This is the third Sunday of advent, 2011. We have been seeking to "pump up the volume" (so to speak) of our holiday sensitivities by delving (a little deeper than usual) into the resonance of archetypal symbologies. Last week we talked a lot about the cycles of the sun in its yearly passage between darkness and light; we also talked about light in general, as it shines symbolically forth from candles, and Christmas tree lights, and angels, etc. We also have suggested that this time of year awakens in us ancient memories of primordial man, remembering, in us, his magical tales--we have suggested that, in the waning of the light, there is both hope for the future and a nostalgic descent into pre-conscious mind states where live the elves, and gnomes and fauns of a fairyland that long ago disappeared in the mists of time.
On such residual elf, who haunts the edges of our Christmas Mind, is Santa Claus. Santa Claus is constantly paraded before our eyes at this time of year, so many of our thoughts are unavoidably diverted to him. I though it would be fun (in the best possible sense of the word) to present something on Santa Claus, and see if he is a good guy or not.
Of course, the greatest Santa Claus movie of all time is Miracle on 34th St. That movie's invocation of faith, in a materialistic world, is a message that will bear repeating until the end of time. But it is not the classic Natalie Wood movie I wish to quote first, but a remake of Miracle on 34th St. with little original speech inserted by John Hughes:
"Santa Claus: I'm not just a whimsical figure who wears a charming suit and affects a jolly demeanor, you know; I'm a symbol--I'm a symbol of the human ability to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives. And if you can't accept anything on faith, then you're doomed to a life dominated by doubt."
Thus, even in the most popular, commercial productions in the mainstream, Santa Claus and faith are intimately linked. The question of whether you should teach your kids about Santa Claus, or not, calls into question, at a basic level, just how deeply committed you are to living a life that affirms the existence of things not seen. The Baptists insist, against all reasonable scientific proof, that the world was created in six days, and yet many of the grown-up Baptists DON'T believe in Santa Claus. Whassup wit dat? I say that these two scenarios, Creationism and Santa Claus, call forth qualities of belief that have much in common with each other. The suspension of rational constraints in favor of an impulse of the heart, an impulse of desire, and an openness to the possibilities of the miraculous, is at the root of all faithful thoughts, and is the impetus behind all faithful acts.
Wikipedia makes this comment concerning the LIE of Santa Claus:
". . . it is perhaps "kinship with the adult world" that causes children not to be angry that they were lied to for so long. The criticism about this deception is not that it is a simple lie, but a complicated series of very large lies. The objections to the lie are that it is unethical for parents to lie to children without good cause, and that it discourages healthy skepticism in children. With no greater good at the heart of the lie, it is charged that it is more about the parents than it is about the children. Writer Austin Cline posed the question: "Is it not possible that kids would find at least as much pleasure in knowing that parents are responsible for Christmas, not a supernatural stranger?"
Others, however, see no harm in the belief in Santa Claus. Psychologist Tamar Murachver said that because it is a cultural, not parental, lie, it does not undermine parental trust. The New Zealand Skeptics also see no harm in parents telling their children that Santa is real. Spokesperson Vicki Hyde said, "It would be a hard-hearted parent indeed who frowned upon the innocent joys of our children's cultural heritage. We save our bah humbugs for the things that exploit the vulnerable." It can also be advocated that, although Santa Claus isn't real, the Christmas spirit is real."
[Sidebar: I think that Santa Claus is part of the "spirit of Christmas" in this way: by teaching the children to be open to the magical, irrational dimensions of life we are preparing them to buy into the bigger, more significant acts of faith that are to come. Believing in Santa Claus is kind of like doing little faith warm-ups, little faithy push-ups, before you have to carry that weight up the hill. And even after the mystique of Santa Claus has been penetrated and dispensed with, the MAGIC is still there--we can never UNLEARN Santa Claus.]
Back to Wikipedia:
"Dr. John Condry of Cornell University interviewed more than 500 children for a study of the issue and found that not a single child was angry at his or her parents for telling them Santa Claus was real. According to Dr. Condry, "The most common response to finding out the truth was that they felt older and more mature. They now knew something that the younger kids did not".
