This Christmas my daughter asked the question many parents have to address sooner or later, “Is Santa real?” I took a breath. If I tell her, "No, he's just make believe," I could crush her and stunt her imagination before she even turns six. Besides, for kids if they can feel it or imagine it, it's as "real" as the nose on their faces, something as a writer I find easy to admire in kids. So it could be best just to go along with it. But if I say "Yes, he is," I could just be propagating the common Christmas heresy.
“Yes, he's real,” I said. “Does he know what I’m doing and what I’m thinking?” she asked. Apparently this had been on her mind after a few introductions to him at school and from the media. “No, he doesn’t know that,” I said.
Our natural impulse may be to disavow the roly poly man in a silly red suit who monopolizes the season. The festive figure streaking across the sky with reindeer, after all, is most likely inspired by a Norse god, not by the Christ of Christmas. And in North American tradition that formidable sleigh ride is really a guilt trip loaded with not only presents but also the expectations and conditions that come with them, which only make us depressed at Christmas rather than overjoyed at God’s unmerited grace.
But let’s take a deep breath before going off on Santa and banning him locks, stockings, and barrel chest. Aside from these pagan influences, Santa’s earliest roots are in a real life church bishop of long ago. That is, originally, he’s actually a real Christ-believing, historic figure.
Granted, your kids may not be too inspired by a history lesson on this point. Trying to demythologize a beloved icon in the heat of elated expectations we may find to be an exhausting battle we'd rather not get into. We might be better served bringing Santa down to earth rather than denying him any presence (pardon the pun) in Christmas at all. I’d like to suggest simply treating Santa as more human, like the rest of us, a joyful advocate of Christmas. I’m sure God has plenty of room in the stable for him, too.
In our bedtime stories he’s the same old happy, generous soul, but he gets hungry and tired and has problems like the rest of us. He’s limited. For instance, he can’t possibly make it to all the homes in one night, so he has lots of help. And (this is crucial) he’s always a notch below Mom and Dad. He never gets to steal our thunder. Mom and Dad’s names are always attached to the best gifts such as the doll house or scooter. Santa gives little cheap things. It’s the only way he can handle the whole world on his budget. He’s a welcome guest at our dinner table, our imaginary friend, a bit of an over-eater, but we all have our vices. He is also not allowed to steal Jesus' thunder. In one of our stories, Santa joins the family at our Christmas Eve service and learns about the true meaning of Christmas, quite taken by a self-giving God. So, Santa learns where the “spirit of giving” originates.
Isn’t this mash up of Christmas just weak-kneed compromise? Rather, I'd like to think I’m trying to make him more human. To others this version of Santa may rob our kids of some of the Christmas magic. Are we taking the wonder out of Christmas? Again, I don’t think so. Ask my daughter today if Santa is real, and she’ll flash you a big smile, “Definitely!”
Santa’s still a fantasy character in her mind, just a little more down to earth, a little less endowed with magical power, taking a little lower status in our Christmas. And once he is put in his place, it’s also much easier to get a proper grip on the commercialism that entangles this blessed season. And most importantly, when he’s in his place, the Christ of Christmas can take his proper place, leaving lots of room for “what Christmas is all about” as my daughter is fond of saying.
Kaitlyn: Do you believe in God?
Dad: Yes, I do.
K: I don’t.
D: Why not?
K: I just don’t. I don’t see him. (pointing) He’s not there. He’s not there. Where is he?
My heart sinks with such a demand for hard evidence from my little girl. Is this some conversation she's heard elsewhere? I thought we were farther than this. But then even 5-year-olds can go through periods of doubt. I stay with it.
D: Well, some things we can’t see.
D: Just because we don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Can you see the wind?
K: Yeah, when the trees blow.
D: That’s actually the effect of the wind, not the wind. The wind makes the trees blow, but we can’t really see the wind. Watch. (I blow into the air.) Did you see the wind come out of my mouth?
K: I could smell it! (laughs)
D: Ha, ha. But you couldn’t see it, right? That’s what God is like.
K: God is the stinky wind?
D: No. He made the wind? And you and everything else. That’s how we know God. By what he’s made and by what he does.
K: But you and Mom made me.
D: Okay, true. But who made Mom and Dad? (crossing my fingers, hoping she gets my drift)
A couple of days later, Dad is driving to Ikea with Kaitlyn, who is carefully observing everything as she loves doing from the back seat.
Kaitlyn: Dad, did God make the trees?
K: Did he make that? (pointing to the grand Alex Fraser Bridge rising above the Fraser River)
D: Well, yes, sort of. He made people with the brains and imagination to make the bridge.
K: Did God make that? (pointing to a big box store)
D: No, he had nothing to do with that.
K: But you said he made everything.
D: Not ugly things.
K: Then why are we going there?
D: To get some ugly things.
It was getting more and more challenging. After the conversation, I had to check myself. Is God the God of ugly things? Isaiah, when he forecasts the coming of Jesus says that Jesus would have “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” and that he would be “like one from whom people hide their faces.” I.e. Jesus would never make the cover of G.Q. So, why should it be so surprising if he have a special affinity with ugly things?
Kaitlyn insists that the angels and shepherds in the Christmas story should get married. Does the idea repulse us? God's angels so intimately relating with smelly, dirty sheep herders who have dung under their nails? Does it repulse God? Is it merely a quaint suggestion, not to be taken seriously?
We can argue by our personal criteria whether certain things or persons are ugly or worthy of our esteem. We can argue whether or not God “made them” or approves of them. But it’s abundantly evident from the beginning of Jesus’ story to the end that God identifies intimately with all of it, beautiful and ugly, sometimes with compassion and sometimes with judgement, but always with love.
I started writing these posts thinking of them as interruptions of grace in the ordinary and mundane events of life.