As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing.”- Luke 2:15, The Message
The other day at work, the issue came up among the moms hanging out at the Baker lunch table. I was mostly eavesdropping, but I heard what I expected to hear: a variety of responses and opinions that eventually opened up into people telling their own stories, of how they knew or when they found out. I refer to “The Santa Question,” the state of one’s upbringing when it comes to the red-suited man as well as whether one will raise one’s own children to believe that Santa is Real.
I’ve been pondering this question for some time, with no real sure-fire answer. I know that for a while I was a hard-core believer, and then for a while I wasn’t sure. And then one night I asked my mom, “Who really buys the presents?” and she answered honestly and I cried and cried. And that even this year there will be a wrapped present under the tree with the words “to Laura, from Santa” on it, and that it will make me smile. Here’s what else:
I love stories. And at its heart, that’s what the Santa thing really is – a story, expanded and commercialized over time, but a story nonetheless, about a Greek bishop who heard of a poor man who had no dowry for his three daughters, who, being unamrried and unemployed, probably would have to turn to prostitution. To save the girls from ruin and their father from humiliation, Nicholas secretly threw three purses full of money into their window one night, enough for a dowry for each girl. (Thanks, Wikipedia. That was a new one for me.) Essentially, we’re talking here about a holiday tradition centering around a man who selflessly gave out of his own wealth to others who were in need. That’s a GREAT story! I kinda love it, and there are dozens and dozens of other examples around the world. The power of Story to illustrate noble actions and spur readers to the same is strong and potent.
For a lot of Christians, and Christian parents, the tension reflected in the quotes above (one cinematic, one Biblical) comes in when we are asked to believe (or tell our chidlren to believe) that this man, Santa Claus, is not only a historical figure, but one who is apparently immortal and has an impact on our lives to this very day, observing our behavior and responding accordingly. Does this sound like anyone else you know?? (Hint: The Sunday School answer of “Jesus” will be appropriate here.) It’s difficult to sell this well-intentioned-untruth to kids who are learning each week about another man who sounds very similar, and I think folks worry that kids won’t make the distinction, and that’s why some shy away from letting Santa in to their Christmas traditions.
And yet – think about a child’s face on Christmas morning, about the great Santa stories that you know and love and about the gift of a good imagination. How does one dismiss that tradition and wonder? ( Think The Polar Express here, or “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” or “Miracle on 34th Street.”) I wish I had a great and profound answer to this conundrum, but all I can say is that I figured it out eventually, and I think that my powers of belief and imagination are still intact and hopefully none the worse for wear thanks in part to awesome parents and to things like this:
Dear editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say that there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”
That’s the opening to what is commonly known as “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” a letter and response from little Virginia O’Hanlon to the editor of the New York Sun in 1897, and what follows is a beautiful piece of writing by Francis Church that serves to both express the larger truth of Christmas and keep an eight-year-old’s power of faith alive (although I wouldn’t complain if a healthy dose of the Gospel were injected into Church’s answer). My favorite part comes at the end, when Church exclaims:
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
I don’t know if Virginia understood this or found it helpful, but I have found it helpful in my ponderings about Santa. It expresses the need for belief in something larger and greater than ourselves, one that honors and respects childhood and beauty and what’s good in the world, and I can get behind that. And, it urges the child to believe in something.
Good ol’ Webster’s hands us a standard definition of the word believe: “to accept something as true, genuine, or real.” However, there’s a second definition listed that I think can be of more use to us when it comes to the Santa discussion—believing is “to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something.” I can heartily agree with this and say that, on most days, when he’s not crowded out by commercialism, I believe in St. Nicholas, as well as the power of stories to have a positive impact on a child’s life. Teaching how to Believe is not a bad thing. I think kids these days are smart enough, with a little prodding, to apply belief and Belief in their proper places and be none the worse for wear.
Lest we forget, there is room for child-like wonder in the TRUE story of Christmas, and I think that’s the key to bridging these two stories. I think that we can take the childlike faith that a wide-eyed five-year-old can have in a man with a beard and a red suit and an aura of mystery, and apply that, as adults, to the baby Jesus, the Living Christ Himself, come down to earth in the form of a baby.
I was at the mall the other day and saw the standard line of dressed-up kiddies waiting for their turn to sit on Santa’s lap. Some were impatient and fretful, but some quietly stood there and sucked their thumbs, and I bet those are the ones who got up real close and kinda hid their faces in the crook of mom’s knee when faced with this man who, to them and for now, partly represents Christmas. It’s a big wonder that they (and we) are faced with, and we are right to be in awe of it and to believe.