What ought to be a time of meditative joy and happy celebration has become a time for combat. December, say scores of the faithful, is a time for war—the Christmas wars. Happy holidays is denounced as a godless substitute for Merry Christmas. The Christmas wars are now as much a part of the season as mistletoe and reindeer.
Which brings us to one of the principal battlegrounds of this annual Christmas debate: Santa Claus.
Millions of Christians accept Santa uncritically, but some denounce the attention given to him as idol worship. Many pastors crusade against images of the jolly old man’s presence in churches. But, in reality, Christian attitudes toward Santa are varied, and the controversy of Mr. Claus has brought about at least three distinct schools of thought.
The first is to suggest that Santa is simply a part of December—as much as Christmas trees, presents, and The Grinch. Some solemnize the image of Santa with his now popular likeness—kneeling, eyes closed in prayer, at the manger. But attempts to render Santa sacred can only go so far, and leave behind a mere remnant of what Christmas means.
A second school is of a prohibitionist bent: Santa must be eliminated. In his inexorable march toward the center of Christian observance, Santa is intent on pushing baby Jesus off the nativity scene. For many, Santa smacks of Satan or even the Antichrist. The semi-mystical, religious language associated with the man in the red suit scares off many committed Christians. The songs and stories sung about him attribute to him omniscience, the judgment of children’s behavior, and the free dispensing of gifts—all sung in the language of faith.
A third Christian attitude finds a compromise: the restoration of Santa Claus’ historical image. In this view, our modern-day Santa Claus stems from a tragic misunderstanding of Church history. Santa Claus is an imposter—a poor substitute for the historical St. Nicholas and the attendant air of a vaguely British, Victorian-styled Christmas. St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop, inspires not commercialism but rather an excuse to sip cider by a fire after a service of lessons and carols or, perhaps, to indulge a conversation about the Council of Nicea, which the pious saint attended. These traditionalists pine for a simpler age, for ancient myths, and gentler Christmases evoked by Dickens—along with scenes of sleigh bells, King Wenceslas, and farmlands covered with snow.
They are just as hostile as the prohibitionists towards Santa Claus and other Christmas fads. They also point to industrialism, individualism, commercialism, and shameless marketing as the causes of our culture’s twentieth-century distortion of the Advent season.
But here is yet another approach to the Santa question—a compromise, keeping the good in Santa and minimizing the bad. Santa occupies a large patch in the quilt of the commercial Christmas, which both stresses and bankrupts families. He steals a large portion of the spotlight away from the Child born in Bethlehem. He stands for much of what is wrong in today’s world: greed, acquisitiveness, and covetousness.
But isn’t there something in this enduring Santa myth worth considering? Santa is, first of all, a whole bunch of fun—good clean fun at that. With video games detonating their way deeper into our kids’ consciousness and with Internet and film peddling immoral messages to younger and younger children, the happy, overweight Northerner seems a refreshing alternative. The popular media content pitched to our children as kid stuff derives from the over-sexualized, violent, bad dreams of the middle-aged who seek only to neutralize their longing for the innocence of childhood. Santa brings none of that: only jolliness, fantasy, and anticipation of his gifts.
Santa is a pre-Enlightenment figure, a fossilized remain of a time when the world was a more magical place—when elves could make toys, reindeer could fly and an old man was able to fit down a million chimneys. Santa represents a universe where the truth is glimpsed in mystery. In this archaic, lost world, the cold data of our senses, the scientific truth of things, is only the start, not the end, of what it meant to live a fulfilled life. Santa is, then, part of a worldview hospitable to the Christ Child.
Christmas has never been a holiday strictly limited to the Church. It made its way into homes and towns through folktales and cultural rituals. It contrasted the cold exposure of winter with the warm solace of the family hearth. It is not a blessing to reduce Christmas only to Jesus, to a strictly religious observance, to a “church thing.” That would grant victory to those who wish to shunt faith, the supernatural, wonder and miracles off into a separated religious realm where they can be more easily ignored, even mocked.
The abuses and distortions present in today’s Christmas ought not scare us away from a joy that can transform the few days at the end of December. This feast ought to fill our families and homes with overflowing messiness: lights, trees, winter stories, gifts, food, songs, and traditions. Christmas is, of course, about the story of Jesus’ birth. But that story is a fruitful one, a noble tree sending out narrative roots into the nooks and crannies of our imaginations. Santa is one of the great whimsical outliers of that one true story of a baby born to a virgin. Santa Claus is ours and, for all his faults, I wish his story well.
Rev. Paul Gregory Alms is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Catawba, North Carolina.