Saturday, December 29, 2012

In Defense of Santa Claus

I remember going to see Santa Claus when I was a little kid.  Back then, large corporations (like the one my dad worked for) liked to use their money for more than lining their CEOs' pockets.  Santa would land in the company parking lot in a big helicopter, and all the children would be ushered inside to tell him what we wanted for Christmas, as he sat in a big sleigh surrounded with boxes and boxes of presents.  Every child received a very nice toy based on age and gender.  One present in particular I'll never forget: a toy dwarf's cottage from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, complete with seven little toy dwarfs and Snow White herself!  I was thrilled.

As Christmas drew near, our excitement and anticipation increased.  My father had a set of sleigh bells, and on Christmas Eve he'd go outside in the dark and jingle them, yelling "Ho, ho, ho!"  We kids would squeal and run for our beds, where we'd hear the thudding of reindeer hoofs on the ceiling over our heads (it was Dad again, pounding across the deck with a couple of long poles).  One year Dad even made a trail of ashy bootprints from the fireplace to the Christmas tree.  I don't remember whether he actually helped Mom clean that up or not. . .

But the main thing I remember about Christmas in those days was magic and wonder.  The miraculous hung close to our young lives, ready to break out at any moment.  Somewhere out there was a jolly, kind old man who wanted to give us toys just because he loved children.  My parents didn't play up the "you have to be good" thing all that much.  Santa's gifts were gifts of love.  For most of my childhood my parents were not Christians, but as I think back now, I realize that Santa was my first compelling illustration of a benevolent, supernatural father, and his gift-giving showed me my first clear picture of grace.

I didn't write any blog posts this Christmas, but I did read a few.  And there was one I read that I felt I had to respond to now, before we all take down our trees and put our stockings away.

I understood and respected the decision of Jen Hatmaker in her blog post The Christmas Conundrum to turn from consumerism and materialism at Christmas, but I couldn't help feeling a little sad as I read these words:

We've pulled out of the Santa charade. Our newest kids are 5 and 8, preparing for their first Christmas in America, and we're just not doing it, yall. Maybe because we've spent the last four years trying to unravel the mess we've presented to our other kids all these years, but hear me say it: We are giving Christmas back to Jesus. Not a corner of it; all of it.

There is no fake benefactor this year my kids can petition to get more stuff. Because honestly? For a five-year-old, how can Jesus compete with Santa? Our children don't have spiritual perspective; when faced with the choice of allegience, they have a baby in a manger, or they can get a jolly, twinkling, flying character who will bring them presents. This is going to be an easy choice for them. My friend Andrew, who identifies himself as a member of the "non-believer corner" put it this way:

"I always thought it was strange how Christians will tell me they have this giant and awesome truth they know is true deep in their soul and want to share with me, but when 12/25 comes around they lie to their own progeny because, apparently, that giant, liberating, and awesomely simple truth is somehow just not enough. It may be a good narrative, but it needs a little something to give it some panache."

As importantly, it sets this tone for Christmas: Be good and you'll get stuff, which becomes so deeply seeded, undoing that position is almost impossible. When we teach our children to understand Christmas through this lens, then tell them at nine-years-old: "Never mind! It's all fake! Oh, and stop being so selfish because Christmas is about Jesus"...we shouldn't be surprised when our kids stage a mutiny and ask to move in with Grandma. Young parents, this is so much easier to do right the first time rather than try to undo later. Give your kids the gift of a Christmas obsessed with Jesus - and no other - when they are little, and it will be their truth all their lives.

Ms. Hatmaker must do as she believes is best for her own kids, and for all I know this may be what is best for her own kids-- but I cannot take her view.  Though Santa is often equated with materialism and greed, he isn't synonymous with those things.  And I can't imagine Santa as I understood him as a child, ever wanting to usurp Christmas from Jesus or compete with Him for affection.

When I grew old enough to stop believing in Santa, I had already stopped believing in God. My parents began telling us that both were myths.  But when I came to understand that all the jingle bells and reindeer hoofbeats were a show my parents had put on for us, I wasn't angry with them.  I was grateful-- and sad.  Grateful that they'd given me a few glorious years to believe in wonders.  Sad that there was no magic, no miracles; that the world was just a mundane place where nothing ever happened without a reasonable explanation.  That Jesus in the manger was a pretty story Mom had told us when we were little, but he was really just a man like any other man.  That the North Pole was just a magnetic spot in an empty sea of ice.

