Thursday, December 23, 2004

Jesus, Santa, and Faith

I was looking again at that collection of pictures of kids scared by Santa, and again remembering just how much I could relate. Although not the prize-winner, this picture in particular is our favorite.

This one looks like a detail from a Norman Rockwell painting.

And this sends shivers down my spine.

I remember when I was a kid being taken down to the village hall for a visit with Santa. Kids would line up to taken their turns sitting on Santa's lap and confiding in him what they wanted for Christmas, and on the way out each would receive a brown paper bag of candy. (Typical hard candy Christmas confections, mixed nuts, peanut brittle, and a few rare chocolate drops.) For kids like me who were apprehensive about meeting with Santa--if not downright terrified--this seemed like a cruel trick. You mean, I can only get the candy if I sit on that scary man's lap? Aren't there laws against this sort of thing? It's amazing what torment we will endure for a sugar fix. I think these visits with Santa may have been the genesis of my phobia of people in costumes--a phobia I still maintain today. (I say "maintain" because I have no interest in overcoming this phobia. I think a good healthy fear of costumed freaks is essential to long life.)

Santa was scary for other reasons as well. As the song reminded us, "he knows if you've been bad or good." He was like God that way. Perhaps one of God's little helpers. And as kids who weren't Catholic this was the closest we'd come to the confessional booth.

As we got older, we continued the visits with Santa, even as we became suspicious of his existence. I think it was the promise of candy that dragged us back. Apparently we would even feign belief if it meant a bag of goodies and perhaps one or two extra "From Santa" presents under the tree.

But also, as we got older, identifying which of our small town's prominent citizens was wearing the red suit and fake beard became sort of a game. I am positive that Santa was the elderly lady next door one year, even if her beard was the real deal.

I don't remember ever being a real "true believer" in Santa, even when I was very young. Parts of the story never made much sense to me. Santa supposedly came down the chimney. But we had no fireplace. Our chimney led directly to the furnace, and Santa would have been burned to a crisp if he'd dropped in for a visit. Furthermore, how was he supposed to land his sleigh on our sloped roof? It would slide right off. And yet someone ate the cookies we left out for him. Someone delivered the toys. It all remained firmly in the realm of mystery for me.

In college I dated a girl who was insistent that her children would never be told that Santa was real. She believed when she was younger, and as she began to doubt, her parents encouraged her to keep believing with, as she described it, something close to desperation. When she discovered the truth, she felt like she'd been lied to by the people she was supposed to trust the most.

Santa isn't even on Lid's radar, so it isn't necessary for us to address the Santa question yet. As Christians we certainly don't want to allow Santa to eclipse Jesus. But I don't know that belief in Santa and belief in Jesus are mutually exclusive for children. As a kid I knew that Christmas was a celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, even as I beseeched "I believe, Santa! Help my unbelief!" Jesus was still the most important person by far. Then came Santa, then Mary and some angels, and then Frosty. Then Rudolph and the Little Drummer Boy and some shepherds and wise men. Thus went the hierarchy.

The girl I dated in college felt that if children find out we've lied to them about Santa, it may cause them to question what we've told them about God as well. I'm not so sure.

Perhaps the Santa story is one of those things that act as training wheels for faith. Of course, it depends on us as parents to take off the training wheels and encourage our kids to ride without them so that as Santa fades into the realm of story, Jesus moves into the realm of reality.

You may ask, then, if Santa is even necessary. I don't know that he is necessary, but the Santa story opens us up to the possibilites of mystery; of something beyond our understanding. In a way, imagination is almost a requirement for faith, and Santa kindles the imagination at a very young age.

So I think we'll encourage Lid to use her imagination, and help her learn to accept that there are some things that are very difficult to understand--or in the words of the Psalmist, too wonderful or too lofty to attain--but are nevertheless worth trying to figure out.


At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Drew, I couldn't agree more on the training wheels concept. The story of Saint Nic / Santa and the background inspiration all tie into the big picture anyway. In a way Christmas is a time to marvel at the magic of the Holy Spirit in many ways.

Merry Christmas to you and yours my friend.

Dan Cummings

At 4:55 PM, Blogger Sue Bob said...

In the late 50's when I lived in tiny rural town of Winters, Texas (West Texas) we'd travel to Abilene to see Santa who was set up in front of the Mrs. Baird's Bakery (the big plant where they made the loaves of bread) Santa was up on an elevated platform made up to look like his sleigh. We'd go up on the platform where he'd use a microphone to interview us about what we wanted for Christmas. I wouldn't let him use the microphone because I wanted a private conversation with him--which distressed my parents waiting down below out of earshot. Since that time, I have always associated Santa with the smell of fresh baked bread.

As for the girlfriend of yours who was angry about being lied to about Santa--I believed in him until the ripe old age of 11--though I think I was refusing to accept reality for the last two years. My parents never tried to force me to believe--they just let me find out slowly and naturally--which is the best way. I hope that she didn't end up denying her children fun and precious memories because of her own baggage.


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