The other side of the debate concludes with another referenced quote of:
There are three stages of a man’s life:
He believes in Santa Claus,
he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus,
he is Santa Claus. -
Author Unknown "
Perhaps, before we get into Santa Claus, we should get into this whole deal of gift-giving. The Wise Men usually take the rap for originating this tradition. It seems natural, that in this time of weakest sunlight, darkest day, that something to enhance our feeling of safety and abundance should emerge to counter the lengthening shadows. Furthermore, the gifts of the Wise Men were given to Jesus' family in their extremity. As I mentioned last week, the gifts of the Magi included not only monetary insurance again the rigors of exile, but also some kingly pleasures thrown in, so that even a poor Jewish couple on the lam might enjoy a few kingly comforts in their idle hours. So too, may we ensconce ourselves in the comforts of the season as the luxuries combat the fear attached to the diminishing sun.
But last week Wikipedia gave us a little something extra to attach to the first Christmas presents; they reminded us that even Christmas presents have both a practical and a symbolic value:
"The legend of the three priest-sages, the three kings, was linked with the Christ Birth Festival. They brought to the Child gold, the symbol of the wisdom-filled outer man; myrrh, the symbol of life's victory over death, and finally, frankincense, the symbol of the cosmic ether in which the spirit lives."
Also from Wikipedia, we read:
"The exchanging of gifts is one of the core aspects of the modern Christmas celebration, making the Christmas season the most profitable time of year for retailers and businesses throughout the world. Gift giving was common in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, an ancient festival which took place in late December and may have influenced Christmas customs. Christmas gift giving was banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins. It was later rationalized by the Church on the basis that it associated St. Nicholas with Christmas, and that gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were given to the infant Jesus by the Biblical Magi."
From C.S.Lewis' “What Christmas Means to Me” in God in the Dock:
"Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn't go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business to have a 'view' on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs. But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone's business.
I mean of course the commercial racket. The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers."
So, you can see there is controversy over the proper mix of spirituality and materialism involved in the giving of Christmas presents. I admit it, I like lots of presents around the tree (these days, it's in your Amazon.com bill, but oh, well). I like the feeling that once a year we are allowed to revel in the abundance God has blessed us with. I love to say, with the African Chief in Isak Dineson's book, Out of Africa:
"God give me enough and more than enough."
Living on "just enough" carries with it its own joy, because living on faith relieves us of SO many burdens--still, over-abundance once in a while is a welcome, if only temporary, change. I have lived on "just enough" for most of my life, and this has trained me be a real enthusiastic appreciator of abundance when it pays a brief visit.
Now let's take a closer look at the non plus ultra of all gift givers, Santa Claus:
We begin with the article in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
"Santa Claus has a Dutch origin. He was developed from St. Nicholas who was a real person. St. Nicholas, was the patron saint of school boys. He brought gifts to the children. The idea that Santa Claus comes down the chimney originated in Norway, where children hang Christmas stockings on the fireplace mantel. Christmas trees have pagan origins. When pagans became Christian, they used evergreens (a sacred tree) for the holiday by decorating them with nuts and candles. They sang Christmas carols as they danced around the Christmas tree.
The modern portrayal of Santa Claus frequently depicts him listening to the Christmas wishes of young children.
Santa Claus, usually abbreviated Santa, is a figure in North American culture who reflects an amalgamation of the Dutch Sinterklaas, the English Father Christmas, and Christmas gift-bringers in other traditions. Santa Claus is said to bring gifts to the homes of good children during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve, December 24. Santa Claus in this contemporary understanding echoes aspects of hagiographical tales[From the Greek (h)ağios (ἅγιος, "holy" or "saint") and graphēin (γράφειν, "to write"), it refers literally to writings on the subject of such holy people, and specifically to the biographies of saints and ecclesiastical leaders.]
concerning the historical figure of gift-giver Saint Nicholas, the man from whom the name of Santa Claus derives and in whose honor Santa Claus may be referred to as Saint Nicholas or Saint Nick.