I still liked getting presents on Christmas, and I liked being with my family.  But after I stopped believing, Christmas was empty.  Sure there was love, and family, and giving-- but lovely as those things were, they were still just part of the mundane world.  The magic was all gone.  I needed to learn to be content with the mundane, because that's all there was or would ever be.

Or so I thought.

When I met Jesus at the age of 15, the miraculous came back.  Christmas was suddenly more than magic-- it was holy.  Christmas Eve became the focal point of remembering, every year, how God drew near, and even nearer, the earth-- so near that all at once God was one of earth's creatures.

God.  With us.  



And Santa as a picture of joyous, extravagant giving in celebration of that.

A few years later I became caught up in the new legalism that was sweeping evangelical communities.  Christmas as most people celebrated it was whitewashed paganism. Santa was just a big fat lie parents told their kids-- a lie that encouraged greed and materialism.  If we really loved God, we should focus on Jesus exclusively, and celebrate His birthday alone.

Christian parents should shield their children from Santa.  Santa was the enemy.

But I grew older.  I began to learn to recognize and turn away from legalism in my Christianity.  And then I had kids of my own.

I never exactly told my daughter whether Santa was real or not.  But when she was two years old, she told me that he was.

And remembering magic and wonder and miracle in my own childhood, I just didn't have the heart to tell her no.

So we let our children believe in Santa and Jesus.  And believe me, this was a matter of letting, not making.  Believing was in their nature.  They were born with wonder in their eyes.

Early on my own parents sent their grandchildren a toy Santa Claus house to play with, and at my request, they also sent a toy manger scene.  (My mom had become a Christian again by that point, and I believe my dad eventually did too, though believing was something that never did come easy to him.)  My children played with the two things together.  They liked to have Santa come into the manger scene to say hello to Jesus.  My daughter even had him kiss the Baby in the manger.  It was very sweet.

We didn't turn Santa into an idol of materialism.  The kids believed that Santa filled their stockings and gave them three or four additional presents every year.  The rest of the presents under the tree were from their family and friends.  We told the children that Santa gives children presents because he loves children, and he loves children because Jesus loves them.  That gift-giving-- even extravagant gift-giving-- is appropriate and right as a celebration of God's great, excessively extravagant gift of His Son to us.  That loving generosity and humble gratitude are an honor to the season and the One who is its center.

Santa, too, can be holy.

There was no competition in my children's eyes between Jesus and Santa.  There was no "choice of allegiance."  Every year on Christmas Eve we would read the Bible story and The Night Before Christmas together.  We still do.  Afterwards we light candles and sing carols.  As they have grown older, my kids no longer request songs about Santa.  They want to sing songs about the birth of Christ.

Magic has opened the path to miracle.  Santa has pointed them to the Father, and Christmas to Christ.

You see, I don't agree with Ms. Hatmaker that children have no spiritual perspective.  I don't believe there is, or need be, a dichotomy between the spiritual and material.  The key is simply to love people, use things, and worship God-- and not to get any of those three mixed up. God made the material world and said that it was good.  Children, like adults, are made of matter and spirit.   Both are good, and God desires us to worship Him with our whole selves.  And any good thing in the material world can be of use in spiritual worship, whether it be an altar, a cross, a kneeling bench-- or a tree, twinkling lights and candles.

And a jolly, fat man in a red suit can give us a glimpse into the father heart of God.

We only have to let Christmas work its miracle within us.


Hannah Thomas said...

WOW! This is so awesome! Great piece!

I never understood the fear towards Santa, because we had both Jesus and Santa in our home when I grew up. I never felt that Santa could replace Jesus, and I knew very well the reason for the season. My parents were more than capable of balancing the two - and pointing out priorities. Concentration on our advent wreath every night at dinner is one example. We had a bible lesson and prayer.

For myself? I had FUN with being Santa. It was AWESOME! It was downright exciting for me! Nowadays they get a stocking full of all kinds of little things I collected over the last year. Then the gifts from the parents as well. I was kind of sad when Santa left in that sense.

As you can tell my kids had both as well. I remember asking them once they got older after reading stories about lying to the kids, and making Santa a priority over the holiday. I asked them - did you feel we lied, and was there any question Jesus was the focal point?

