In my ongoing attempt to vindicate every traditional or even quasi-traditional aspect of Christmas, it was inevitable that I should finally come to the subject of Santa Claus. The debate among Christians over Santa Claus is older than social media, which means I can recall it from my youth. As a child, my parents told me there was no Santa Claus, and we regarded with suspicion and incredulity those families who would “do Santa,” that odd and awful little turn of phrase. Nonetheless, I was encouraged to be polite and not spoil Santa Claus for all those benighted children out there who “raved in the incurable madness of impiety,” as St. Augustine once put it.
As I have grown older, I have found that the debate over Santa Claus is not simply whether to tell children he is real or not, but a touch more complicated. Allow me to briefly enumerate the major positions on the matter:
The pietist is opposed to Santa Claus because he is neither described in the Bible nor scientifically verifiable. The pietist regards Santa Claus as “a lie,” and not a noble one. Adults who tell children there is a Santa Claus are not simply playing a game. Rather, they are short-sighted dolts whose children will someday discover that Dad is Santa and then become suspect of everything their parents have ever said. What is more, the pietist believes Santa Claus was invented to sell products, make money, secularize Christmas, and distract from the celebration of Christ’s birth.
The hard Nicholist also believes that Santa distracts from God, and yet the hard Nicholist regards Santa not as an ersatz Christ, but an ersatz St. Nicholas. The hard Nicholist snorts when he sees Santa, rolls his eyes at the mention of Santa in Christmas songs, and is always ready to deliver a sermon or history lesson on the subject.
The soft Nicholist also finds Santa much inferior to St. Nicholas but does not think Santa a threat to St. Nicholas or to Jesus. The soft Nicholist is not so much disgusted by Santa as he is baffled that anyone would prefer him to the miracle-working, Arius-slapping bishop of Myra.
The pragmatist thinks St. Nicholas a Catholic superstition but finds Santa Claus a helpful psychopomp who, regardless of being fake, nonetheless inspires children to real obedience during the month of December. As the haggard father of real children, the pragmatist is glad Santa exists; however, apart from the material comfort Santa’s legend brings, the pragmatist has no affection for him.
The sentimentalist loves the myth of Santa Claus for the same reason he loves A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life. While Santa Claus is “not factual,” it would be nice if he was. What is more, Santa represents something good and is thus allowable for the same reason Plato’s “Noble lie” was allowable.
The common man does not know why people argue about Santa Claus but finds him an unobjectionable and aesthetically pleasing part of the month of December.
And, finally, the mad metaphysician is a fully-grown adult (with a car, an ulcer, and a bank account) who believes that Santa Claus is, in fact, actually real.
With the exception of the pietist, I am more or less content that any of these positions is allowable (there is hope for the pragmatist), though I think some better than others. I myself am a soft Nicholist, which is to say I love St. Nicholas very much, and I think Santa Claus a needlessly colorless legend in comparison. In other words, why drink Seagram’s when you could have Hendrick’s? Were it not for St. Nicholas, though, I would probably enjoy Santa Claus far more. Granted, Christmas produces its share of mediocrity and kitsch, and granted, Santa Claus is a significant part of that schlock. Nonetheless, Santa Claus is a far more handsome and pleasing myth than he needs to be. He is from the old world and vexed rationalists often compare him with God, both facts which incline me to favor him.
If there is a case to be made for Santa (and I think there is), I believe Santa should be defended as he is widely known, not according to some esoteric history. There are, I am sure, several readers who could unveil for me the real history of Santa Claus. Perhaps he is a department store creation. Perhaps he is an anglicized version of some pagan Swiss legend. Or perhaps Santa is a bit like the Super Bowl, a syncretistic melting pot of economics, entertainment, religion, and fanaticism. Regardless of his origin, Santa ought to be attacked or defended for what he now is: a rotund, red-clad old man with a white beard who lives at the North Pole and pilots a reindeer-drawn sleigh once a year filled with toys made by elves for children. He enters our homes by way of the chimney, eats milk and cookies we leave out for him, and fastidiously keeps a list of which children have and have not behaved themselves. He rewards the righteous and very mildly chastises the wicked.
Is this a good story?
It is an okay story. It could be better or far worse.
Above all, it is a common story. Santa Claus is one of several dozen mischievous, whimsical figures from folk stories across the globe, all of which tend to run together after you’ve heard a few. A handful of elements are common to all. The Santa-like figures dress in a regal fashion. While rarely stated explicitly, they are immortal. They usually appear towards the end of the year. They are the exclusive benefactors of children, but they arrive with a hint of danger, as well. The fact that Santa figures are not simply American, not simply Catholic, and not simply Western (the Russians have Ded Moroz, a dead ringer for Santa) means a reasonable man will not dismiss them out of hand. Anything so old and so universally beloved of Christians deserves a hearing.
Very few Christians who dislike Santa dislike him as such, but rather object to parents telling their children that Santa deserves their fear and affection. However, here is perhaps the controversial claim you have been waiting for me to make: the idea that it is “a lie” to tell a child Santa brings their gifts is completely preposterous.
