. Santa also has a "theology", of which Christians should be aware.
This piece is part of my campaign to restore the 12 Days of Christmas, having Christians celebrate Christmas for the 12 days after Christmas, not the 90 days before. The four weeks before Christmas are the Advent preparation time for the coming King. Advent is the foundation, and the 12 Days are the celebration, without which Christmas gets secularized. Let the pagans and secularists celebrate Santa Claus. Christians are fools for letting the Enemy confuse the two for us.
We are taking off in the subtitle above, of course, using the theme from Dr. Seuss's book, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
In the year 240 AD, there was born to a wealthy family on an island off the coast of what is now Turkey, a boy named Nicholas. He grew up a studious fellow, and decided to cast his lot with the growing Christian Church as a monk. He planned to give to the poor the fortune that he would inherit from his parents at their death. As priest, and then bishop, he rode a donkey and wore the brown monk's robe as he visited his parishes along the coast of Turkey.
Many stories were told of his generosity, the most famous of which concerns a poor scholar who had three unmarried daughters. The eldest desired to get married, but had no money for a dowry. She had resigned herself to spinsterhood. Then one midnight someone threw a purse of gold through the open window. The same "miracle" happened to the next two daughters, but on the third time, the father had hidden in the bushes and seized the benefactor, who, unmasked, was found to be Nicholas. As a result, after his death, Nicholas became known as the patron saint of lovelorn women.
Another story tells of an impoverished and starving nobleman whom Nicholas helped by dropping a sack of money down the chimney. As circumstances would have it, instead of falling on the hearth where the old man customarily dozed, the money fell into a stocking hung there by the old man's daughter to dry. Hence our custom of hanging stockings by the fireplace, and the first hint of Santa coming down the chimney.
Another version (from Bill Federer's American Minute column for December 6, 2006) relates:
Greek Orthodox history tells of Nicholas being born to a wealthy, elderly couple in what is now Turkey in the year 280 AD. When his parents died, he generously gave to the poor.
Upon hearing that a merchant went bankrupt and that creditors were planning on taking the merchant's daughters, Nicholas threw some money in the window at night to provide a dowry for the daughters to get married, thus saving them from a life of forced prostitution.
When the father discovered who gave the money, Nicholas made him promise not to tell, thus inspiring the tradition of secret gift-giving on the anniversary of Nicholas' death, which was December 6, 343 AD.
Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra, was imprisoned during Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians, and was freed by Constantine.
He attended the Council of Nicaea, helped write the Nicene Creed and preached against the worship of the fertility goddess "Diana" at Ephesus, resulting in her temple being torn down.
In the 11th century, when Muslim invaders killed Christians and turned churches into mosques, the bones of Nicholas were shipped to Italy, thus introducing the traditions of Saint Nicholas to Western Europe and eventually America.
The story of how Santa Claus evolved out of St. Nicholas was a bit more complicated, but because of numerous stories like these, Nicholas began to symbolize the spirit of generosity and giving in the early Church. Since many of his presents were given to children, he became the patron saint of children. Due to miraculously healing a sailor who had fallen from the mast, Nicholas also received the honor of being dubbed patron saint of sailors.
Having suffered in prison under the Roman persecution, Nicholas died in the year 310 a few months after his release. Many Christians only with difficulty accepted his death, so revered was he. In some cases gifts and good deeds were done in secret to hide the fact of his death. With the establishment of the Feast of St. Nicholas, rather than as pious bishop, he was remembered as the most fun loving of saints, perhaps a first glimmering of the "Ho! ho! ho!" personality of our contemporary Santa.
At his death, Nicholas' body was buried in the cathedral of Myra, the largest town along the southern coast of Turkey. There his body lay until l087. Turkey was then at war with the militant Muslim religion. Sailors from Italy who honored Nicholas as their patron saint, sailed across the Adriatic, rescued the remains of Nicholas from the endangered cathedral, and placed them in Barre, Italy, where they still lie, on the heel of the Italian boot. That "body snatching" is still celebrated by the townspeople of Barre.
