Naughty or Nice

12.23.13

How Santa Hurts Christmas

Yes, it’s true, but Mr. Claus is just about the worst thing to happen to Christianity. We make kids believe in a fat man who hands out gifts unfairly and makes out with mom, and then ask them to believe in Jesus. Right.

Santa is a fixture in a fixture in holiday calendars, at malls, and on lawns across suburbia. But who is Santa really, and does he embody “the spirit of the Holiday” of consumer Christmas?

Most modern American beliefs about Santa come from Dutch settlers in New York and reach us by way of department store marketing and Thomas Nast cartoons. But, as many people know, the modern Santa Claus evolved out of St. Nicholas. In much the same way homo sapiens evolved out of sea sludge.

Nicholas lived in southwestern Turkey in the fourth century and, according to legend, performed a number of miracles involving sailors and children. He was from a wealthy family and, in a prefiguration of modern stockings, would occasionally toss gold through the windows of less fortunate neighbors to help them through hard times. In one particularly gruesome miracle story, he resurrected three children who had been murdered by a butcher for their meat. The miraculous feat earned him the status of patron saint of children and put him on course to becoming the bearded fat man in the red suit.

An all-around great guy, no doubt, but a far cry from the stories we tell our children today. After all, southwestern Turkey isn’t the kind of place you find too many reindeer-pulled sleds.

Okay, the historical “Santa” is quite different from the hirsute character on the Hallmark cards. In our hearts we all knew that. But, even as a magical holiday fiction, is the concept good for anyone?

After spending years deceiving our children about the jolly man who brings presents, can we really say “Gee you got us, but that part about the Virgin giving birth to a child? Now that’s the real deal”?

The point of the Santa Claus myth is to compel children to play nice, finish their greens, and go to bed early. Like the Politburo and Edward Cullen from Twilight, he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. This isn’t just a Draconian hangover from Victorian parenting. The enterprising folks at Elf on the Shelf have produced a stuffed toy that serves as Santa’s eyes and ears in your home. That should knock the snark out of the precocious six-year old who wonders exactly how Santa knows all.

The pay-off of North Pole espionage is supposed to be that good children get presents while bad children get coal in their stockings. If good old-fashioned fear of God or, shucks, actual parenting fail, there’s the threat of fossil fuels (value rising by the day) instead of gifts to deter misconduct.

Except it doesn’t work. Any five-year-old can see that rich naughty children are pulling down more than their fair share of the gifts. That’s if less affluent families can afford the luxury of purchasing gifts from a figment of the cultural imagination. When petulant rich kids get more presents than poorer angelic ones, it sends mixed messages. The historical St. Nicholas is said to have given money anonymously to poor children. The commercial Santa brings laptops to rich kids. What’s the lesson we’re teaching our children? Life’s not fair? The rules are different for rich people? Better learn the harsh realities of life early. 

Then there’s the disservice Santa does to religion. Even if Ole’ St. Nick didn’t spend so much time cultivating endorsements and trawling malls selling photo ops, it’s not clear that he would be beneficial for the religion to which he is attached. For children, Christmas is the undisputed high point in the religious calendar. Between the daily dose of advent calendar chocolate, opportunities for budding thespians to cut their teeth treading the boards in a nativity play, and, of course, the presents, Christmas has it all. In many ways Santa Claus shares top billing with the baby Jesus. And that’s if you’re going to church.

Then one day comes the truth. After spending years deceiving our children about the jolly man who brings presents, can we really say “Gee you got us, but that part about the Virgin giving birth to a child? Now that’s the real deal”? We’re hardly building trust here. We’re catfishing our children. Do Christians really want to bring religion into the rouse?

We can’t even stick to the script, either. We’re actively trying to jeopardize the “kind old man” story. Christmas music has its fair share of clangers (who hasn’t raised an eyebrow to the date-rape lyrics of “Baby it’s Cold Outside”?) But “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” takes the fruit cake. A small child catches her mother in flagrante with “Santa” and is wracked with guilt about her cuckolded father. It’s an account of childhood trauma therapeutically set to music. Sure, as adults we know that Santa is really Daddy engaged in some adventurous Christmas-time role-play, but the shocked child sure doesn’t. That’s Christmas magic right there.

We invented a trusted magical figure, turned him into a home wrecker, and pump those lyrics into the backseat all December long. Cui bono? Child psychiatrists?

Last week a vicar in the UK was forced to apologize for telling children that Santa wasn’t real and for, instead, regaling them with stories of the Christian Saint. In his apology he said he was worried he may have spoiled Christmas for the kids. But if telling the truth about Santa seems to be taking all the joy out of Christmas, think of it as an opportunity to take a leaf out of the book of the real St. Nick. According to tradition Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. During the proceedings a priest named Arius, subsequently declared a heretic for his views of Jesus, stood up in order to be better heard. Enraged by what Arius was saying, Nicholas grabbed Arius by the beard and punched him in the face.

If that’s not taking a principled stand for truth I don’t know what is. (Not that I’m suggesting that the War on Christmas get violent.)

Santa Claus is depicted as many things: the morbidly obese ruddy face of Coca-Cola (there’s truth in advertising after all), an above-the-law industrialist with scant regard for elvish workers rights or producing counterfeit goods, and history’s most generous home invader. The truth is he’s not real, he’s not fair, and you shouldn’t leave him alone with your Mom.