During the Season of Advent, a year ago, I missed a parcel delivery to my home, and was left a note in the post box to inform me that a parcel was waiting for me at the local Australia Post Office. So after my regular Saturday morning tennis session, I drove to the shop to pick up the parcel. What I had forgotten was that there would be a very long queue, due to the Christmas Season and the enormous mail out of parcels. The queue was that long that it would eventually take me 35 minutes to get to the counter. At the halfway point of my waiting, and after having had a few conversations, a man a few customers in front of me who had not said a word until then, picked up a call on his mobile phone. The conversation that I overheard went like this: “Yes sweetheart. [Pause] Yes, Santa Claus is real! [Pause]. No, Jesus is not real! [Pause] No, sweetheart, Jesus is just a story made up by the Catholics who want you to go to Church! [Pause] Okay honey? [Pause] I’ll be home soon. Love you too.”
- Church and life: Ambivalent Hypocrisy (cf. Mark 2: 27)
- A Question of Honour (cf. Isaiah 53)
- Hide and Go Seek (cf. Psalm 62: 5)
I have heard many opinions in my life about Religion, Christianity and Faith, and I know that we live in a nation, in what many describe to be a post-Christian era, but here was a man, parcel in hand, evidently a father, who was about 45 years of age, completely writing out of the CHRISTmas narrative – CHRIST. He wasn’t doing it as some kind of attempt to shock the people around him; he spoke kindly and lovingly to his child in order to placate their fears that perhaps Santa Claus was not a reality. After he concluded the call he calmly pocketed the mobile phone, and went on waiting for his turn to post his parcel. He was oblivious that a third-party had heard the remarks that he had made to his child.
It is this reputation of gift giving that brings St. Nicholas closer to the Christmas Story; that, and also how he died a few weeks shy of Christmas Day, in which his Feast Day is now celebrated on the 6th of December, in the Western Calendar, and the 19th of December according to the Eastern Calendar.
What struck me about this conversation were three things: first, the blasé manner as to how he completely refuted the birth of Christ and Christ’s historical significance; second, that he singled out ‘Catholics’ as being the purveyors of the ‘Christmas lie/myth’; third, the tone of the father’s voice was filled with such love and care, in that the child who listened to their father’s words, could not help but think that they came from a place of Truth. He spoke to his child beautifully.
Being a Catholic of the Byzantine Rite, I am more than aware of the historical reality of St. Nicholas of Myra (270 – 342), an Eastern Rite Bishop who was a key figure at the Council of Nicaea, in the debate as to the nature of the Incarnation. Aside from his erudition, legend ascribes that St. Nicholas was a very generous man, regularly giving gifts to the poor. It is this reputation of gift giving that brings St. Nicholas closer to the Christmas Story; that, and also how he died a few weeks shy of Christmas Day, in which his Feast Day is now celebrated on the 6th of December, in the Western Calendar, and the 19th of December according to the Eastern Calendar. Overtime St. Nicholas’ name was abbreviated to Sankt Klaus, ‘Klaus’ being a dimunitive for the German equivalent, Niklaus (Nicholas). The term, ‘Santa Claus’ is the popular Americanization of Sankt Klaus, or Saint Klaus. The contemporary image we have of Santa Claus in western nations was popularized by the cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840 – 1902), a German born immigrant to the United States, who in the 1866 Christmas edition of the journal Harper’s gave life to the Santa Claus we know today, including his living at the North Pole. From this time on Santa Claus, the myth would steadily develop: Santa would be dressed in Coca Cola red and white, be married to a wife, Anna, and fly through the air with a team of reindeers delivering gifts on Christmas Eve, with an army of elves assisting him to make presents for children who have been good during the year. Santa would have a stream of songs sung about him – embellishing the legend. Christmas would in time become synonomous with Santa, but soon, Santa would have to take a back seat to the insatiable craving for gifts – losing out later to the Boxing Day Sale – cutting to the heart of the modern western Christmas Tradition – Materialism. Yet somewhere in a very distant shadow, there hangs in a Church an icon of Bishop St. Nicholas of Myra, preaching about the miraculous gift of the Incarnation of Christ, born in a stable in Bethlehem, for our salvation. All the while empty churches, now compete with the more expanded opening hours of major shopping malls. The majority of people today thank God for Boxing Day, a time they can purchase White Goods, cheaply, and wonder how they can keep the extended holiday in the future without being called hypocritical for not believing in Christ. Those sober enough, live anxiously for when the Government knocks on their door in the near future, to ask them to go to work, on a day they no longer celebrate for the reason first intended. It is hoped that on that day, the inflatable Santa they have in the lounge room will be large enough for them to hide behind!