But St. Nicholas had already, a century earlier, begun a long journey which transformed not only his appearance, but his spiritual significance. Man's imagination is elastic enough to adapt figures from different cultures and dress them in local trappings.
In 988, Vladimir, ruler of all Russia visited Constantinople. Had it not been for his conversion to Christianity and the consequent adoption of St. Nicholas as the patron saint of Russia, Santa might never have gotten his Russian black boots and clothing trimmed with fur.
As the story of St. Nicholas circled further north from Russia into Scandinavia, Norse characteristics made their impact. In Scandinavia, we find St. Nicholas merging with myths of the Norse gods, Odin and Wodin. Odin, like Nicholas, was known as the giver of gifts, riding the wintery sky on a horse, Setna, while scattering his gifts to people below.
The Norse version of St. Nicholas met the Italian version from the south, coming full circle, joining in Holland to produce a non-Russian form of the saintly figure more resembling the original Bishop of Myra. St. Nicholas now rode the white horse, Setna, on Christmas Eve with white bishop's robes and mitre. By l400 this was accepted as a traditional Christmas celebration, St. Nicholas now called "Sinta" Claus ("Claus" as in "mouse").
Black Peter, a new part of the myth known only in Holland, is the valet of Sinta Claus, who leads the bishop's horse and carries a switch. The Dutch people put out wooden shoes filled with hay for the horse to nibble at while Sinta Claus gets a report on the youngsters of the household. Recalcitrant youth receive a little corporal punishment from Black Peter before the goodies are handed out.
Dutch settlers sailed for New Amsterdam (now New York City) with a carved figure of Sinta Claus on the bow of their ship to protect them from the dangers of the trip. The Dutch Reformed Church stood against official recognition of the saints, but the new-world Dutch were too fond of the ancient figure to forget him entirely. So, though it was no longer a part of their formal worship, Dutch children were allowed to observe St. Nicholas Eve on December 6.
The Danish who came to New Amsterdam claimed that Sinta Claus was much like Juli Neilsen, a jolly elf who even today is supposed to visit the Danish children on Christmas Eve. Juli Neilsen, as fortune would have it, drove a sleigh pulled by reindeer and lived at the north pole.
The invasion of New Amsterdam by the British in 1664, and then intermingling, led to the name change from Sinta Claus to our own Santa Claus (as in "claws). Santa migrated from St. Nicholas Day, December 6, to become a permanent part of the Christmas festivities, an American colonial innovation.
In l822, Clement Clark Moore, a gentlemen scholar and theologian, professor at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary on Manhatten Island (also my seminary - 1957-60), heard and collected all these bits of Santa Claus lore, and wrote his now famous poem for his children, "The Night Before Christmas," embodying all that he had heard. Moore himself was too shy to publish his poem which he had written for his family, but about six years later, his daughter got permission to do so. From there it flew around the world.
In l869, Thomas Nast drew the first picture of Santa, which traveled the world with Moore's poem. Today times have changes as well as artists' conceptions. He has become decidedly more round, jovial, and worldly in both appearance and significance.
We tend to think of myths as merely imaginary stories, sometimes about gods and goddesses, sometimes about heroes slaying dragons or saving fair damsels in distress, but in this case about a fellow in red suit and black Russian boots riding through the sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer to deliver presents to all the good boys and girls. Interesting and fun, but imaginary, we (adults) think.
The trouble with the view that myths are "merely imaginary" is the very obvious power of certain myths, and a very defective understanding of the power of the imagination. If myths are mere playthings of the imagination, mere entertainment, why do we cling to them so fiercely? Why do so many feel a warm glow when Frank Church, editor of the New York Sun, replies in l897 to a child's letter, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause"?
