On Why I Will Allow (and Encourage) My Kid(s) to Believe in Santa Claus

Just like the perennial “Waimagesr 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.

Really Re-Claim Advent. We Need It.

I love Christmas.7772528906_b6961079fb_z

Secular Christmas, religious Christmas, Christmas movies, Christmas cookies, Christmas eggnog, Christmas candles, Christmas lights.

I am the quintessential consumer of Christmas crap that every marketer dreams of and every minimalist fears.

Because at Christmas it should be classy…but the definition of classy has permeable boundaries.

And I listen to Christmas music early in the season.  Mostly because I think it reminds me of Christmases when I was a kid, which were always full of magic and mystery and all sorts of greatness.

And perennial calls for stopping “wars on Christmas” or yelling for “no Christmas music until Advent is over” is all a bunch of nonsense from people who love to control things and who have an inordinate amount of time to obsess over nothingness.

But one thing is true: Christmas is for children.  And I’m not just talking about secular Christmas with the fat elf and the flying Rangifer tarandus.  

Religious Christmas is for children, too, in many ways.  You may not want to hear that, but it’s true. The myths that have grown themselves around the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke (often conflated awkwardly with the first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew) have created a narrative that theologically resonates, but realistically falls flat.

Angels, traveling Magi, virgin births…it’s all hard to swallow as reality, even for the faithful. It’s a story for children’s books.

And I’d advocate that you need not swallow it all to be Christian.  In fact, it sounds like so much myth mostly because it was written to evoke that kind of thought in the reader and that kind of hope in the reader’s heart.  You, too, are supposed to see that something unusual, epic, of mythical proportions is taking place in the person of Jesus.

Yes, you too.

But we’ve taken the mythical narrative and have tried to pass it off as history, and it all makes for people creating wars on Christmas (real and imaginary), and people rejecting theological truths because they don’t line-up with historical reality, and…

Well, here we are.

But see, this is the thing: the mythical nature of Christmastide is, and should be, balanced by the stark reality of Advent.

If only we could really re-claim Advent.

And I’m not talking about the Advent calendar with nice little doors that have chocolate inside until you get to Christmas eve.

That’s not real Advent.  That’s commercial Advent.

And I’m not talking about just banning Christmas hymns or music in deference to Advent music.  That’s like only focusing on one tire on a car, when the whole thing is broken.  It won’t do what you want it to.

No, we need to reclaim the totality of Advent because Advent is for adults.

Advent is for adults who wait for births, or for diagnoses, or for the death of a loved one, or for a new job, or for any job, or for that pink slip they know is coming, or for relief from pain, or for visitors to arrive and cheer up a lonely existence, or…

Or anything that we wait for that causes anxiety.

Because Advent is all about receiving the uncomfortable news that God is on the scene, is going to show up, is going to shake up your world in some way.  And that news when coupled with the “Fear not!” of the angel message is what balances out this season.

Your life is going to be shaken.  But fear not!

Jesus, we need to hear that again.  And I mean that phrase in every way it can be taken.

Because all the ridiculous anxiety around this time of year just points to the unrest that we have, the imbalance that we feel, when we focus so closely on one part of a larger issue.

The church needs to reclaim Advent because society, humanity, lives in Advent quite a bit of the time.  It’s one of the shortest seasons in the church year, but one of the longest seasons of our lives: the season of waiting.

And we need to practice waiting well.  Advent can do that, for the secular and the religious alike.

And I’m a reluctant Christian at times because most of the Christian world just skips right over it in deference to “defending Christmas” or focusing on music rather than meaning, or just abandoning it all together because, who cares?

Who cares?

That’s a question I’ve asked myself many times while waiting  as both ends of the wick burn, as patience runs thin, as the meagerness of my existence comes colliding with the immensity of the existing world and I feel like a measly piece of nothingness against it all.

And I don’t have time for nothingness.

Who cares?

Advent’s answer to that question is, “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near.  Wait for the Lord; be strong take heart.”

I don’t like answers.  I like questions.  But when all I have are questions, Advent’s response is balm for a weary soul.

On Death and Christmas Eve

In those days a decree went IMG_1595out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In “those days…”

Those days.

I wonder when “those days” are supposed to be.

I have “those days.”

Those days when everything seems to be amiss.

Those days when it appears that love has hitchhiked to the next county and isn’t coming back; when loneliness has set in to the point that darkness seems like it will never leave.

Those days when the world has turned all around to the point that up and down are no longer real directions because I don’t recognize where I am in life, let alone which way is positive and which way is negative, which way leads to life and which to death.

In “those days…”

In those days of Jesus’ birth there was peace.  Pax Romana, we call it, the “Roman Peace” brought on through imperial domination.

Rome won all the wars.  It forced people to be peaceful…according to the Roman definition of “peace” which sometimes involved people being hung from crosses or eaten by wild beasts for sport.   Not exactly a Christmasy sentiment…

In those days of Jesus’ birth counting people was the task at hand.  How many are here?  We have to have the numbers if we’re going to assess how much people are worth, after all.  Your taxes were directly dependent upon your citizenship and status.

In those days people’s worth and wealth were directly connected.

That, in many ways, doesn’t only sound like “those days”…it sounds a lot like “to-day.”

Luke’s beginning to this most memorable reading sets us squarely in place.  I imagine he’s expecting us to land in the first century when Quirinius is governor of Syria.

But it also sets us squarely in “those days.”  Those days when it seems like there’s nothing left to us and everything is going cold.  Where we try to force ourselves into a peaceful state, only to fall back into darkness.

Much like the cold of Christmas Eve night.  Much like the darkness of Christmas Eve night.

I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s worth repeating, Christmas Eve reminds me a lot of our other big late-into-the-evening-I’m-so-sleepy-why-am-I-here? service: The Easter Vigil.

Because this, too, is a vigil.

The Easter vigil is where we await the resurrection, where God brings life out of death.

But Christmas Eve is a different sort of vigil.

Instead of waiting for resurrection, on Christmas Eve night we await a death.

Now, I know that might be surprising to hear, especially because Christmas is all about babies being born and cookies frosted and ringing bells and warm feelings.

But, trust me: this waiting for a death is a good thing.

Christmas Eve we keep vigil, waiting for the Emmanuel, the God-with-us, once again, so that “those days” can die.

Those days when we feel unloving and unloveable.  Those days when we feel we aren’t worth it.  Those days when we fear that our lives are purposeless, that our existence is accident, that our only hope is in our hands or in our emptying bank accounts or in…nothing.

Those days when we try to force peace upon our lives but fail as we’re devoured by the beasts of greed, fear, anxiety and hung on the cross of our ego…

On Christmas Eve we light a candle, we celebrate the silence of the night as “those days” gives out one last gasping breath and we remember that those days are gone if the Nativity story is true.

Joy to the world.  Joy to you and me.  “Those days” are gone.

God rest ye merry gentlemen and gentlewoman, “those days” have only the power we allow them to have because their real power is gone.

We wish you a merry Christmas because “those days” are impotent.

So forget about whether or not the Nativity is factually real in all its glorious, romantic detail.  Theologically it is real in the most true sense of the word!

Because in “those days” God saw fit to show humanity, show us, that we have purpose enough for God to take on our form and show love.  That we are deliberately and wonderfully made in our existence.  That our hope is not in our hands or our emptying bank accounts, but in the hands of the small babe on that night when heaven was emptied so that the earth might know the fullness of God’s love.

Christmas Eve celebrates that those days are gone, and new day has begun.  A day full of God’s grace shown in the smallness of kicking legs and infant cries; a grace so vulnerable that even you and I can approach it with the assurance that it does not harm but only helps.

Such is God’s nature; such is God’s grace.

That night, light a candle to the death of those days.  And as we pass that flame from one candle to the next, we’ll create new light with all of our waxy ends, reminding us that the darkness of those days is dispelled on Christmas Eve night.

The night of the newborn baby.

The night of the new light.

The death of “those days.”

Merry Christmas.