Santa is pretend, as are all his ilk. For this reason, Santa is for children. Children pretend, adults do not. What is more, reasonable adults pretend with their children and on behalf of their children. When a little child walks into the kitchen and says, “Meow. I am a cat! I want some milk!” only a bona fide atheist would respond, “That is a lie, Suzie, and St. John teaches that murderers, sorcerers, adulterers, and liars will go to the second death in a lake which burns with fire and sulfur.” And I say this, despite the fact Suzie is not a cat and despite the fact that liars do, according to the Beloved Apostle, go to their second death in a lake of fire. No, a reasonable parent hears that Suzie the cat wants some milk and responds, “Here is some milk, little cat.” Children claim to be all manner of things: turtles, ninjas, cowboys, kangaroos, various art supplies, and good parents simply play along. A little child who claims to be a tiger is no more a liar than an LSU sophomore who claims to be a Tiger, and Santa Claus is somewhere between the child-tiger and the LSU Tiger. Santa Claus is both the mascot of Christmas and a child’s fantasy, albeit a fantasy created, aided, and abided by adults. In fact, few parents sit their children and tell them about Santa. Children hear about Santa on the streets (or from the bulk bins near the entrance of Target) and inquire of their parents what he is. So, too, only a few children must be told Santa is not real but figure it out around the time they quit claiming to be cats that want some milk.
I suppose the revelation that “Santa isn’t real” comes as a shock to some children; however, by itself, this is not sufficient evidence to prove all children must be disabused of the Santa myth the split second they hear about him on television or radio. Some children keep pretending to be tigers until they are quite old, then they are distressed to hear their parents forbid them from playing tigers. Such a child might protest, “But you told me I was a tiger when I was six,” though such complaints are both unlikely and unreasonable (even for children). However, if a child cries when he finds Santa is not real, this seems an entirely fair response. As fond of maturity as I am, it sucks to grow up. When a child cries upon finding Santa was never real, it is not really Santa they are crying over, but the end of a certain naïve passage of youth.
So, Santa is alright, pretending he brings presents is alright, and crying when he no longer brings presents is alright, too. Children are far more shocked to find out sex is real than they are to find out Santa is not, though a reasonable parent might delay both talks for the sake of a child’s innocence. The fact of the matter is that little children cannot always handle the whole truth, do not need the whole truth— and for a brief period of time, benefit more from fantasy than from the brutal, unvarnished, no-spin-zone facts.
All the same, I never told my children that Santa Claus was real. Rather, I have told them that St. Nicholas is real and that he brings them presents on December 6th, which is his feast day. So far as St. Nicholas goes, though, I might actually be a mad metaphysician, for there is some part of me which believes St. Nicholas does in fact bring them gifts each year, even though I myself pay for the presents and leave those presents in their shoes by the door after they go to sleep.
My contention that St. Nicholas brings my children gifts is born of the fact that Scripture describes charity as a unifying power so deep and so mysterious, it sometimes blurs the horizon of autonomy which separates one person from another. In St. Mark’s Gospel, Christ guarantees unlosable rewards for those who give as little as a cup of water “in My name.” When Christ prophesies the Judgement in Matthew 25, He tells his followers that the charity they give to the hungry, the naked, and the imprisoned is mystically rendered unto God Himself. Christ does not merely approve of charity, He somehow shows up to receive charity in person. So, too, the man who gives his life to God “no longer lives,” but Christ lives in that man. Charity is not a rational power, not a scientific power. Selfless love is that power by which the cosmos was created. To this day, a glorious, uncanny, and often unnerving ambience attends acts of charity. The only thing in the world more overwhelming and more unexplainable than great tragedy is great generosity.
The tradition of giving presents to children on the feast of St. Nicholas derives from the saint’s most well-known “miracle,” his secret gift of gold (under cover of night) to a desperate man whose sudden poverty had tempted him to sell his three daughters into slavery. The anonymity of St. Nicholas’s gift is remembered today in the “secret arrival” of presents for children overnight. Of course, were it not for St. Nicholas, I would not give gifts on his feast day. The gifts are “from St. Nicholas” in the sense that I want to be like St. Nicholas, and in imitating him I become him, just as Gabriel told Zechariah his son would “go…in the spirit of Elijah,” and Christ later declared John the Baptist to be Elijah himself (Matthew 11:14). Every act of imitation is an act of becoming.
God has stacked the deck in favor of love, which means the rules which govern charity are wonderfully unreasonable and magnificently unfair. Religious and nonreligious people alike intuitively understand the strangeness of love. We give to the poor, but we also give to the poor on behalf of others, which is an odd thing to do if you think about it. From time to time, my students purchase gifts for Oxfam in my name then give me Christmas cards informing me of the fact. Perhaps you have received such notices before: “Five goats have been donated to a small village in South Africa on your behalf…” For lack of a better term, I believe such gifts count. I don’t believe they are fake. I don’t believe it is naïve fantasy to do good works, declare them the works of another, and hope God will reward that other person accordingly. However, I believe the one who performs good works on another’s behalf receives credit for those acts, as well, and that God has set up such outrageously slanted, unfair incentive programs because He loves charity that much. Philanthropists sometimes communicate the dazzling unfairness of love by matching, double, or tripling any donation made to this or that charitable organization during a particular timeframe: “For every dollar you give, I will give three dollars.” That’s not just love. That’s beatific vision logic. That’s wishful-thinking incarnate. We have learned such thinking from God Himself.
God is love and love is wild, uneven, and unimaginably wide open. Is Christianity not grounded on the hope that the good works of another can be mystically received be we ourselves? Is that not outrageously unfair, and yet unfair to our advantage? Or is the imputed righteousness of Christ nothing more than a weird outlier, an unrepeatable anomaly, and not a blueprint for all reality?
While I prefer St. Nicholas, the sight of Santa Claus reminds me of the small, fanciful people who yet innocently believe in him, and so Santa Claus is a gentle call to simplify my wants, give up my awful adult vices, and trust in God once more with a child’s simplicity of heart. It is good Santa exists.