Can you close your eyes and muster an image of Santa? Is he the jolly, red-faced Santa of the American Coca-Cola advertisements? Does he have a list of children in one hand, a bag of toys in the other? Is he trying to squeeze his girthy middle down a tight chimney?
I hear my friends wrestling with Santa, and I get it. The fear and fatigue that motivates their resistance is heartbreaking. During December, it is easy to feel like you’re standing, feet in the sand, in the shadow of a giant (green, red, and sparkly) wave called consumerism. So many folks, myself included, dread being caught up and swept away. To the degree that Santa seems to lead this charge, people will always feel the impulse to rise up against him. I get it.
And of course, it isn’t just the consumerism; I hear friends say they don’t want to lie or that he eclipses Christ, and I get that too. For the most part Santa has become something ridiculous, silly, and uninspired. To many, he is just a powerless, jolly postman.
Despite all this, and my lackluster relationship with the Elf on a Shelf notwithstanding, I love Santa Claus. I believe in Santa Claus.
Santa is founded in the myth of St. Nicholas. A myth, unlike a lie or a nursery rhyme, is fictional, changeable, and often elaborate on the outside but devastatingly true and enduring on the inside. We never lie to our children when we share myths with them, because once the outside sloughs off, or maturity degrades its facade, the undeniable and often piercing Truth is left.
Hopefully you are hearing me say that Santa, if done well, is something your children can grow into rather than out of. He isn’t a lie, he is a myth and thus an opportunity to teach our children something wonderful and complex that they might otherwise struggle with were it not for his tangible example.
While your child might not yet understand the nuances of grace, redemption, and forgiveness. They can accept a Santa that yes, has a naughty and nice list, but gives good gifts no matter your standing. Santa, if done well, will leave the imprint of Christ in a child’s heart so that as the myth fades the Truth can be metabolized.
Who then have we created Santa to be, and who then, must he become? What is your theology of Santa? During Christmas, you are living the myth of St. Nicholas—a myth that will either lead your children closer to God, or not. We need to re-image Santa in light of the truth. Can we create a Santa that our children don’t outgrow? Gertrud Nelson writes, “Without a new awareness and some restoration work of Santa Claus, we might be tempted to continue to turn a blind eye… I think that in the process of scraping down the layers of paint that have coated our Santa over the years, we will recover a stronger, wiser, more dignified father figure who involves us in a process of growing and changing…”
This Christmas season, let us embrace this “Santa Christ” who is father and mother, who gives graciously, and teaches us to give in response. Help him to be powerful, mysterious, knowable, and endlessly familiar with our successes, failures, and hopes. May you give your children a Santa that lends us courage to continue to grow and change, despite our inadequacies. And regarding that problematic “naughty and nice” list, what if it was a merciful opportunity to examine ourselves rather than impending moral judgement? And what if, rather than painting the picture of a magical postman that can be everywhere in one night, we told our children that like Christ, Santa needs us to be his hands and feet—that goodness, gifts, and kindness must flow from us so that all may be reached?
This isn’t a jolly, chubby, coca-cola Santa. This is a bowed down Santa, a hat off Santa, a pointing-to-Christ with tears in his eyes Santa.