I got a look I never MOM has LOST her MIND! I did have to show them at that point WHY I was asking. I still got strange looks, but I don't think they felt I lost it anymore. Don't get me wrong I was happy about their response, and I don't know WHY I questioned it...but I did!

I love your Dad's antics! I didn't get that creative, and you got to admit THAT was creative!

Kim Chapin said...

I read Jen Hatmakers's blog as one of my friends shared it on Facebook.Honestly, I had conflicting emotions. My children were young when the evangelical movement began pushing against Santa. Our family attended a conservative Baptist church at the time. We only spoke in hushed tones about Santa feeling guilty that we were allowing our children to embrace the tradition. We always coupled our celebrations with the real "reason for the season" as well. The Christmas story was read on our special morning celebration before opening up our gifts.
As I returned to the classroom teaching precious kindergartners I was alarmed to hear 5 year olds arguing about the false myth and true story of Christmas. It was so sad to watch this happen.My class was a very diverse grouping of protestants, buddist, muslims etc. Some of the children did not even know what Christmas was and never celebrated. Others took on the American tradition of gift giving, but never included Jesus or Santa. It got to the point one year that I had to ban all conversation regarding a debate about Jesus vs. Santa Claus.Some parents were furious that their children were robbed of their innocence and others proudly beamed that their child was was beacon of truth in a dark world.
What did stand out to me more were those non Christians who took on the holiday with their families. It seemed that regardless of the Santa/Jesus controversy that understood the spirit of love, forgiveness, and unconditional giving. A lesson for us all.
Thank you so much for a new perspective. We all need balance and you spoke it so insightfully.
I love how you equated the spirit of Santa as pointing to our heavenly Father. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Wow, Kristen, this is really beautiful and perfectly describes our childhood at Christmas. One time when you were six and I was eight and had just stopped believing in Santa Claus, I saw Dad with his contraption for the first time and it turns out only time. He had two poles in front, attached to his hands, and from which he shook the sleigh bells, and had attached his back feet to two wooden blocks, as he headed toward the upstairs wooden deck. I grabbed your hand and pulled you excitedly behind me down the stairs before you could see, and breathed a sigh of relief that you hadn't. I felt that you should come to the understanding that Santa was both real (as an ideal) and not (as a literal person) when you ready -- as I had.

The magic back then was indescrible and very like the magic of coming to know God during our teens, a magic and pure wild joy that doesn't exist in legalism. You are right that Santa was never tied to our behavior -- the presents and the fun, and what our parents gave us, was because we were loved just for being ourselves as children. Mother always said that the most important thing she wanted us to know was to be kind.

Mother never stopped believing, you know, and I'm pretty sure that it was Dad who cleaned up those ashes. -- Love from your Sis

Anonymous said...

One more thing I'd like to add is that story of Santa Claus and all the stories that have grown around this story, is a wonderful story.

Jesus taught people -- with stories.

your Sis

Anonymous said...

Wow, so many thoughts about this. I definitely would hate to criticize another mom on what she feels is best for her kids. But I can't help feeling that a fear of Santa is unjustified. I don't know any kids who have started loving Santa more than Jesus. And kids generally learn their relationship with material wealth from the year-round activities of their parents, rather than some once-a-year fun.

I understand why she would want to spare her kids all the things she's describing. But I have never seen those things happen as a result of belief in Santa Claus.

I, on the other hand, don't necessarily advocate letting kids think Santa is real. In my household, we pretended about Santa, but my parents made sure that I knew it was pretend. I'm honestly glad. I think it would have been too disappointing, and also, I think I would have been mad/embarrassed and assumed that the grown-ups had been giggling at me behind my back all those years. However, that's only because of my particular personality type. Someone else's child might not have that problem at all.

In other words, I say, judge what needs to be done based on your own kid, but don't make up worries about it that are unrealistic. :)

Elena Johnston said...

What a lovely perspective.

My parents made a big deal out the magical wonder of light and love and generosity. They taught us that Santa Clause is a story about our love for one another; a love rooted in the deeper story of the incarnation.

perfectnumber628 said...

Sweet. :) Thanks for sharing your perspective- it seems like a healthy way to view Santa- he's not something to be afraid of.

Kristen said...

Thank you all so much for your excellent comments! I particularly wanted to thank my sister for pointing out that Jesus told stories and that stories that strike a chord within the human experience need no additional justification.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing! My husband and I are struggling with what we want to do regarding Santa and what a fresh perspective!