It is a mistake to underestimate Santa Claus. He didn't get a part in the Bible, but he's sure a big part of Christmas.
I was amused and sobered by the news item a couple of weeks back about an American man being arrested after telling children that Santa was not real.[i] I was amused by the extent that some would go protect a mythical tradition, and the extent some would go to debunk a mythical tradition.
There seems to be a lack of understanding in some quarters about such things as myths, story, and reality. In the past I’ve heard people try to give ‘scientific’, ‘factual’ explanations about the existence of angels or of guiding stars that hover over a stable.
Myths are simply stories, packages if you like, that deliver what the storyteller considers important. The word ‘angel’ for example means ‘messenger’, and in the biblical texts is a literary device for delivering what the writer considers a message from God. Personally I like the winged, robed, singing, surreal version that sparks my imagination.
Keeping with angels a moment, there probably were historical incidences where a visiting stranger spoke something profound and the locals heard it as a word from God. A later writer telling of that incident may have embellished it and later artists even more so. What is ‘real’ I would suggest is the change the stranger’s words brought into those first hearers’ lives, and the change later wrought in others’ lives in subsequent retellings.
So to return to Santa: there is most probably some early history and there is definitely significant mythical transcultural embellishment. But there is also something, once the glittery packaging of the myth is opened, that is real and religious and potentially life-changing.
On Christmas Eve there is a kid’s service here at 7 p.m. Children and chaos abound, and the atmosphere is charged. We dress up, we sing, we laugh, and we tell stories of cribs and candles and Christmases past. We also have Santa.
For years I've had trouble with Santa. No, it's not the reindeer parking problems or the resultant pooh… it's finding someone to play Santa. Gender, despite the local news this year, is no big deal; and neither is race or culture I might add (as Raetihi[ii] showed). Instead being Santa is all about personality and connecting with children.
It takes a special person to don the red suit, and frankly some Santas, visit to any Mall in December, aren’t up to it. There's more to being Santa than sticking out your stomach, chuckling 'Ho, Ho, Ho', and answering clever seven year olds. But – and this is the interesting bit – Santa is never a flop. She/He never falls from the grace the children extend.
On Santa's entrance the energy levels rise. Whatever he or she says is listened to. Whatever Santa does is received with rapt attention. The power of Santa is quite formidable. Mess with Santa at your peril.
Many people take a low view of Santa. And I have some sympathy. Santa is paraded on every television and in every shopping centre in the country encouraging people to buy, and buy more. The pressure on people who have little or no surplus monies is enormous. The images and products displayed are beyond the budget of large numbers of New Zealanders. Santa is reduced to a servant of consumerism that captures not just those who can afford the latest and greatest but those who can’t.
Then there is what seems to be a particular American manifestation of Santa writ large in the Coots and Gillespie 1934 song “Santa Claus is comin’ to town.” Consider the lyrics: “You better watch out, You better not cry, Better not pout… He's making a list, He's checking it twice; He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice…” This is creepy Santa stuff with a catchy tune. Santa is reduced to a tool of control: if you don’t behave during the year, then no presents for you. Everything in life has to be earned. Including love. Including Santa.
Max, a former neighbour, also takes a low view of what he calls “the Santa scourge”. He objects to the portrayal of vertically challenged people merrily working in cramped sweat shop conditions. He objects to reindeer being used as promotional aids with no benefits accruing to the threatened herds of Northern Europe. He objects to an obese elderly man being given, firstly, license to enter any home or premise, secondly, a monopoly on the disbursement of gifts, and thirdly, an annual parade in his honour. Santa to him is a symbol of inequity.
That’s the trouble with myths, even good ones. They are taken, adapted, moulded to fit a variety of cultures, circumstances, and moral compasses. Think of the Gospel of Matthew’s “wise men from the East”. Later writers would take and make these men into ‘kings’, give them exotic names, and bring the notion of ‘gift giving’ to the front and centre of the Nativity. Whereas Matthew’s central idea behind this myth was that the wise men were Gentiles, non-believers, who followed a different religion [both before and after Bethlehem], yet saw some truth in Jesus.
