The Christmas Holiday is flooded with images of Santa Claus. I have been thinking a great deal about this lately. No image is a better center for negative and positive reactions to the Christmas Holiday.
For those who see Christmas as too commercial, Santa is an easy target. The rotund and Jolly image of Kris Kringle is used to market and sell just about everything and then some. Clearly a big commercial plug, the Saint is often thought to be nothing more than a sales pitch.
Santa has also been a favorite target of some Christians who think that the modern Christmas is a purely pagan or secular celebration, with Santa usurping the role of Christ and leading our Children astray.
These reactions are perhaps understandable, but they are historically inaccurate. Santa Claus has been around far longer than the companies that use his image to sell products. Commercialism is neither the origin nor essential nature of Father Christmas.
Furthermore, Christmas has never been an exclusively Christian holiday. The pagan, Christian, and secular have long and happily co-existed as part of the yuletide season. Be that as it may, if people find Christmas too secular, too commercial, too sappy, or too ... whatever, that is their prerogative. I have no interest in defending the Holiday against those who do not care for it. Neither do I care to defend Santa Claus to those who do not wish to "play Santa" for their children. There are many parents who teach their children that Santa brings them gifts on Christmas eve and there are many who do not. I see no evidence that either practice is harmful or damaging to the children in question. So whether one likes Christmas or not, whether one embraces Saint Nick or not, is not my concern.
What I would like to address is what Santa Claus is about. What makes us tell our children stories about a magical saint who brings them toys? What makes children embrace the idea with so much joy? Why do we participate in this odd ritual of pretend? What, exactly, does Santa Claus represent for children?
An easy answer is that Santa brings toys and kids love toys. But that will not do. If it were just about toys, kids would love toys from whomever and not particularly care about Santa himself. But this is not what we find. Just talk to a child at Christmas time and you will see that it is the big man himself that matters to them, far more than the toys he brings. Why should this be so?
I have though long and hard on this matter over the years, and it seems clear to me that Santa is an an image of divinity. This may sound a little silly and strange. But it is actually not too hard to believe. Children approach Santa with just that mixture of awe, love, reverence, and fear, that most peoples traditionally approach their deities.
Santa, furthermore, clearly has the qualities of divinity. He is immortal, he lives in a magical place "up there," he is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. The Saint flies through the sky, can enter any home, "sees you when you're sleeping, knows if you've been bad or good," he even judges you "naughty or nice." To top it off, Santa even has the long white beard of the traditional sky-father deity!
Children, of course, would not call Santa divine; they would not think he was a god, or an image of God. But that is irrelevant. The attitudes children have toward Santa Claus, the qualities he possesses, make him an image of the divine.
So for those who do enjoying sharing Santa Claus with their children, think about what you are really sharing ... without knowing it you are imparting to your children a conception of divinity. A conception that, at its best, is really a rather positive one. In most portrayals Santa Claus is a kind, non-judgmental, and generous man. Perhaps by sharing him with our children, we are helping them to value these qualities, and to see them as the path toward the divine.