The amount of effort, time, and money spent in the name of Santa Claus each year is astonishing, too significant to write off as merely a plaything of the imagination. Mr. Brain's talk on the history of the Santa myth held an audience from 6 to 65 for over as hour. The myth may be entertaining. It is also powerful. Everyone of us wanted to know from where this story originated.
To get at the "theology" of Santa Claus, we need to explore the nature of myths as they have occurred in history, and their impact on society. In particular, let us look at the struggle the early Christians had with the myth-makers of their day. Myths are often the theology of a culture.
Christians wanted to tell the world a story about a man named Jesus who did certain things and brought about certain results for the human race because of what He did. They inherited the Jewish notion that an explanation of "who Jews are" has to do with a recitation of their history with God. God did things in their midst, creating those events which defined the meaning and direction of their history. The recitations gave the Jews a sense of personal and corporate identity. So when the Jew celebrates Passover, he does not rehearse a list of doctrines. Rather, he rehearses the history of the Passover, and the meaning of that event.
Christians carry on the Jewish belief that God personally acts in history to draw us to Himself. When Christians celebrate the Church year, while certainly doctrines are taught and believed, they are taught in the context of events which Christians believe really happened. Had those events not happened in something like the alleged manner, we would have considerably less solid (perhaps no) basis for believing the doctrines themselves, or for preserving our identity as Christians distinct from all others who do not follow Jesus, the Messiah.
The pagan myth-makers of New Testament times were utterly opposed to such "arrant nonsense." According to their theology, God would not really get mixed up with the creation, that is, with particular times and places, so much that He would become incarnate in it, and as a human even suffer and die. It would be all right to say that He seemed to, but to say that He actually did was blasphemy from their point of view. God, they said, was Wholly Other, impassible, untouchable by this world in any shape or form.
They were called "docetists," from the Latin word "to seem" (God only seemed to be incarnate.) Others were called "gnostics", from the Greek word "to know", claiming to have a special secret knowledge, or gnosis -- the real truth behind the only apparent truths of the Biblical story. History, they said, had to be reinterpreted. History and events were not eternally significant, only the mystical truths behind them.
These gnostics continually chided Christians, telling them that Gnostics could accept the Good News if Christians would mythologize their story. Christians needed only to do to Jesus what the more sophisticated pagans had already done to Zeus and Apollo. Christians needed to see that Jesus was not really the Son of God in the flesh anymore than Zeus lived on Mount Olympus and hurled thunderbolts. The Greek gods were not historical figures who did the things attributed to them, rather they were mythological figures who represented spiritual truths. The Greek philosophers could imagine God being related to universal ideas which overarch all reality. But they could not imagine God being directly related with the created order of particular times and places. To assert so was a scandal to the Hellenic mentality. Their more sophisticated minds, they thought, were able to pierce through the veil of half truth to the real truth behind, to the real "gnosis."
It was a tempting argument. But the Christians enforced the scandal of particularity. They wrote statements of historical fact right into their official creeds:
"I believe, ...in Jesus Christ... who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born or the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven..."
Either these events really happened, or Jesus is not who we think He is. If He needs to be mythologized, then the Jesus of Christian faith (the Jesus of history) is a fraud.
All of this is called "the scandal of particularity," because from the mythological frame of mind, which is by far the more prevalent frame of mind in human culture, it does not seem possible that particular historical events, such as the life of Jesus, could have universal significance for all people at all time. To the myth-makers, history itself ultimately is a scandal. It is finally devoid of ultimate significance, they say, because the world of particular events is the transitory world of decay and impermanence.
What has all this to do with Santa Claus?
Clearly, the story is a myth, not history. This story therefore participates in some of the essentials of myth-making mentioned above. It has the subtle effect of removing the meaning of life from the realm of real history and events. It uses story telling to represent truths which are not meant or expected to be incarnate in the flesh in the sense of Jesus of Nazareth. Being non-historical truths (such as "love is better than hate", "good is rewarded and evil punished", or "children should behave"), they are therefore felt to be safely beyond the need for historical proof and evidence. Mythical truths of this sort do not need historical proving. They are to be perceived "spiritually" or "morally".
