What We Talk About When We Talk About Santa
December 16, 2013
He's viewed as a symptom and symbol of the commercialization of Christmas. He's vilified as a lie to children. He's associated with countless conflicting portrayals in popular culture (should he be white? Should he be a penguin?). Make no mistake—especially in evangelical Christianity, Santa Claus has been put on trial.
And it's time for Christians to step up in his defense.
The frustration Christians feel about Saint Nick isn't entirely without merit. For some, the jolly fellow from the North Pole represents the consumerism rampant in American culture, a personification of the greed that seems to have replaced the goodwill and charity of the Christmas season. Others see Santa Claus as a distraction from the true meaning of Christmas: the birth of Christ, an occasion that marked the reconciliation of mankind unto God. Many parents take umbrage with the belief in Santa as a gift-giver, because after all, Santa isn't real.
But in fact, Santa was real. And contrary to the ire of Santa-disparagers, he adds a lot to the Christian tradition in the season where we remember the birth of Christ. So keep in mind a few bare facts, bereft of opinion, as we discuss the importance of Saint Nick.
First, Christmas observance was viewed as unbiblical by the earliest Americans. Second, Christmas as we celebrate it today is a conflux of pagan traditions adopted by Christians, Christmas traditions of the early church (such as celebrating it on December 25), and the Feast of Saint Nicholas. And finally, the real man behind the Santa myth was a stalwart defender of the faith in a time when doing so was unfathomably dangerous.
The first ecumenical council in 325, now known as the Nicaean Council, codified much of what we as Christians believe and practice today. It was a messy affair as Arius argued that the Son was not equal to the Father, a position he literally taught as gospel truth in Egypt. Bishop Nicholas of Myra, a slight man of little more than five feet, became so enraged during the council that he punched the heretic in the face. Stripped of his vestments and worn copy of the gospels, he was left in a prison cell. According to Christian tradition, he was visited by Christ in his cell and reinstated as a bishop, to be found the next day reading the gospels that were returned to him.
It may defy belief, but there's no doubt that the man who was known in his time as Nicholas the Wonderworker did indeed work wonders—especially for the poor and oppressed. Before the council, the Bishop sold all he inherited from his wealthy parents and distributed it to those in need. He was imprisoned by Diocletian for his faith, but after his release, he continued aiding the desperate in need of Christ's healing.
As a nod to one whose life was intensely devoted to Christ, the Feast of Saint Nicholas has long been viewed as a precursor to the Christmas season: a time to shift our focus to Jesus and His words, a time to renew the spirit of giving and a time to reflect upon those before us whose lives pointed to Christ in word and deed.
Most Christians in America don't observe December 6, Saint Nicholas Day. But we do observe Christmas, which has become inextricably linked with the spirited Bishop. The problem for many is twofold; that remembering the saints isn't exactly Protestant practice, and that Santa Claus seems to be far removed from the Christ-centered Bishop of Myra.
Celebrating Christmas seems like a balancing act of sorts. Giving gifts, remembering the birth of Christ, enjoying the hymns and holiday music in between radio ads telling us to buy more. Santa Claus becomes another factor in the balancing act. How do you “do Christmas” in a way that honors Christ, and does Santa even fit?
For reasons historical, practical and religious, Santa Claus is a tradition more befitting of the season than the Christmas tree, the lights, the expensive gifts and the Christmas pop songs we all indulge in without a single thought. This is not only because of what Nicholas of Myra brought to the Christian tradition, but also because the modern conception of Santa Claus borrows from Nicholas some of the Christlike qualities that Nicholas himself displayed: love for all (particularly children), a spirit of giving without reproach, unbridled optimism and joy.
He's not an ersatz or substitute for Christ. Rather, he's the embodiment of qualities that point to the Savior. It's not that he's distracted us—it's that we've misunderstood and even abused him.
We've treated Santa as empiricists and skeptics, a myth to be debunked, when rather Santa Claus is a fairy tale that deserves to be believed for the reason that all fairy tales deserve to be believed. As Francis Pharcellus Church wrote in his brilliant editorial “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus,” “Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!” Fairy tales represent universal truth, whereas a fact is only tangibly true for the experiencer. Reducing Santa to a man that can be dismissed as a myth knocks him down several rungs. Believing in Santa as he deserves to be believed does something quite different. For Santa, all people have value. All people deserve to be shown that they're loved and thought about. Children are not the lowliest among us, but the most to be revered. Santa Claus is about unlimited benevolence. Santa Claus is about hope.
An argument can be made that Santa Claus draws our attention from the “reason for the season” (an ugly platitude itself), but of the myriad things we allow ourselves to be distracted by on Christmas, Santa doesn't belong in the same category. Many of us (this writer included) actively indulge in the consumer side of Christmas and tend to forget what Christ came for: to relieve the abused and oppressed, to renew a world of despair into one of hope and to give us the greatest gift of all, absolution of our sins and a relationship with God. Saint Nicholas of Myra did so in a historical example. A healthy view of Santa Claus does so in an allegorical one.
In a recent conversation about Saint Nick, I was reminded to “trust the Cause, not the Claus.” But just because we've trusted Christ as our Savior (and yes, the “reason for the season”) doesn't mean we don't get to believe in Santa Claus. Viewed rightly, Santa Claus demonstrates truth about this season. There's a reason for the joy, the hope, the charity.
Because “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” A Happy Christmas, indeed.