Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Santa and the Savior

This is an issue that I have been very worried about for years, but that I am also worried to talk about because I know it could potentially upset a lot of people. Still, I feel like it needs to be said. Related to that, now is both the best time and the worst time to talk about it. It’s the Christmas season, which means that Santa Mania is at its height. People are going to be the least happy to hear my opinion now, but also the most likely to listen to it.

Unpopular opinion though it may be, I really do feel that it is a mania. Christmas, as I talked about it another recent video (and an old article) is about the incarnation of the Lord Jesus. But, though many people are doing a good job with the effort to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” He is hardly at the center of the holiday as most of our culture celebrates it. Whether they are Christians or not, Santa Claus is treated as the key figure of our celebrations.

Secular in Place of the Sacred

That should not be the case, and there are actually multiple dangers to it. The first is the obvious one. Santa Claus has come to take the place of Jesus in the holiday because he is considerably less threatening. Talking about Jesus’ birth cannot be separated from His death, and therefore from the reason for His death. His sacrifice reminds us of our sins that He came to pay for, sins for which we are still accountable if we have not trusted in Him. Santa is just a jolly gift-giver, a secular figure that provides no offense.

Of course, that is ironic in its own right. Santa Claus is an amalgam of a variety of legends. Most of them are actually Germanic and probably have to do with the head god Woden (Odin). It was Woden who had a long, white beard and traveled in a hood and cloak, Woden who rode or was pulled by reindeer (or other animals depending on the tradition), and Woden who was able to see all things and decide who was worthy of gifts during the Yule celebrations that coincided with the winter solstice. So on the one hand, Santa is not secular because of his pagan roots.

On the other hand, he is certainly not secular because of the Christian contribution to his mythos. The name Santa Claus is, as most people know, just a rendering of St. Nicholas. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) during the late 4th and early 5th centuries A.D. Very little is known for certain about him, but one of the most famous stories tells of him secretly delivering bags of gold to a poor family so that their three daughters would not have to be sold into a life of prostitution.

This gift-giving element, along with the fact that Nicholas’ feast day is Dec. 6, resulted in his merging with the Woden tradition. But another of the famous and credible stories about Nicholas points to the saint’s likely disappointment with the association. Nicholas is supposed to have been present at the great Nicean Council in A.D. 325 and to have been so zealous for the defense of the truth of Christianity that he smacked a heretic that was also in attendance. I cannot imagine his being happy to be conflated with a pagan god. Much less would he have wanted to be a distraction from the worship of Jesus Christ, either as a rival to the devotion belonging to the Lord or just as a secular foil for the religious purpose of the holiday. If those in heaven do look down on us, his disappointment with his legacy cannot be much less than Mary’s.

Santa has been part of Christmas celebrations for centuries, but that secularizing element to replace Jesus with him has really ramped up in the last few generations. Much of Western society has come to see religious faith, particularly the exclusivist faith of Christianity, as a threat to progress and peace. But, unlike the more strident atheists in Revolutionary France and Soviet Russia, they are not willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater. They do not want to be confronted with the meaning of Christmas, but they do still want to enjoy it. The iconography of Santa Claus allows them to feel they can do so safely. It is a strange, reverse syncretism. Christians took the legends of ancient nonbelievers and made them into something recognizably Christian. Modern nonbelievers have taken these Christian traditions and turned them into something clearly secular.

Belief in Santa and Faith in God

That, however, is only half of the problem. In fact, though it is more evident, I do not believe it is even the weightier issue at play. There are dangerous implications not only to the North Pole replacing Bethlehem, but also to belief in Santa undermining belief in God. Worse than the celebration of Santa is the worship of him.

Does that sound silly to you? Maybe it would. How could anyone confuse the two? But think about it, and think about it particularly as it relates to children. They are taught to believe that Santa is real. They are told, when they are at their most credible, that he sees and knows everything about them, that he is a rewarder of their good behavior and a punisher of their bad (or at least, that second aspect used to be present), that he is willing and able to bring them the things they specifically ask for, and that on a particular night of the year, he is basically everywhere at once.

Parents do not merely tell these stories. They reinforce them as doubts arise, sometimes going to absurd lengths to do so. I am not really sure why. I think it must be something vicarious. We tend to lose the sense of wonder as we age, so there must be something enjoyable in seeing that simple trust in the power of magic. Children bring comfort to innocence lost.

Ultimately, however, it seems cruel. It is cruel because, eventually, the magic runs out. Children sooner or later discover that Santa Claus is not real. Oftentimes, they are told this by the very mothers and fathers who told them that he was. With this realization comes recognition of the scam, as they discover that Santa was never there to hear their requests, to observe or judge them, and that he had never given them anything. It was nothing more than a way for their parents to gain compliance, and every person who ever asked them “What is Santa bringing you?” was in on it.

Some children are shattered to learn this. Others take it well in the moment. But all of them are affected. It is impossible for them to avoid the parallels to religion. Look again at the list of Santa’s traits as they are taught to children. These include omniscience, omnipresence, judgement, and the answering of prayer. He is presented to them, in every meaningful sense, as a deity worthy of adoration. And then, at some point, he is simply torn away. With him often goes the capacity to believe in God at all.

People might accuse me of being too serious. Santa is just supposed to be fun, right? But he is serious to children, and in ways that they may never understand. If only subconsciously, their experience with him teaches them that faith will not be rewarded. Instead, it is just something to be laughed at by those in the know. The breaking of belief in Santa Claus may have much more to do with the form of popular atheism growing today than we can guess. It almost certainly sets the emotional stage for it.

Finding the Fix

We can work to reverse the damage in hindsight. For all their mocking references to the “bearded man in the sky,” few atheists actually have any understanding of the true doctrinal and philosophical foundations of Christianity. In fact, their view of God is far more comparable to a childish view of Santa Claus and helps to underscore my point. My goal, and the one I want to help other Christians achieve, is to show people the necessity of God. He is the only explanation of the world as we find it, the immaterial maker of all matter, the uncaused cause of all action, the mind that sets the movements of the universe in order, the timeless observer of history. These are not comforting fictions. They are the only logical conclusions of a mind truly open to investigating the nature and origins of the cosmos.

Beyond these first things, we come back to where we started. God is not merely our maker, but our Father who watches over us and cares for us. He proved it by sending His Son, born humbly in a manger to live as one of us and to give Himself as a gift we can never repay. The purpose of Christmas is in remembering this. Santa is accoutrement, not the centerpiece.

But it is much better to make the right start rather than having to fix what has already been broken. So now I come to the truly uncomfortable part. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers and friends, if you care for the spiritual development of the children in your life, then you need to stop telling them that Santa exists. You need to make it clear from the very earliest that he is imaginary and for fun, and that the stories about him are not meant to be believed. It is possible. That is how I was raised, and I have known many others who were raised the same way. It is not a guarantee of faith in later life, nor does belief in Santa guarantee atheism in adults. But if you want to give the best foundation you can to them, then it needs to be one of truth. Santa isn’t real. God is. Saying otherwise does a great, perhaps eternal, disservice. Come to terms with that and do the right thing. And recognize that the less important we make Santa, the less his myth and image will be able to distract from the birth and life that this season is really about.

After all that, it might be difficult to believe me when I say I am not particularly offended by Santa Claus. It does happen to be true, though. He can be a fun part of the celebration of the season. My point is that he has to be put in his proper place. I was raised to enjoy him, but never to believe in him or to give him prominence that belongs to Jesus. Do it right, and the full wonder of Christmas never has to be lost.

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