This is the import of Frank Church's letter to Virginia:
"Virginia, Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible to their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect. An ant in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole truth and knowledge. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. You may tear apart a baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside the curtain and view the picture. No Santa Claus? Thank God he lives. And he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten thousand years, he will continue to make the hearts and minds of children happy."
Frank Church did not expect Virginia to be able to find a fellow named Santa living at the North Pole. He understood it was a myth, and was quite content to mythologize Christ and Christmas.
That letter was written at a time when historians had already begun to criticize the Bible and Christian faith from an historical point of view, many saying that there was little solid evidence for those events upon which Christian faith was supposed to be founded.
The mythologizing route which had been by Christians so long ago rejected thus seemed rather tempting. Maybe we could consider the historical events like scaffolding to a building. It was convenient and helpful to have these marvelous truths of Christianity suggested to us by certain events, or alleged events. But now that we have the truths themselves, why not just kick away the historical scaffolding and let those universal religious truths stand for themselves? Who cares whether Jesus died under Pontius Pilate if the things He taught are true? Is it not the teachings that are important to us today, rather than the historic teacher?
And that brings us to the crux of the issue. The answer to that is simply, "No."
From the Biblical point of view, it is the Teacher who is important, because the teachings are important only because of who He is. If Jesus is not the Son of God, then His teachings are nonsense. If He is indeed the Son of God, then He is indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The central core of the Teacher’s mission and teaching was to let us know that the personal relation with the Father, made available through Himself, was the way to eternal life. The teachings without the Teacher are, in that case, meaningless. The teachings themselves, the whole revelation of Biblical history, are witness that it is on the stage of history, of personal relationship worked out, that life is won or lost.
On the surface, mythologizing promises to free us from the chanciness of history, that is, having to rely on events in the past that we cannot reproduce for inspection and evidence. But the net effect is to put us right back to the place from which Jesus came to free us. In the place of a personal relationship, it leaves us with a code, an ethic, a spiritual principle, an abstraction. And these principles are distinguishable from what the New Testament calls "bondage under the law" -- only, in most cases, by being considerably less noble and truthful than the Law of Moses.
Judaism enshrined one of the most exalted and noble ethical ways of life man has ever tried to follow. But, as the New Testament says time and again, no law or principle, or code is able to supply the grace to live up to it. (Old Testament prophets said many things like this...) The more exalted and noble it is, the more guilt ridden you feel when you ultimately do not measure up. Grace exists only in personal relationship.
That is why, although teachings (truth) are important, the teacher (when it is God) is more important than the teachings. The teachings do not supply salvation, the Teacher does. That is why the Teacher must be one who is a part of our history, and not just a myth we would like to believe in to preserve "spiritual values." The teachings are important precisely because they are about our relation to the Teacher. The only reliable and durable spiritual value is a personal relationship with a personal God. All non-Biblical worldviews fall ultimately either into nihilism or legalism, a belief in nothing or a belief in a graceless code.
That is true because, in the Biblical worldview, the basic realties of life are persons, not things (atoms), or abstractions, ideas, or principles. God is a Someone who is creating other someones, with whom to be in communion. The impersonal aspects of life are thus important only with respect to how they aid and support persons.
No one claims Santa to be God, certainly not Santa himself. But the historical fact is that even for the majority of Christians, Santa has effectively replaced the Son of God as the center of attention on the day dedicated to celebrating His incarnation. During the now three months preceding Christmas Day, far more money, time, and effort is invested in our culture -- by Christians -- on Santa and the "spirit" of Santa than on Jesus. True to Romans 1:18 ff., Santa has become an idol.
For most Christians the familiar (or, increasingly unfamiliar) "twelve days of Christmas" (December 25 to January 5) leading to Epiphany (January 6) fall flat, their only reminder of the new-born being a few ragtag decorations hanging around.
