Monday, December 18, 2006

Gloria in Excelsis Santa?

I briefly considered titling this one "He doesn't look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman, like you imagined when you were young", but I decided it would be a bit too long. Santa Claus is a fascinating subject to examine in relation to Christmas, mostly because of the cultural impact of this mythic figure on Western culture. While Jesus is supposedly the reason for Christmas (after all, the word actually contains "Christ" in it), everybody knows that culturally, Jesus takes a backseat to the jolly man in the red suit. Heck, when I was a kid, I didn't even know that Christmas was Jesus' (supposed) birthday, but I sure did know that the big red sock I left by the fireplace on Christmas Eve would be filled with goodies come morning.

Many Christians are not real happy about Santa's overshadowing of Jesus at Christmastime, and really, it's understandable. As a Christian, you probably wouldn't want anybody overshadowing Jesus at any time, much less on his birthday. Some can take it a little too harshly, a la that old Saturday Night Live classic skit in which Dana Carvey's "Church Lady" points out the similarities between Santa and Satan (red suit, beard, etc.), finally highlighting that the two names are anagrams of each other. While I think that's over the top, I also think that every Christian who is raising a child should take some time to really think about the implications of mixing reverence of Santa in with worship of Jesus Christ, and be smart about it.

Years back, before I had kids, I heard a pastor on the radio take a hard line stance against Santa. His reason for doing so was actually very well-reasoned logically, and I took some time around my kids' first Christmas to discuss it with my wife. Look, this pastor said, you raise your kid with Christmas being a big focal point of every year, it's just the way things are. Every year, you teach your kids about Jesus, and how he comes into your heart with grace and love, and also about Santa, and how he comes to your house with presents and the spirit of giving. When your kids get older, and they find out all about Santa, and how you may have not been entirely truthful about him, and it will very likely call into question the now-related concept of Jesus. Surely you don't want that, right?

There's something profound about this to me. I've heard atheists point out, in a manner that I'm fairly sure is meant to be disparaging of Christianity, that Santa Claus is like God for kids. Kids can't really grasp the concept of God as well as adults sometimes can, so the story is given of a kind old man with a long white beard who lives far away in a magical land where everything is white and shiny, and you can't go there, but you can send requests to the man to use his magical powers to send you gifts of all kinds. If you're good, he will answer your requests, and if you're not, then he will punish you; and don't be mistaken in thinking you can fool him, because part of his magic is that he can see you wherever you are and whatever you do. I suppose one could draw a parallel between angels and elves if one desired as well, but the point is clear: Santa is God with the training wheels on.

Whether this suggestion truly is meant to be disparaging towards Christianity or simply a clever observation of a cultural phenomenon, I think it would be foolish to dismiss it outright. There's a truth there. Whether people are having their view of God formed by their early views of Santa, or people are imposing God-like characteristics on Santa subconsciously, that mixing of two separate but related phenomena is an issue that people of all faiths need to consider. Do atheists that celebrate Christmas include Santa Claus as part of the celebration, and if so, are they inadvertently teaching a sort of religion to their children? I would think that most atheists likely feel somewhat strongly against teaching religion at all, much less a pseudo-religion that no adult takes seriously. Do Christians want to risk the potential of confusing their kids by mixing orthodoxy with the oddities of a modern tradition? Does it really patch up the rift between the two concepts by mashing them together in some unlikely fashion?

Of course, while having Santa visit the crèche may be silly, the idea of an overtly Christian Santa Claus is not a completely new concept. In fact, as most people know, he has his roots in Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century church leader who was known for his generosity to the poor. In an apocryphal story, he once reached through the window of an impoverished local family with three daughters and put some gold coins in their stockings hanging to dry by the fire so that they could have dowries. Later he was canonized as the patron saint of children. The values that Nicholas stands for are values that Christians can get behind, and probably many non-Christians as well. Does that kindness and generosity form a part of what Christmas is about? Is that what we think of when we think of Santa?

The other day, my family was all together in the car, and the song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" came on the radio. My wife leaned over to me and asked, "Promise me we'll never use Santa Claus to threaten our children?" I knew what she meant, and agreed. The Bible says in Romans 5:8, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." That's the generosity and selflessness of Jesus, "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:6-8) Are we going to use the holiday to teach about the unconditional love and selflessness of Jesus, and at the same time mix in the image of Santa Claus as a man who clearly has the resources to bring gifts to every child in at least North America, but might decide not to bring anything to your child because she had the bad judgment to pull the cat's tail one week before the Big Day? Is this holiday icon meant to embody the values of Christian charity and the spirit of giving, or is he a capricious and judgmental bastard that extorts good behavior out of children in Skinnerian fashion?

No wonder so many people grow up to have a warped sense of God as the above-implied white-bearded judge on a distant throne who demands strict controls on your behavior! So many parents are unknowingly (or maybe even knowingly in some cases?) teaching their children the moral laws "Be on your best behavior in order to receive rewards. Give to others so that they will want to give to you." and the worst of all, "There are certain times during which you need to be on your best behavior more than others so that you can earn the right to be loved." Doing the morally right thing is a value in itself, and one that is not meant for special occasions. And love, true love, is not conditional.

Santa will be visiting our house this Christmas, but not as a judge, not as a means of payback for good behavior. Santa will hopefully be an iconic representation to our children of what it looks like to love unconditionally, give unselfishly, and honor the spirit of celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior by bringing a merry Christmas to all. And to all, a good night.