Interesting the pokes Santa Claus is taking from Christendom these days. It ranges from the extremes of public denial (Santa is a materialistic fat man dressed in red) to a gentler noodle-lashing. This phenomenon is worth a closer look, and I especially recommend Father Steve Grunow’s piece for well-written background reading.
Most of us were tutored in the legendary appropriation of Saturnalia by Christians. Out with pagan solstice revelry; in with the Savior’s Birth! Christians were an ascendant majority in the fourth century, so all’s fair, I guess. The complaints of followers of the god of agriculture are lost to the mists of time.
Today we see the tables turned. Father Christmas (the slender guy)/Santa Claus is a Christian symbol more or less appropriated by the laity–mostly non-ecclesiastical folks. Thanks to poor catechesis or the advent of gross materialism, we’ve lost the connection to a fourth-century bishop who had a preferential option for the poor. So now we behold the curious phenomenon of bishops and clergy taking a wooden switch to one of their own. Even if he has put on a little weight in the western hemisphere. And cavorts with magical creatures.
I approve of the proactive efforts of prelates like Bishop John Wester. Promoting Advent is a great and positive development. And being critical of materialism–that’s something any good liberal will get on board with. And yet, the attack on secular Santa leaves me a little dry. Like an unwatered Christmas tree.
Burl Ives might present the North Pole as a cartoonish ice-skating paradise, but the reality is that Alaskans, Siberians, Scandinavians, and northern Canadians experience the far north as a setting of struggle and occasional privation. Nicholas of Myra might have started off as a diocesan bishop in balmy Asia Minor, but he wasn’t eyeing bigger cities with the expected red hat in return for a brown nose. The North Pole community strikes me as a lot more like a monastery. Bad bishops get Santa Maria Maggiore, mind you; not the wilderness.
Think about it. A desert of icy wilderness. A community devoted to manual labor. A mission of charity for children. Ponder those elves: are they more imps and fantasy figures? They strike me as more the humble brothers (and/or sisters) of a religious community. Namelessly devoted to the cause.
What sorts of values are inculcated in this community? Consider its legendary outcasts: Rudolph and Buddy. For each, there is a sense that they don’t fit in. But these characters are far from rebels. They weren’t kicked out for sexual shenanigans or juvenile delinquency. Each is on a vision quest of sorts. They bring their own sense of North Pole upbringing to the wider world. They are evangelists of Christmas cheer and charity. The red-nosed one and the “human raised by elves,” surprisingly uncorrupted by the world, reveal a steely sense of good will, friendship, bravery, and virtue. Buddy, notably, calls out the fakery of Christmas, accusing a department store Santa of sitting on a “throne of lies.” Rudolph converts a hated enemy. What’s wrong with a gospel witness of that nature?
Perhaps the magical elements of Santa Claus cause adults some concern. When I was seven, I charted out Santa’s worldwide plan of generosity: he flew down one time zone and up the other. The oceans allowed him to catch up in case he fell behind or get ahead of schedule if time permitted. Youthful rationalism meets mythology. My parents didn’t seem to be impressed.
I’d suggest that Christian commentary on Christmas needs a more precise aim. Materialism is no less a problem for bishops with aristocratic pretensions. And our Corporate Masters have no compulsions against using anything to make a buck or two. But let’s give Santa his due, even if he is a prototype for post-Christian virtue. If we heed the Baptist’s call, Advent is no less a time for charity, generosity, and getting in touch with our desert selves. Down with the Barons of Big Business. Down with selfish indulgence. But lay off Santa Claus, willya?