HOUSTON, TX – It’s that time of year again. Santa Claus is coming to town, checking that list, extorting good behavior from little kids. On the other side of the world, the baby Jesus lays His sweet head in a manger, no crib for His bed. And parents everywhere have to reconcile the two in an attempt to address the true meaning of Christmas.
Santa is the easier sell. Jesus may be omnipresent, but Santa is everywhere – radio, television, department stores, supermarkets, street corners. Kids sit on his lap, write him letters, leave him milk and cookies, and promise to be good. By midday on Christmas, toys are broken, siblings are fighting, and Santa is a distant memory and obligation to be resurrected again (pardon the pun) sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving. And then the pressure is on and the paranoia kicks in again. “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake…”
Jesus sort of does the same thing. We send him letters, but He calls them prayers. He sees us. He knows us. But this intimacy is comforting. He gives us gifts. Do we have to earn them? If we had to earn them, we’d never measure up. But He doesn’t keep that kind of list. Do we have to be good? Well, He would much rather we were, but He has infinite patience and gives us innumerable chances.
So why, for the most part, does Santa surpass Jesus in popularity. This from an unscientific survey I conducted among my students: “When you were a kid, who was more important to you – Santa or Jesus?” Follow-up question: “Why?” Answer: “Because Santa brings presents and the baby Jesus just lies there. Sure, He nods at the little drummer boy, but that’s about it. And we all know how annoying that is!” (Okay – that last drummer boy part is me.)
Follow-up/follow-up question: “So who’s more important to you now?” “Jesus.”
We shouldn’t really be surprised. Forgive the cliché, but if we painstakingly strip away the commercialism that has become Christmas and poor Santa, we find the true spirit of loving kindness and boundless charity that is the first Christmas and every Christmas thereafter within ourselves.
English writer and Catholic lay theologian G.K. Chesterton offers a lovely description of the spiritual evolution we undergo when we grow from Santa Claus toward Jesus:
“What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.
“As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.
And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.
“Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.
“Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.
(The Other Stocking In a letter to The Tablet of London, 1903)
This may help parents explain the true meaning of Christmas to their children – and themselves.
Or, they can just leave it to the kids. I don’t remember when I stopped believing in Santa and matured toward Jesus. My parents certainly didn’t know G.K. Chesterton, but I clearly made the transition. Today, I watched and listened to 3rd and 4th graders from the Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston perform Christmas carols in Greek. Accompanied by Seth Rowaldt on piano, the 40 children sang only holy songs about the birth of Jesus. No threats from Santa here. Just Jesus. Just glory and promise and hope. And smiles that lit their faces and moved their audience.
According to Maria Newton, Director of Admissions, there are only nine Greek kids in the 3rd grade and 10 in the 4th. But the chorus is not singing phonetically. Ekaterini Noffsinger, the Greek language and culture teacher, not only teaches the lyrics of these songs but insists that the children understand them and are able to explain them to their listeners. They could not do this if they did not feel the significance of their words.
So when does that happen? How does it happen? Who knows? The only thing that matters is that it does happen.
I wish all of you a blessed holiday and a new year filled with peace.