Monday, December 14, 2009

Santa Claus

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.

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  1. Wow, thank you Matt for this! I came across this in irony as I have been thinking long and hard about Santa this season also. I have asked over 30 people this question and have only gotten a few serious answers. Question being is Santa all knowing and powerful like God or is he merely psychic? I watched the movie The Box not too long ago and was able to shape my view of Santa as more of a supernatural intelligence. I feel much more enlightened after reading what you wrote.

  2. Thanks Eve! I've always been interesed in the symbol of Santa Claus and why it so many are so moved by it.

  3. But as far as a divinity goes, Santa embodies the worst traits of the transcendent. He is judgmental, guilt-inspiring, unforgiving, spying and vengeful. But, in many traditional religions these are some of the traits that the divinity has. Not, of course, the radical re-interpretations that are circulating of various religions that resemble the original incarnations of religions like human beings resemble the common ancestor between humans and apes.

    I admire the children that you speak of regarding toys and Santa. Perhaps I see another America, but what I see are children obsessed with stuff, that resembles evangelical divinity seen as a divine atm or wealth giver where people pray for material possessions.

    Santa did exist before our commercial society and before Christianity, but I seriously doubt that there is any resemblance between Santa today and Santa then. To even compare them and to try to salvage Santa's image of today based on a figure eons ago smacks of equivocation. At least you have not established a connection excluding a metamorphic genesis. To justify Santa's goodness based on what was once good in Santa is like justifying the goodness of America based on what was good in the original conception of America when it was first founded. The only resemblance between America now and America then are merely names, titles and hollow expressions. What Santa was does not lend credibility to what Santa is. Santa is judgmental, guilt-inspiring, unforgiving, spying and vengeful and the figure head and idol of materialism and selfishness. And, above all, like most interpretations of the divinity, Santa is a lie and a distortion of reality.


Comments from many different points of view are welcome. But I will not publish any comments that are hateful, insulting, or filled with profanity. I welcome and encourage dialogue and disagreement but will not publish any hate speech.