My sister had a friend who was not only not Christian, she was violently anti-Christian. Or, at least she was anti what she imagined Christianity to be. Probably either the Christianity of hellfire and brimstone preached by some Christians who have forgotten that God is Love. Or perhaps she hated Christianity because all the Christians she’d met were hypocrites. In any case, she was anti-Christian but she loved the Christian classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe despite its Christian character. I rather suspect, however, that what she loved about the book were precisely those elements which I love because they so clearly image the truths of the Chrisitan faith.
One day this friend said to my sister that if Christ is like Aslan, then perhaps that is the kind of Christ she could wish were real. Well, I was raised on Narnia and I strongly suspect that my image of Christ has strong doses of Aslan in him. Because I think Aslan is a very good icon of Christ indeed.
And to me that’s one of the wonders of fairy tales like The Chronicles of Narnia, that its beautiful art which can evangelize the culture. Sew seeds in hearts that are not yet ready to hear the gospel message, that are firmly closed to any mention of Christ. And slowly they warm, thaw: If Christ is like Aslan, then maybe Christ isn’t so bad after all. Maybe he’s a God I could believe in.
Many Christians hailed The Lord of the Rings for that same reason. There is no mention of Christ or God, no one in the book seems to have any faith at all. And yet every word, every action proclaims the gospel message. For it is a story about a small man, a hobbit, a weak, inconsequential nobody who willingly bears a great burden expecting no benefit for himself, indeed expecting destruction at every step. It’s about what it means to be a follower of Christ, to pick up one’s cross every day and lay down your life for your friends and for those you don’t even know.
To me the Santa story is the same thing. In its modern, secular rendition there might be no mention of Christ, in fact it might seem to lead one into a fantasy realm where there is no room for Christ. And yet He is there. It’s the story of a man who somehow, miraculously gives abundantly, perhaps even prodigally, to everyone regardless of who they are or their state in life and expecting no return for himself. It’s about the miraculous ability to be everywhere at once, impossibly in one night.
To me Santa is the image of the prodigal love of Jesus, pouring himself out for everyone expecting no return for himself. It reflects the miracle of the Eucharist, (just think of Christ on a thousand altars all over the world in one night on Christmas Eve).
True, Santa has become a secular icon. And he is celebrated by plenty of people who are in no way religious. Even people who are hostile to Christianity. Imagine, if you will, a child raised in such a household saying: If Christ is like Santa, maybe that’s a God I can believe in.
What would the world be like without the story of Santa? I think it would be a much poorer place. Christmas, even a secularized Christmas, hollowed of all mention of Christ and the miracle of the Word made Flesh that dwelt among us, still retains some essential character of Christianity. It still stands for love, for family, for generosity, for selflessness and renewal. And how many people who for 364 days a year never enter a church, find themselves drawn, inexplicably, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to stand inside a church. Perhaps the reason so many non-churchgoing people love the Christmas season and speaks of its “spirit” is because the Santa myth extends the story of Christ outward where explicit mention of Christ would pre-empt any real understanding of Him. And sometimes they even find themselves, full of nostalgia for the magic of childhood Christmases long ago, returning to feel the magic and the love, to hear once more the story that has fallen so many times before on deaf ears. Perhaps this year, drawn to church by the magic of Santa, they will at last hear and understand the real meaning of Christmas.
The Santa myth can be in our secular world a sort of pre-gospel. It has the power to touch hearts that are not yet able to grasp fully the mystery of Christ; but that still yearn for magic, for innocence, for generosity and for a love that doesn’t care whether you’ve been naughty or nice, that overlooks your bad deeds and still leaves a present underneath the tree.
To me the claim that Santa detracts from the true meaning of Christmas sounds like the claim that the saints and Mary detract for Christ. A foolish misunderstanding.
And when my 2 year old nephew kneels before an image of the Virgin or a crucifix and, pointing, says: Mary, Jesus, he might not understand the difference between these images and reality. But I do not correct his misapprehension, if it is such. Yes, I say, that’s Mary, that’s Jesus.
And when in the same way a child whose father is off in Iraq kisses a picture of daddy every night, his mother doesn’t scold him for kissing an image. She lets him find comfort where he may, knowing the image reminds him of the reality.
Santa is an image, no more, of what Christ is when he comes and dwells among us. He is an image of selfless love, of generosity, of the miraculous multiplication of gifts beyond all rational belief, of something somehow not bound by time or space, able to be intimately present everywhere at once, sharing a simple meal with us in the form of cookies and milk, and granting us the fulfillment of our deepest wishes.
One day the child will grow up and understand the picture is just a pretty picture and will be able to see beyond it to the reality it represents. One day his wishes will mature and he will selflessly ask for peace on earth rather than a new x-box. But time enough for that another year. Meanwhile, if any child comes and asks me if there really is a Santa Claus, I’ll respond: what do you think?