Santa Claus is generally depicted as a plump, jolly, white-bearded man wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers, and black leather belt and boots (images of him rarely have a beard with no moustache). This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast.This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children's books and films. The North American depiction of Santa Claus as it developed in the 19th and 20th century in turn influenced the modern perceptions of Father Christmas, Sinterklaas and Saint Nicholas in European culture.
According to a tradition which can be traced to the 1820s, Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, with a large number of magical elves, and nine (originally eight) flying reindeer. Since the 20th century, in an idea popularized by the 1934 song "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town", Santa Claus has been believed to make a list of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior ("naughty" or "nice") and to deliver presents, including toys, and candy to all of the good boys and girls in the world, and sometimes coal to the naughty children, on the single night of Christmas Eve. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of the elves who make the toys in the workshop and the reindeer who pull his sleigh.
Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Sinterklaas. He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany) he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.
In 1087, the Italian city of Bari, wanting to enter the profitable pilgrimage industry of the times, mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Christian Saint and procure his remains. The reliquary of St. Nicholas was desecrated by Italian sailors and the spoils, including his relics, taken to Bari where they are kept to this day. A basilica was constructed the same year to store the loot and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout, thus justifying the economic cost of the expedition. Saint Nicholas was later claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers. He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.
Despite Santa Claus's mixed Christian roots, he has become a secular representation of Christmas. As such, some Protestants dislike the secular focus on Santa Claus and the materialist focus that gift giving brings to the holiday. Such a condemnation of Christmas is not a 20th century phenomenon, but originated among some Protestant groups of the 16th century and was prevalent among the Puritans of 17th century England and colonial America who banned the holiday as either pagan or Roman Catholic. Christmas was made legal with the Restoration but the Puritan opposition to the holiday persisted in New England for almost two centuries.
Following the Restoration of the monarchy and with Puritans out of power in England, the ban on Christmas was satirized in works such as Josiah King's The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas; Together with his Clearing by the Jury (1686)."
The following is from the Diary of Dolly Lunt Burge, a Maine native, widow of Thomas Burge, and resident living ca. 40 miles southeast of Atlanta near Covington, Georgia. This entry from Mrs. Burge's diary was five weeks after most of General T. Sherman's U.S. Army forces had passed on their blackened-earth "march across Georgia" toward Savanna, after the army's destruction of Atlanta in mid-November, 1864. U.S. Army mop-up companies and stragglers during those intervening weeks continued to "forage", loot, burn, and abduct ex-slaves reluctant to leave their families and friends, hence, the concern of Mrs. Burge and her household.
"December 24, 1864. This has usually been a very busy day with me, preparing for Christmas not only for my own tables, but for gifts for my servants. Now how changed! No confectionary, cakes, or pies can I have. We are all sad; no loud, jovial laugh from our boys is heard. Christmas Eve, which has ever been gaily celebrated here, which has witnessed the popping of firecrackers … and the hanging up of stockings, is an occasion now of sadness and gloom. I have nothing even to put in [8-yr-old daughter] Sadai's stocking, which hangs so invitingly for Santa Claus. How disappointed she will be in the morning, though I have explained to her why he cannot come. Poor children! Why must the innocent suffer with the guilty?"
"In 1821, the book A New-year's present, to the little ones from five to twelve is published in New York. It contains Old Santeclaus, an anonymous poem describing an old man on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. Some modern ideas of Santa Claus seemingly became canon after the publication of the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas") in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823 anonymously; the poem was later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. Many of his modern attributes are established in this poem, such as riding in a sleigh that lands on the roof, entering through the chimney, and having a bag full of toys."
Last week What'sYourSign.com provided us with a nice folk version of this tradition's origin:
There is a legend associated with the origin of Christmas stockings. St. Nick, who wanted to remain anonymous and help a poor family, threw gold coins down their chimney. They fell into a stocking that was hanging there to dry."