The original Santa was, of course, dear old Bishop Nicholas who allegedly lived around 280 CE close to the ancient city of Myra. Note Myra is in modern day Turkey and it would be safe to suppose that Nick didn’t look like Coca-Cola’s jolly white man. Legend has it that Nick came from a family of means, and in his piety and kindness gave much away.
One story has it that an angel visited him at night and said, “Nicholas, you must take a bag of gold to the pawnbroker, for he is very poor and has three daughters. Unless they have a dowry, they will be sold into slavery.” Nick took the gold and rushed to the pawnbroker's house where he discreetly dropped it through a window. Naturally, the parents were overjoyed; now their eldest could marry. [Marriage in those days being an economic necessity for most women].
As you would expect in a good story this angelic visitation and discreet dropping of gold happened three times. But on the third and last drop the pawnbroker, curious to discover the identity of his benefactor, locked all the windows of the house. Nick not being short of ideas climbed up on the roof and deposited the bag down the chimney.
It's a story about sympathy for those in poverty, about practical assistance, and innovative delivery systems. It's about compassion. It's about sharing fortune. It's about the virtue of anonymous giving – a virtue that in our modern world of sponsorship seems almost quaint. This story, history or legend or both, gives us a glimpse of what is real beneath the glitter of the jolly Santa packaging.
Personally I take a high view of Santa, and not just to infuriate my former neighbour Max [which it does]. I simply believe in Santa Claus. And, like most of my beliefs, it has been refined and tempered by experience, especially year by year sitting with children at Christmas and trying to explain in simple, precise language the meaning of life, faith, and flying sleighs.
There comes a time in most children's lives when some of the mathematics of Santa seems insurmountable. Consider the number of children in this city, the quantity and size of presents, the dimensions of your above average sleigh, the distance from Auckland to the North Pole, the aerodynamic potential of reindeer… So, inevitably the questions arise: “How come…?” “How does he do that?” And, looking at me as though I was deranged: “Do you actually believe in Santa Claus?”
If the inquisitor is worth their salt they won't stop there. “What about the down the chimney bit eh?” “Yep,” I reply, “I'm into it.” “Look Glynn,” my young friend continues, “our chimney is designed for someone who only eats lettuce. It has a metal pipe of some 20 centimetres in diameter. Are you telling me that Santa can squeeze down that?”
“Well,” I respond, girding myself for the challenge, “tell me how your favourite music group can sing their stuff through cyberspace, enter your phone, and perform live on its screen? And you think a bit of chimney pipe is a problem?” Around now my young friend will roll their eyes, code for 'my silence is not my assent'. Failure to appreciate a fertile imagination is as big a problem in our society as consumerism.
The better questions for the young inquirer to ask are about meaning. For Santa means giving: Giving to others. Giving to those we don't know. Giving with no strings attached - including no reciprocating gifts.
I have a list for Santa this year. It includes the millions of displaced persons around the globe – displaced because of things like war, drought, or climate change – and the fears and uncertainties these people have, and others have about them. Please Santa, like Mary and Joseph, they need the gift and security of a home.
My list includes those in our own country who live in the shadow and fear of violence; who are seeking to rebuild their lives and the lives of their children after being assaulted; who are searching not just for physical safety but economic safety.
And my list includes those whose income doesn’t support their basic needs, who are in the spiral of debt, and who can’t see any hope.
Santa is about dreaming that nothing is impossible when it comes to helping and sharing. No Grinch, no chimney, no amount of snow, or consumerism, or cynicism, is going to stop it. And I know for Santa to respond to my list, I need to don my best elf or fairy self to help. This is why I believe in Santa Claus.
The Santa saga is more powerful than any factual findings by the geek who sat for three consecutive Christmas Eves with a telescope and camera on a rooftop. Santa inspires and encourages the best in humanity, the best in you and me – selfless giving to others.
Helping, caring, and sharing are what are real and religious and potentially life-changing behind the Santa story. We need to work with Santa, and any other myth, to create a normative culture[s] where these things just automatically happen day after day. So every day is a Christmas [‘the sharing of Christ’] day.
Christmas is simple really: Give what you can and then some. Don't believe in the barriers to giving. Set your imagination free. Dream of a world where all can share without fear and have enough.