Monday, December 12, 2005

Santa Claus and the Christmas Myth

When I was about 13-years-old, I realized that Santa Claus wasn’t real. Imagine my surprise when about 3 years ago, I realized that he was.

Upon becoming a teenager, I first became conscious that things which have basis solely in tradition were foolish and not worth believing in or preserving. Mythological stories like a man named Santa Claus who leaves presents for children every Christmas Eve were not “real” because my definition of reality was dependent only upon things that have physical matter. I trust my mental prowess must have common to most young philosophers my age. Because we realized the impossibility of one man to fly around the world in a sleigh pulled by 8 tiny reindeer (and Rudolph on the foggy nights), we philosophers concluded that Santa Claus or any other fantastic idea of Christmas magic or myths is not a tradition worth believing in.

I grant that the evidence accumulated against Santa Claus’ existence cannot be ignored. There are confirmed accounts of houses that lack presents on Christmas morning (not even a lump of coal). There are eyewitness reports that the job of Mr. Claus has been filled by some well-meaning parents who don’t even bother wearing a red suit or cap whilst practicing their deception. Most parents will probably admit that Santa not only leaves presents under the tree, but also sales receipts in their wallets. But I believe it is folly to conclude that Santa Claus does not exist based upon the fact that he is not acknowledged in some homes.

In 1897, a little girl named Virginia wrote to the editor of the New York Sun asking if it was reasonable to believe in Santa Claus when all her friends told her it was foolish to do so. The editor responded by writing that indeed it was not only tolerable to believe in Santa Claus but encouraged her to do so. He explained that her friends had been “affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” The same words could have easily come out of the mouth of C. S. Lewis, who was fond of mythology even before he ever came to faith in Christ or wrote his Narnia books. But as a young man, Lewis had once renounced any notions of faith or mythology in favor of atheism, skepticism, and materialism. Many years later, in Surprised by Joy, he reflected upon this time of his life and remarked: “Nearly all that I loved [poetry, beauty, mythology] I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I wanted to be real, I thought grim and meaningless.”

C. S. Lewis the atheist wanted to believe in myth and meaning, but he couldn’t because he thought that reality must be defined in terms of the physical or material alone. Myth is imaginary and is therefore not “real” as he then understood it. Lewis sought for meaning and beauty, but his struggle was only resolved when he was persuaded that Christianity was the one true myth. Indeed, it was “the true myth to which all the others were pointing,” and it alone “was a faith grounded in history.”

As I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and then watched the new movie, I was struck by the scene where the professor rebukes the skepticism of the older children who disbelieve their little sister’s claim that she visited Narnia. Alas, Peter and Susan had unconsciously bought into the secular ideas of skepticism which the editor of The New York Sun warned young Virginia about. I think most children fall prey to this skepticism around the teenage years due to the secular rationalism that says that whatever forces or beings that cannot be seen must not be real or worthy of admiration. I have many brothers and sisters in Christ who do not believe in the myth of St. Nicholas; some even accuse it of being the root of the greed and materialism that might be considered a 21st century version of Turkish delight. Some say that Santa Claus, Christmas lights, and Christmas presents distract from Jesus’ glory, and I doubt if anything will alter their thinking.

But the myth of Christmas tradition and the true meaning behind Christmas need not be in opposition to each other. I recognize that difference between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the myth of St. Nicholas. The gospel of the Christian faith has its basis in fact (making it the true myth), while the contemporary myth of Santa Claus has its basis primarily in tradition. The myth of Christmas can be traced to the charity of a real bishop who gave money to young women to aid them in marriage. His example reminds us of God the Father’s gracious gift of His invaluable Son to us when we did not deserve Him. As we celebrate the spirit of Christmas by continuing the example of St. Nicholas, we remember that any gifts we receive are but reflections of the Greatest Gift we mercifully received from the Great Giver. Christmas presents given to us in the name of Santa Claus are valuable only so long as they help us in our gratitude to the Father and our joy in the Son. If they become the chief end of the holiday, then the Christmas myth becomes meaningless and idolatrous. But when the Christmas myth points us to the True Myth, then we can rejoice in the truth while being appreciative of the traditions that supplement but never supersede it.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

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