Yet somewhere in a very distant shadow, there hangs in a Church an icon of Bishop St. Nicholas of Myra, preaching about the miraculous gift of the Incarnation of Christ, born in a stable in Bethlehem, for our salvation.
Myth, legend and story, all have their place in culture. In fact, the Sankt Klaus tradition was originally morphed with pagan myth in the Germanic world. But a major problem exists when myth leads the human psyche so far away from religious reality, that what should have once enhanced the celebration now creates such a fog over the Christmas story that the story is lost, and the myth embraced. A serious danger exists that the myth placed beside the miraculous, makes the miraculous seem but another myth. Can we not believe that reindeers fly, in the same vein, as we believe that God was born of a Virgin? A father in a Post Office can easily tell his child of the Nativity story being a tale, and the Santa Claus story being the centrifugal force around which Christmas gets its life, because to him, both are pure fantasy.
Another problem of the Santa myth, is that we all know that it is a myth. We receive enjoyment by carefully sculpting the myth in order for our children to believe it, for as long as is possible – knowing full well, that most likely before they reach their first decade of life, they will realize that what they had been told by the people who most love them, their parents, was a lie.
Another problem of the Santa myth, is that we all know that it is a myth. We receive enjoyment by carefully sculpting the myth in order for our children to believe it, for as long as is possible – knowing full well, that most likely before they reach their first decade of life, they will realize that what they had been told by the people who most love them, their parents, was a lie. They have been lied to, for the benefit of their parent’s enjoyment. We do run the risk that in this process we make our children cynical about believing in the miraculous. The children may become desensitized to the possibility of the supernatural – because everything is a myth, and Christmas not only becomes the story of a great Child – but a great children’s tale; a quaint ‘master-myth’ among myth.
As I write this piece, a colleague at work has just walked in and told me that he had to sit down his eleven year old son last November to confirm that his son understood that Santa Claus does not exist. His son still believed in the myth; but the time now came to make sure that the boy on the verge of teenage years did not attend school in the New Year and speak about Santa Claus as a reality. The question I asked my colleague: was why did you create and foster a myth in the mind of your child, that you knew you eventually had to tear down? The telling of a child that Santa Claus does not exist, becomes painful, so why create this scenario in the first place? In a world of fake news and fake heroes – why bring up our children to believe in the existence of another fake? The most probable answer is that we promote the myth of Santa – because we borrow from our parents. If it was good enough for our parents to deliver this to us – it is good enough for our children as well.
The most probable answer is that we promote the myth of Santa – because we borrow from our parents. If it was good enough for our parents to deliver this to us – it is good enough for our children as well.
Still more scandolous is the creation of the Easter Bunny, who like Santa Claus is sacrosanct – and should you speak publically against either in a forum of children, there is no end of vitriol from parents; although one can quite readily blaspheme and reject the Gospel records of the Incarnation and Resurrection, without stirring even a whimper from these same adults. I suspect that no Parish will publish this essay verbatim., for they do not wish to risk the anger of the community, who will defend the honour of Santa and Bunny, with more passion than defending the honour of Our Lady.
But can we live without Santa Claus? Certainly, the Americanization of Sankt Klaus is a recent phenomenon, far less than two hundred years old. Perhaps if we re-discover the meaning of the Christmas Story, as well as the Easter Story, we will begin to discover something deep about ourselves and others.
Perhaps if we re-discover the meaning of the Christmas Story, as well as the Easter Story, we will begin to discover something deep about ourselves and others.
Do we need Santa to teach us about generosity? No. We can learn this from the sacrifices and love shown to us by our parents, family and friends and their gift-giving, of various types and levels. We do not have to be slaves, manipulated by the corporate myth of ‘Santa’, every year adulterating the story in order to best suit the marketing strategy. Isn’t the reality of Faith in God, and love within the Family and community, far more worth fostering than a Christmas devoid of Christ? We need to be very careful, to be a joyful people, but simultaneously, a wise people, understanding the difference between the real and the mythical, and not selling the former in order to purchase the latter.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper