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.