Just like the perennial “War on Christmas” creeps its Grinch-like head around this time of year, so do the calls for people to abandon Santa Claus, the “Elf on the Shelf,” and other child-pleasing myths that we’ve come to associate with this season.
Apparently because we celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time of year, everything else must come to a halt…lest we overshadow the “reason for the season.”
Well, to be honest, if we’re trying to get back to the “reason for the season” at its roots, we should probably leave Jesus out of the equation, too. December 25th was not originally known as “Christmas,” and didn’t become so for many years after Christianity had been around. “The Feast of the Undying Sun” was marked on December 25th, an acknowledgment of the solstice that would now ebb away into increasing daylight. A nice pagan festival in the dead of winter.
We invited Jesus to the party late. He wasn’t the original reason for celebrations at this time of year.
Christians now celebrate the “Feast of the Undying Son” (I should trademark that little monicker because I think it’s pretty darn clever), but we should be honest and recognize that it’s not our original festival to claim. And it certainly wasn’t chosen because it was the date of Jesus’ birth.
Face it, we put the “Christ” in Christmas. Any attempt to “keep” Christ there are done so because we cemented him there…
But back to Santa and the crazy Elf on the Shelf: I say “do it.”
As a pastor, as a father, as someone who thinks that life is more than water and trace elements forced to eek out an existence, I say “do it.”
As I preached this last Sunday, St. Nicholas can provide a real depth of meaning in this season where we celebrate Jesus’ birth (for Christians) by buying one another a Lexus adorned with a huge bow.
St. Nicholas was known for his giving…not for getting whatever he wanted. And by keeping St. Nick in this season, we too, can focus our children on the giving of the season, rather than the receiving.
“Keep Christ in Christmas” the bumper sticker reads…on the gas guzzling car. What about keeping Christ in consumerism? In fact, if you want to eliminate the real issue with this season, it has nothing to do with saying “Happy Holidays” or burning effigies of the jolly fat elf. It has everything to do with buying and selling and how and why and where we do it.
But I digress.
Even more than the historical St. Nicholas, there is a bit of wonder and awe that is lost from this season if we don’t allow our children (and our adults) to play around in the great mystery that comes from things not being dark forever, from lights that shine out of a tree planted in the living room, from characters that point to good virtues and mischievous glee.
I encourage you to believe in Santa Claus, who is chief giver in a season where our natural inclination is to conserve and save-up to survive the winter. Likewise, believe in the elf that creates havoc in the middle of the night. Lord knows we all need another example to follow when our tendency to look out for ourselves butts up against the command to look out for our neighbor’s needs first. Lord knows we all need a reminder that, though things seem to run havoc in the darkness, a little light can expose the havoc and encourage us to laugh at it all.
Santa and the Elf and the like can encourage our children, and even us, to live deeply in the season, look lightly at ourselves, and look wondrously at life.
The real trouble, I think, happens when we start teaching our children that believing in Santa Claus is analogous to belief in God. That is the real fear behind inviting these characters into the season: belief and attention to them will point away from “true” belief and attention to Jesus.
But if we start holding Jesus and Santa at the same level, when we teach that belief in the Elf on the Shelf is like belief in God, and that you can’t hold both at the same time, then we do a real disservice. Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers sing that wonderfully awful song, “I Believe in Santa Claus” where they also claim to believe in magic, in God, and in human destiny…as if it’s all on the same level…and we’ve bought into that perspective. It doesn’t help the situation.
They are different types of belief.
I don’t trust Santa like I trust God. Santa is a mental assent I allow myself at certain times with a wink and nod; hopefully a mental assent that points me toward a deeper truth in the world.
But God…I don’t allow myself to mentally assent to God’s existence. I tried to do that and ended up an atheist for a while. Rather, I trust God’s existence and lean on it (for more on this line of thinking, see what I wrote here).
Santa, the Elf on the Shelf, it all lends itself to wonder and awe and joy. I say that you shouldn’t take that away from children. But also don’t make belief in it all analogous to trust in God. That’s the real problem with this whole season, I think. We feel we’re in competition for “belief resources.”
In fact, the God who invites imagination, who inventively sung creation into being (and sung salvation into being through a lullaby), pulls out of me the desire to embrace these traditions.
They’re not harmless; they’re helpful.
And they’re only hurtful when we put them on par with faith. And sometimes I’m a reluctant Christian because that’s exactly what Christians have done.
So, Findley will be finding some presents from Santa on Christmas morning (and we’ll probably address some from the cats as well even though they don’t have the opposable thumbs needed to wrap presents). It won’t be the primary focus of our festival, but it’ll be there. And he’ll squeal with joy and, for a moment, feel the wonder in the magic of the season where a jolly fat guy fits down a non-working fireplace and cats wrap presents to give to their owners.
And while we don’t do the Elf on the Shelf thing (mostly because I find the elf’s proportions creepily elongated) if that’s your bag, go for it.
And if Christmas bells deliver your presents, or if Santa rides a donkey, or if gnomes put presents in stockings…all traditions from around the world…allow yourself the wonder and awe to believe that this world might just be a little bigger than we want to make it.
Perhaps you’ll find yourself caught up in joy that points to Joy greater than itself. Perhaps you’ll figure out why the ancient church put Jesus’ natal day on December 25th. In the time of darkness, the lightness that comes from such joy is a welcome guest.