Although Christmas is the most paid-attention-to season, Christmas Day may well be the least attended of major Christian holy days -- second only to the Ascension, and for much the same reasons, secularization of the Christian mind.
Christmas Eve services can be wonderfully beautiful. But the fact remains that for most Christians, Christmas Day, the actual birthday, is not a celebration of Jesus birthday. It has become a holiday, no longer a holy day. Christmas-tree day, present-receiving day. A Thank-God-It's-Friday day, an escape, finally, from the rat-race of Santa-ism.
One suspects (as with the growing numbers of weekly Saturday night worship services) that Christmas worship is being swept into the night before to clear out the Holy Day instead for "family time", i.e. presents, parties, or sleeping in. A holiday.
One does not celebrate a birthday with parties and festivals during the two or three months prior to the birth, and then totally ignore the whole event the day after. A birth is the beginning of celebration, not the end of it. Judging by the "Christmas spirit" typical on December 26, one must suppose that Jesus had died on His birthday. Santa has distracted our attention to fun and games away from the business of atonement. Away from the Fall and how to deal with it, toward tinselly distractions away from our sin and brokenness. Santa distracts us from the atonement of God to the atonement of that "other fellow" -- namely him who seduces us by legalism, salvation by works.
I said above that any spiritual value not based on personal relationship with a personal God ultimately falls either into nihilism or legalism. The legalism of the Santa myth is so clearly illustrated in the Santa literature, one wonders how we miss it, shrouded, even, by its cute and childish presentation. Take for example the bouncy song, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town":
"He sees you when you're sleeping, He knows when you're awake. He knows when you've been bad or good, So be good for goodness sake!
"You better watch out, You better not cry, You better not pout, I'm telling you why..."
Who is coming to town? The Savior? The Son of God? No. It is none other than the moral snoop Christians are often accused (sometimes rightly) of worshipping, and whom Jesus came to replace. Santa Claus is the frustrated parent's most clever device (at least around Christmas time) for getting children to behave. He is the neatest purveyor of salvation by works since jealous Cain (the first recorded practitioner) felled sibling-rival Abel with a rock. Santa knows nothing of grace or personal relationship in the Biblical sense. There is nothing in the person of Santa that even remotely corresponds to the salvation wrought by Christ on the cross. Yet Santa, not Jesus, is the Christmas focus for most American Christians.
The two are competitors for the hearts of men. Santa is (almost) never seen in church or worshipping at the manger. Santa has no offering for the Christ child -- as do the three wise men. It would ruin the story. Santa, not Christ, is the important gift-giver.
Consider one of the more recent additions to the myth, Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer. What is the power of that story set to song? It is again the power of an atonement other than that of Jesus Christ. Children at Christmas time will be tempted to identify with both Rudolph and the Christ child -- which will set up a curious sort of conflict.
Rudolph has an identity crisis. He is rejected by his fellows because of his absurd nose. Every child on earth can identify with that sense of being left out. Who has not felt rejected because of a real or imaginary defect? Rudolph needs to find justification, the right to exist, the right to be who he is in the context of his life.
And what will be Rudolph's justification? Love? Grace? Acceptance for who he is? No, rather the most crass sort of salvation by works. "Oh, how the reindeer loved him...." Really?
Not many children will spot the fickleness of Rudolph's "friends". Most will identify with Rudolph and accidental opportunism. A fluke of fate. What kind of identity process are we teaching children to pursue for honest acceptance? Santa competes against a child's identification with the infant Jesus, in whose image we are made, a child born a man of sorrows, but also of love -- a child born to bring justification by returning us to the Source of who we are rather than by showing us what we can do.
The mythical and archetypal power of the Santa story lies in the fact that is supplies an alternative atonement to that given by Jesus. It is the atonement offered by the world everywhere, namely, do good and you will be accepted. Do good, and you will be loved. Your good behavior earns your positive identity. Salvation by works.