Back to Wikipedia:
"St. Nick is described as being "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf" with "a little round belly", that "shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly", in spite of which the "miniature sleigh" and "tiny reindeer" still indicate that he is physically diminutive.
As years pass, Santa Claus evolves in popular culture into a large, heavyset person. An 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast, together with Clement Clarke Moore, helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus.
L. Frank Baum's The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, a 1902 children's book, further popularized Santa Claus. Much of Santa Claus’s mythos was not set in stone at the time, leaving Baum to give his "Neclaus" (Necile’s Little One) a wide variety of immortal support, a home in the Laughing Valley of Hohaho, and ten reindeer—who could not fly, but leapt in enormous, flight-like bounds. Claus's immortality was earned, much like his title ("Santa"), decided by a vote of those naturally immortal. This work also established Claus’s motives: a happy childhood among immortals. When Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, exposes him to the misery and poverty of children in the outside world, Santa strives to find a way to bring joy into the lives of all children, and eventually invents toys as a principal means.
Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was invented by The Coca-Cola Company or that Santa wears red and white because they are the colors used to promote the Coca-Cola brand. Historically, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising – White Rock Beverages had already used a red and white Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and then in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923. In fact, Santa Claus had already appeared in red and white on the cover of Puck magazine at the start of the century.Santa's main distribution center is a sight to behold. At 4,000,000 square feet (370,000 m2), it's one of the world's largest facilities. A real-time warehouse management system (WMS) is of course required to run such a complex. The facility makes extensive use of task interleaving, literally combining dozens of DC activities (putaway, replenishing, order picking, sleigh loading, cycle counting) in a dynamic queue...the DC elves have been on engineered standards and incentives for three years, leading to a 12% gain in productivity...The WMS and transportation system are fully integrated, allowing (the elves) to make optimal decisions that balance transportation and order picking and other DC costs. Unbeknownst to many, Santa actually has to use many sleighs and fake Santa drivers to get the job done Christmas Eve, and the transportation management system (TMS) optimally builds thousands of consolidated sacks that maximize cube utilization and minimize total air miles.
Symbol of Commercialism
In his book Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus, writer Jeremy Seal describes how the commercialization of the Santa Claus figure began in the 19th century. "In the 1820s he began to acquire the recognizable trappings: reindeer, sleigh, bells," said Seal in an interview. "They are simply the actual bearings in the world from which he emerged. At that time, sleighs were how you got about Manhattan."
Writing in Mothering, writer Carol Jean-Swanson makes similar points, noting that the original figure of St. Nicholas gave only to those who were needy and that today Santa Claus seems to be more about conspicuous consumption:"Our jolly old Saint Nicholas reflects our culture to a T, for he is fanciful, exuberant, bountiful, over-weight, and highly commercial. He also mirrors some of our highest ideals: childhood purity and innocence, selfless giving, unfaltering love, justice, and mercy. (What child has ever received a coal for Christmas?) The problem is that, in the process, he has become burdened with some of society's greatest challenges: materialism, corporate greed, and domination by the media. Here, Santa carries more in his baggage than toys alone!"
So, Santa Claus is a spirit, a feeling, a symbol, an icon? Do we see God in Santa's jolly eyes, do we hear angels singing in his merry laugh? I tell you, I LIKE Santa Claus, and I enjoy the dreamworld that he brings down the chimney. I think he may be the nicest fusion of spirituality and materialism there is: as we have mentioned repeatedly of the parable, an historic event may resonate on many levels of meaning at the same time. I think the un-self-conscious joy of Santa Claus may be said to sum up the bottom line of a life of faith--Happiness.
Let us pray: Jesus, as the time of your arrival approaches, let us glory in the gift, and pass it on as we may, in guise of austere nobility of the east, or a red-coated circus clown. Let them dance together high atop camel and chimney, and drop down their showers of blessings upon us. As the African chief says to the sunrise:
"Oh God give me enough and more than enough!"
Let us realize we have everything we need already, and here it comes again, hooyah! Amen.