I have spent much of my life being resolutely anti-Santa Claus. In this day and age of government surveillance, it is difficult to fully get behind the inherent creepiness of the idea that a fat old man is watching you from a northern surveillance post, and that day and night his co-workers are categorizing everything that you do as either “naughty” or “nice”. It is bizarre that we warn our children to be wary of treat- bearing strangers for eleven and a half months of the year and then suddenly in mid-December insist that toddlers climb on a strange man’s lap while pictures are taken of them eating candy. As children get older, we suggest that all their dreams will come true if only they whisper their secrets to a manic fellow in outlandish attire or mail a letter to a fictional address. As a culture, we send a false message that Santa loves all children equally, when the savage truth we all know is that on Christmas morning, wealthy children will wake up to a shiny new bicycle and ipad and iphone wrapped in designer paper with glittering bows while maybe the only thing that the children in East Oakland or Marin City wake up to is a doll that was in the clearance rack of WalMart. As a child growing up in a struggling family, I had the painful sense that I wasn’t as “good” as some of my wealthier friends because Santa brought them so many more presents. The basic premise that inner goodness will manifest in material abundance is a dangerous tale I have never wanted to help perpetrate.
Beyond that, I resolved as a young mother that I would never intentionally lie to my daughter, and that necessitated the decision to omit cultural frauds. I had never gotten over the feeling of betrayal I experienced as a seven year old when I found out that there was no Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus or Easter Bunny, that it had all been an adult conspiracy with me as the naïve subject. My mother was unusually creative and clever: every year, we put out cookies and milk for Santa, and even dogfood for Rudolph. I remember the thrill of magic when I was six and found the empty plate with crumbs and the letter of gratitude which Santa had left me. The following summer, my babysitter’s older, smug daughter mocked me, “You still believe in Santa Claus?”. I was ready to resort to violent action until Deidre led me step by painful step to the revelation of the irrefutable truth: the letter from Santa that I cherished was written in my mother’s elegant sloping handwriting. I was devastated: if Santa Claus wasn’t true, what else in my life was a lie? Alot of people have this same experience when the "magic" of the Bible is unwoven with historical analysis- a topic I'll return to tomorrow. If the Herod of the Bible didn't exist, what else is false? If Mary wasn't a virgin the way we hold that word now, does the entire story of the Christian faith evaporate?
I heard a story last year that made me feel quite a bit better about Santa Claus, and might be a good preparation for talking about the Nativity narratives, the subject of tomorrow's blog. One day, a dejected seven year old arrived at his grandmother’s house with tear-stained cheeks. When pressed, he confessed to Grandma Rose that he had just been told that Santa Claus was not real. Grandma Rose puffed up with indignation insisted, “ Oh, yes he is! Come with me!”. Together they drove to the mall. Grandma Rose turned to little George and said, “Do you know someone who is in real need, someone who really needs something?”. George thought for a bit and then nodded, “ I know! Kevin needs a coat. He has to stay in the classroom at recess because he doesn’t have a coat”. Grandma Rose said, “Okay! Let’s go buy Kevin a coat!”. And so they went into Target and found a sturdy and warm waterproof jacket. They placed it in a big red bag with candycanes and Kevin’s name on it, and then drove over to Kevin's run-down house. Grandma Rose told George to quietly sneak up the steps, leave the package on the dilapidated porch and ring the rusty doorbell. Together, they hid in the bushes to watch what happened next. Kevin came out, looked around, saw the package, and then burst into tears when he opened it. Shouting out to his mother, “ I got a coat! I got a coat!”, he whirled around in wonder with his little hands stuffed in the warm pockets and his small sandy head covered in the sheltering woolly hood. As grandmother and grandson climbed back into the car, Rose turned to George and says, “ Don’t you ever let anyone tell you that Santa Claus isn’t real. Today, YOU were Santa Claus”.
This spirit of Santa Claus would be recognized by a different name by Teresa of Avila, who wrote:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Does what name we call a spirit of generosity and compassion matter? I doubt it. But it may be important to separate facts from legends, historical events from mytho-poetic symbols lest the young ones amongst us and within us lose hope that everything is a lie when they discover that there is no toyshop at the North Pole and that Jesus wasn't born in a manger on December 25. I invite you to ponder these question: what are the different kinds of truth that I have known? What things have I experienced as really real that maybe didn't ever happen after all? How do I know? And how does it change my view of life if I look through a literal lens or a symbolic one?