Do bad, and you, not just your behavior, will be rejected. But then even that is watered down so that only a Scrooge could believe Santa to put coal in a stocking or deny a naughty child his toys. "Compassionate" public opinion (urged on, no doubt, by the children) voted to cut Black Peter and his switch from the team.
The archetypal power of the myth lies in its appeal to the basic and fundamental need of every person for moral acceptance, acceptance from a father figure. We have a deep, imperative need for personal identity, belonging, and a sense of a "right to be here." These are the qualities summed up in the Christian doctrine of "justification". What is it that justifies me? What gives reason to my existence? What sets me morally and personally right with God and my fellow men? What is the source of my identity? From whence comes my right come to be who I am? Does anybody love me? ....enough to give to me freely?
Putting these questions to the Santa Claus myth, it is clear that, in its sixteen-century journey down through history from Nicholas, the bishop of Torbey, the story has lost all semblance of Christian reality. The power behind the myth must be named. Santa Claus has become a tool of the anti-Christ. It may seem like a cheap shot -- but it takes only the transposition of one letter to turn "Santa" into "Satan".
Some will say, "this is only kid stuff. Why bother?" Any myth operating as powerfully as this one is not to be ignored. And it is precisely at our "kid" stage that we absorb some of our most basic assumptions about life -- our own personal life. Either we deal honestly with the stuff of our culture, or we slide back into the Fall, secularism and paganism. Either we find meaning and reality in the stuff of history, especially our own personal histories, or we have to resort to myth-making.
To "believe" means to "live by," not mere assent of intellect (or fantasy). It does, at least, in Christian creeds. But whatever people say they believe, many sitting in a pew on Sunday live more by the Santa Claus theory of atonement than by Jesus and His.
We live an age which worships youth. The anti-Christ has discovered how, under guise of youthful innocence, to sneak into our Christian fortress the most clever of Trojan horses.
The spiritual thrust of Santa Claus is to secularize Christians. The Santa myth filled the void left by the decrepit Christian spirituality of the last (at least) two hundred years. It was happening long before the very popular movie of the 1940's, Miracle on 34th Street, which was all about Santa, with no mention of Jesus. It was the spirit of Frank Church and the mythologists.
The secularization of America goes back to the long, slow demise of the Christian faith following the Great Awaking of the early 1700's, which lasted long enough to inspire much of the colonial revolution against England. But Christians never then followed up on what God was doing in that event, never secured the Godly foundations of our Constitution. So, during the 1800's, those foundations gradually faded into oblivion, out of the public consciousness and the public arena, just when the Santa myth was flying around the world -- spawned, sadly (perhaps prophetically), in a seminary of the Episcopal Church (which is losing all semblance of any more being Christian -- and which is being replaced by the new and orthodox Anglican Province in North America).
Clement Clark Moore had, apparently, little solid sense of the Incarnation, or perhaps was just terribly naive about the power of the poem he had produced. Unintended consequences. Secularization -- aided by Santa, and opposed by Christians who, for the most part, had lost their way -- took over in education, in the media, in politics, leading directly to the almost total Christian collapse of the 1960's.
It is not the Grinch who stole the Christ-mass from most Christians, it was Santa. The Grinch is a red-herring to distract us as the real thief pulls off his spiritual heist. The Grinch, dressed as a "villain", steals the Santa Claus Christmas in order to make us think he is the problem. So we defend Santa against the Grinch, rather than Jesus against Santa. Santa needs no defense from the Grinch, for they are blood brothers under the skin. A kind of "bad-cop, good-cop" routine.
Early Christians died rather than surrender the historical Jesus to the myth-makers of their day. They worshipped the Son of God, who really was born, really lived among us, suffered and died under Pontius Pilate, who rose again and sent among us His Spirit of power and truth and love. St. Nicholas has been mythologized by "Old Nick," to displace Jesus on His own birthday. But we cannot serve God and mammon. We are not called to build another kingdom that "looks like" Jesus' kingdom (Santa Claus and good works.) We must submit to becoming members of Jesus’ kingdom.
