What is the true meaning of Christmas? That is a question many, myself included, ponder every year when the holiday rolls around. It seems that the real reason we celebrate is lost somewhere under all of the consumerism. For those businesses that will either survive another year or go under depending on the season’s sales, buying the latest gadgets and widgets is what Christmas is all about. But is it? I think not.
During my first ten years I lived in Michigan, not far from Bay City where I was born in 1944. Bay City was once two cities, Bay City and West Bay City. They straddled the Saginaw River where it empties into Lake Huron. The two cities merged into one in 1905. Sometime around 1910 they were connected by a bridge that looked like it had been constructed from a giant Erector Set. If you crossed the Third Street Bridge, as it was commonly called, from the West Side to the East Side and immediately turned right on North Water Street, you encountered a large furniture store with big display windows.
I remember in particular one evening shortly before Christmas during the early 1950’s. My father took us to Bay City to do some Christmas shopping. It was very cold and everything was covered in snow. Downtown was filled with shoppers hurrying about from store to store. It seemed like there was a Santa Claus on every street corner standing in front of a red kettle, ringing a bell. The “real” Santa Claus was no doubt very busy at the North Pole. The many corner Santas were merely his helpers soliciting contributions for the Salvation Army.
At some point during the evening’s shopping, we found ourselves standing in front of that furniture store, staring at a truly amazing display in its big window. There, seated on a large green chair surrounded by a cornucopia of toys, was a giant mechanical Santa Claus. While a model train weaved its way among the many toys and between Santa’s feet, the jolly old man rocked back and forth as he told stories about his many Christmas adventures. From the speakers mounted above the window I heard Santa tell of how he once got stuck in a chimney. It almost ruined Christmas. The stories were frequently punctuated by a joyful “Ho, Ho, Ho.”
My attention was riveted on Santa and the stories he was telling, not the many toys skillfully displayed around him. After all, the model trains, Erector Sets, BB guns (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) and other expensive gifts were for kids from more affluent families. My siblings and I would have to make do with board games and other more affordable gifts. I knew, as did most of my friends at school, that Santa’s generosity was directly related to a family’s income. Some things never change.
Just a couple of blocks down from the furniture store was Wenonah Park. There, on the most prominent corner of the park, the city had erected a Nativity scene as part of the city’s Christmas tradition. I doubt there were any protests from the local atheists. I am sure there were atheists then, as there are now, but that was a time when the majority did not tremble in fear of the lone fanatic.
Upon reflection these many years later, I think the presence of the Nativity scene and Santa Claus in close proximity was a good thing. I am aware that not everyone agrees with me. There will always be those who would like to kill off the Santa Claus myth. Like Ebenezer Scrooge and his Puritan ancestors, they shudder at the thought of children enjoying Christmas. Children and adults playing Santa Claus at Christmas, like all fantasy, is simply wrong to them.
The anti-Santa Claus people seem to fear that the Santa myth is somehow a threat to celebrating the birthday of Jesus, as if a jolly old man in a red suit could ever be a threat to the one “by whom and for whom all things were created”. They seem to live in fear of being incinerated for setting out a saucer of sugar cookies and a cup of hot chocolate for Santa, or merely reading to children that wonderful story, ‘Twas the Night before Christmas.
Some of my more serious-minded friends do not approve of newsman Francis Pharcellus’ response to eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s plea that he tell her the truth about Santa Claus. In his editorial response, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Pharcellus pointed the little girl’s attention to the “spirit of Christmas,” a spirit of “love, and generosity, and devotion.” A world without the magic of Christmas, Pharcellus wrote, would be a “dreary world” indeed: “There would no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”
The truth is that the birth of Jesus Christ brought joy to a world that lay “in sin and error pining.” Human beings no longer need live in fear. That was the good news of great joy proclaimed by angels to the shepherds in the fields that night. The promised Messiah had come. God became man in order that the wrath of a righteous and holy God could be satisfied. That task, impossible for any human being, was accomplished by the greatest act of love ever. God offered himself as a sacrifice to himself in order to give life back to us, we who willfully shun his love.
I especially love the twelfth chapter of Hebrews (18-24). It is there that the meaning of Christmas is so clearly revealed:
“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.’ The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (NIV, 1984).
Of course the birth of Jesus Christ must not be separated from his death on a cross outside walls of Jerusalem some thirty-three years later. They are not two events, but really one event. Without Christmas, there would be no Easter. Without Easter, Christmas would have no meaning.
So, what has the birth of Jesus to do with the Santa Claus myth? Are children likely to reject Jesus Christ later in life, because at some point early in life they discovered that Santa Claus was a game of pretend? I think not. Children learn quickly that there are “pretend” stories and there are “true” stories. Stories that usually begin with, “Once upon a time,” are not the same as Bible stories.
When I was a child, I thought Santa Claus brought gifts to children at Christmas, because Jesus was God’s gift to us on the first Christmas. Far from misleading a child into a life of decadent commercialism, a sin as common among evangelical Christians as among non-Christians, Santa Claus can actually be used to introduce children to the “real” meaning of Christmas.
Perhaps at this point, I should quote from C. S. Lewis on the distinction between myth and reality, or how myth can enlighten one’s understanding of the “true Myth.” But C. S. Lewis is “used” too often by Christians to legitimate what they are proposing. Quoting Lewis is much like quoting Shakespeare. It adds a kind of seal of approval, or imprimatur of orthodoxy. Therefore, I shall make no reference to the patron saint of Narnia.
What is the “real” meaning of Christmas? In the Christmas classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a very frustrated Charlie Brown asks the question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas all about?” And Linus answers saying, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pn10FF-FQfs
Merry Christmas to all!