Sunday, December 7, 2008
Is Santa Claus Real?
If your children "believe" in Santa Claus, and/or if you promote that belief as a family tradition, it would be risky to send one of them up to me with the question: "Is Santa real?" (That has happened in the past). I would not answer back "Yes." At least not an unqualified "yes." Adapting myself to the age of my interlocutor, I would probably say something like: St. Nicholas exists, and the name Santa Claus is derived from the saint's name. The "real" St. Nicholas lived a long time ago (4th c.), and he was an Orthodox bishop who was loved by his flock. He was especially loved by children, because he was so attentive to them and was very charitable to poor children, making sure that they also had a nice toy as the wealthier children had. In fact, our Christmas gift-giving is probably even more derived from the many stories of St. Nicholas' generosity as it is from the magi bringing gifts to Christ. Throughout Europe, the feast day of St. Nicholas on December 6 was always a day of bringing gifts to children. (To this day, we always come up with a family gift for December 6 in memory of St. Nicholas). Our image of Santa Claus is based to a great extent on the poem from the 1820's "The Night Before Christmas." As jolly as he may be, he is something of a caricature of the "real" St. Nicholas, who was a theologian and an ascetic.
If I were asked if Santa Claus came down everyone's chimney with a bundle of gifts to be placed under the Christmas tree, I don't think that I would honestly be able to say "yes," regardless of how imploring the eyes before me were with an eagerness to believe. That is not because, like Scrooge, I say "humbug" to Christmas. Far from it! It is a wonderful season of the year, with the potential for great joy and "domestic bliss" (that just might be pushing it a bit). I would say something like I am sure that St. Nicholas puts into the hearts of mothers and fathers a desire to bring joy to their children with gifts, and in that sense St. Nicholas is the source of the gifts. I aim for not blurring the reality between what we believe to be actually true and the realm of fantasy.
My "theory" is that Santa Claus gains in importance the less Christ-centered a family is. He "fills a gap," so to speak, for a child's sense of wonder and need for the miraculous. If there is no Christ Child born of a Virgin with powerful angels filling the heavens with praise, then something else must take the place of that awesome event. A purely secular Christmas for a child devoid of the otherworldly mystery of the nativity of Christ sounds rather dreary. So, again, Santa gains in attention when Christ is marginalized or absent. (The same holds true for the "tooth fairy," a being that fills in if the children are not taught about the existence of angels, which we insist are quite real).
My "issue" with Santa Claus is that he favors children who already have a great deal, if you get my point. The children who have much, seem to get yet more from Santa than the children who have little. If we could somehow plant into the minds and hearts of our children a real concern for the poor children of the world, and that it is more important that they receive some kind of gift to relieve their misery, then we would be accomplishing something significant. That is not a message for a toddler or small child, but something our children could grow into as they mature.
A way toward that is letting your children know that we have an annual Nativity Charity Appeal in which we support poor people in other parts of the world. Older children could bring a dollar (do allowances still exist?) to put in the basket. Encourage them to carry your contributions to the Nativity food drive, or if they go shopping with you, let them pick the item off of the shelf. I know that most of you are already doing this, so I am only reinforcing these small, but significant gestures.
My point is not to influence anyone about Santa Claus one way or another. But I do want to make the point that other perspectives do exist. And I hope that everyone makes a point of becoming more familiar with the "real" St. Nicholas and his wonderful and saintly life. I hope that everyone does experience that elusive "domestic bliss" when the Feast of our Savior's Nativity arrives. Yet, it is important that we do not become self-absorbed and forget the great need that surrounds us. If we did, we would not properly understand the "reason for the season" - and who Christ is.
Any comments or questions would be welcomed.