I don’t remember when I stopped believing in Santa Claus. In fact, I don’t remember when I ever believed. I think if I did, the penny had already dropped by the time I was maybe 7 years old and my Grandad came beaming into the room one Yuletide wearing a red dressing gown stuffed with pillows, and a fake beard pulled from goodness knows where. We played along, but I knew it was Grandad. Of course it was Grandad. Santa wasn’t real; he was just a fun story.
Thus begins the narrative in my head as conversations go around in the Christian ‘parent circles’ I go in. (Not that I go in many; nor that they are very big. Or circular.) Do we introduce our children to the Santa myth as though it were reality? Do we ‘go along with it’ but do the best we can to explain that it’s not actually real? Do we ban Santa outright? How do we stop our talkative non-Santa-believing child from ruining Christmas for all his or her schoolmates?
I obviously can’t answer those questions directly, as besides it is obviously best for parents to decide for their own children.
But I have been reflecting on what it means for Christian parents to be raising their kids at Christmas. I think it’s certainly true that, in the UK at least, the Santa myth has replaced (or is much closer to replacing) the nativity as the core, governing narrative for children-at-large – and families – at Christmas time. Search Google Images for ‘Christmas’ – it’ll be a while before you come across anything remotely related to the story of the nativity. A school teacher I know, on recently telling the nativity story to a class of children, was greeted with amazement as the children remarked on the incredible coincidence that Jesus happened to be born on Christmas day. ‘How lucky for him!’ they exclaimed.
A study in missing the point.
For Christian parents, the Santa myth won’t do. It can’t. We mustn’t acquiesce to the subtle (or not-so-subtle) replacement of ‘Christmas’ with ‘Winterval’, the shuffling off of nativity plays to make way for dramas about caterpillars; the retiring of camels and angels for the sake of reindeer and elves. Not if we want to raise children for the rest of their lives.
Santa Claus is the poster-boy for a market-driven, Western-elitist, consumerist capitalist society. Stick a Santa on it, you’ll sell a bumper-load this winter – and line the boss’s pockets. In the Santa myth, every child in the world gets a present (or several) on Christmas day. This is patently ridiculous; quite apart from ignoring cultural differences, of course not every child gets a present on Christmas day. Many parts of the world are still in poverty. Indeed families in our own country are; this isn’t even a ‘third-world’ issue. Yet Western culture, in its typical fashion, turns a season that celebrates gift-giving into the culmination of another year of consumerist capitalism, drowning ourselves in a sea of unwanted goods; wrapping our discontent in cheery colours, and perpetuating our façade with meaningless traditions.
Santa sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so . . . just like every religious idea that we have to somehow please god by what we do, here the worship of mammon bows full sweep to the notion of god-pleasing. Never mind the Christmas story; never mind that God so loved the whole world – bad or good – that he gave his only Son. There is no equivalent to be found here, despite Santa’s ancient rooting in the Christian Saint Nicolas, about whom almost no one knows anything today anyway. (Among lesser-known facts – it’s possible he punched Arius at the Council of Nicaea.)
And there Santa goes, with a ‘hohoho’. It’s all very jolly, isn’t it? But, actually, it isn’t really, because Santa Claus doesn’t help us face the suffering we are inevitably confronted with when we gather for what is meant to be a happy occasion, yet there is one more empty space at the table. He doesn’t have a solution for the heavy pall of darkness, the lump in the throat, when you stare down at your plate and remember how she used to swamp it in gravy; or how they used to bicker over how to cook the sprouts.
It’s not even that it takes a death in the family to trigger it; family breakdown is rife. Police callouts usually peak about mid-afternoon on Christmas day. And that’s for those that have family to go to. Hohoho. Merry Christmas. He just breaks into your house, leaves a couple of twee cushion covers and some souvenir mugs under the tree, steals a bit of mince pie, milk and carrot, and buzzes off again.
But our suffering will lead us to find the true hope and meaning of Christmas – in the nativity story. Because Christmas day can throw life’s contradictions into sharp relief – when we most want to enjoy ourselves, yet miss the ones we love. It is a day to be reckoned with; not to be glossed over or ignored; not to float through in a bauble nor drown in wine. It is an opportunity to celebrate – Emmanuel, God with us! – and yet to recognise that the very event we celebrate – the incarnation – was an act of warfare on God’s behalf, to embrace all the suffering and conflict that humanity has to endure, and thereby overcome it. Not breaking into our house via the chimney for a forgettable trade-off, but entering the world, entering humanity in a manger, for life . . . and death. Christmas day, after all, can’t help but look forward to Calvary, for as Mary ‘laid down’ Jesus’ head in the manger, the writer Luke chose the same word later to say that Jesus ‘bowed’ his head on the cross as he gave up his spirit.
Now, of course Christmas is meant to be a time of celebration and joy. The nativity says so: ‘Good news of great joy for all the people’! Of course we should give gifts; it is an expression of love and a reflection of the giving of the greatest gift, and the most undeserved, to humanity! But let’s please not kid ourselves for one minute that Santa has anything to do with this. Let’s not raise our children to believe he brings anything more than, at best, an amusing story or two to the cinema or the bookshelf. (Yes, I’m well aware that two of my favourite authors, J.R.R Tolkien and C.S Lewis embraced Father Christmas in their literature; they each did it in a very particular way, I would argue.) Let’s not raise our kids to believe Santa brings any kind of meaning to Christmas; let’s not fudge our way through believing in something that’s not real at a time when we should be shouting about what is.
Christmas day is a day for honesty. For openness. For forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a feast in the wilderness – we are celebrating, but we’re not there yet. We may find ourselves pursued and taking flight to Egypt – and let us not forget our brothers and sisters around the world who are displaced on Christmas day. We may find swords piercing our own souls. But God is with us! Let us embrace Christmas day in celebration of the fact that God-in-Christ – like no other god you will find – has come to us to share with us in our sufferings – and has come ultimately to redeem every circumstance of suffering.
That is our governing story; that is our Christmas Day. Santa or no Santa, I hope you have a very happy, merry and meaningful Christmas.