Reality itself will do more to interest and astound than all the fairy tales of mythology. "Reality is the best trip," it was said in the 1960's by some wise man. Truth is exciting enough. Our imaginations need to be disciplined for reality, not falsehood. We need to exercise our fantasy -- but in order to engage truth -- not run from it. Our imaginations are essential tools for sanity, happiness, practical functioning, recreation, fun, business -- and most of all, the spiritual life.
How, then, are we to deal with Santa Claus in our home celebration? How do we help our children when all the neighbor's children so firmly believe? Are we to disturb the "faith" of our little neighbors?
Did God expect the early Christians, surrounded by a pagan-saturated culture, to disturb the "faith" of their little (and big) neighbors? They did. They paid dearly, but they won more dearly. It all depends on how seriously we take truth.
Three suggestions come to mind, two of which are viable.
The first is to convert Santa back to Jesus, to bring Santa to the manger scene, bring him to Church, have him worshipping the Christ child with the wise men and the rest of us.
The second is to abandon Santa, returning to St. Nicholas as a real historical Christian and giver of gifts.
The third is to give gifts and keep festival with the three kings who visit Jesus, rather than with Santa. Gifts can be placed at the crèche, as we imagine the three kings doing, a powerful symbol of our giving gifts to the Christ child. We then, as it were, receive what we have given to Jesus back from Him on Christmas morning. Our giving to each other is through Christ -- and our giving to Christ is through each other. "In as much as you have done it to one or the best of these my brethren, you have done it unto me."
More suggestions come to mind: We can do our caroling and our Christmas parties during the actual Christmas season. All twelve days of it. Celebrating the live birth of the Savior, not the still-birth of Santa.
We might even renew Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, a time of spiritual house cleaning, repentance, and devotion to prepare for the Incarnation. A serious Advent would tame the pre-Christmas ratrace most Christians now experience.
The first above of the three options will not work because Santa as a preacher of the Gospel is a contradiction in terms. It would ruin the myth. Grace and the cross life have no connection with Santa Claus. If the issues are really as important as suggested, if Christians are called to have their own minds renewed so that they might be living witness of the life of God in their cultures, then we must reject whatever in our culture represents the forces of the anti-Christ. We would do better simply to leave Santa for those who have not Christ, and keep our witness clean and clear.
One hears, again, in the background, "Oh, come on. That's taking it all too seriously."
The matter is serious enough to be the second most fundamental subject of Biblical history, the atonement of man to God. (The first most important being the doctrine of creation.) It was serious enough for Jesus to die on the cross to make the point. If it is not serious enough for us to do something about, that is because we have not yet heard the Gospel, the Good News. We are still clinging to ideas (salvation by works) that are bad news.
The answer is deceptively simple: Just tell the truth.
Mr. Brain has given us the historical truth. If our children want to know whether Santa is real, we can tell them the story of how Santa got to be who he is. At early ages, of course, the distinction between history and myth has not yet been learned. I once asked a four year-old if he thought Santa was real. "Of course not," he announced. "Oh," I said. "Is he coming tonight?" "Sure!"
It would be wrong, though tempting, to celebrate the Santa myth with pictures, visits, or letters to Santa, singing the "Santa" songs, etc. There is little difference in the youthful mind between celebrating and worship. But as parents, we must keep clear about truth with our children. I clearly recall how betrayed I felt as a young lad when I discovered that my parents had lied to us children about Santa. It was not a happy experience.
When our common Christian worship really is a celebration of our hearts before God, there is no need for the substitute celebration of the secular world. The secular world does not know true celebration.
It is, after all, not really a question of hurting the faith of little children, but -- the state of our own adult faith, and how we translate this faith to our children.
Truth-telling to our children is the foundation of their faith, encouraging them to become truth-seekers. That does not mean there is no room for poetry or imagination. Precisely the opposite. But truthful poetry and truthful imagination are a far cry from what we perpetrate on children with a myth teaching all the wrong things about grace and good works.
Every child needs fantasy, but there is helpful phantasm and destructive phantasm. Truth is more than exciting enough. Truth has more richness and vistas upon which to exercise phantasm than all the falsehoods of the world combined. Phantasm is meant to explore reality, not falsehood. Thinking about how to celebrate the Church Year is a powerful place to exercise one's imagination.
The more truth we give our children, the more free, productive, and open will their imaginations be -- leading to honest science, great art, and a deep spiritual life. The fruits of their fantasies will be things to be shared and enjoyed, rather than private meanderings of loneliness, error, and dis-ease. Christians should never fear teaching children the truth.
Santa, one suspects, has the most fascination for children not raised in a Christ-centered atmosphere of graciousness and love. Children who are raised Biblically will have their needs met in reality, not in escapism. And, they will, in their own way, see through the nonsense of our cultural aberrations. If our families are really living the life of Christ, that life is what we will celebrate at Christmas. If we are living out a secular atonement, that is what we will celebrate. Dealing with Santa is more a matter of celebrating Jesus than making war on Santa. Jesus will win the battle, not us. Our task is to tell the truth.
We adults fear confronting public opinion and the archetypal power of Santa Claus -- the realm of principalities and powers to which St. Paul refers in Ephesians 6. We will be quite helpless in the matter unless we put on the spiritual armor and stand firm in the faith of Jesus Christ, whose authority we bear.
As we pay the price to sort out these falsehoods from the truth of God, and live by our faith, the Christian community will once again be a powerful sacrament of the life of God on earth to bring a fragmented humanity back to its Source.
[NOTE: the following is an editorial attributed to Richard John Newhaus, editor of First Things, www.firstthings.com --- relevant to the "Santa" theme above.]
Christmas In The Real World
"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled." St. Luke names the time yet more precisely. It was "when Quirinius was governor of Syria." (Luke 2:1-3) The gospel account is attentive to the thereness, the thus and so-ness, of what happened. A real mother, a real baby, a real promise kept. He is called Immanuel, which means "God with us." (Matthew 1:23) "In Him was life," writes St. John, "and the life was the light of men." (John 1:1-5) The darkness will rage against the light in a real cross and a real death. Nonetheless, John writes, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
Christmas is family and song and food and sentiment and gifts, but Christmas is not time–out from the real world. For the billions who have believed, who believe today, and who will believe until the end of time, Christmas is the real world. God becoming one of us so that we may become the children of God is the axis mundi, the center on which the world turns. It happened. Not in the timelessness of myth, nor in antiquity beyond recall, nor in the virtual reality of cyberspace, but in the real world in real time. In the only time there is. In our time.
To kneel before this Jewish baby and his Jewish mother is to face up to reality. Or so we are told, and so Christians believe. God said to Abraham, "I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven," (Genesis 26:4-5) and He is keeping his promise to this day. To every child, and to every adult mature enough to become a child again, (Matthew 18:1-5) comes the invitation to be a star, reflecting the light that came into the world on Christmas day. To love as, in Him, we are loved; to forgive as we are forgiven; to understand as we are understood; to bear with others as He bears with us. (Psalm 103:8-12) To live, as He said, in the truth that makes us free. (John 8:31-5) And then to die, in the sure hope of Heaven’s dawn.
In the real world. In real time. In a world of wars and famines and dreadful plagues, of loves disappointed and loves betrayed, of promises broken and innocent lives cut short, of affluent masses rich in things and poor in soul, of cruelty triumphant and kindness scorned, of dishonesty praised and honor debased. Into such a world and such a time, into our world and our time, came the light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it. The darkness will never, never ever, overcome it.
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