While the world may say that another Christmas has come and gone, there are still seven days left of Christmastime and so it is still permissible to talk about “the most wonderful time of the year.” What was striking this Christmastime was the attempts to remove yet another figure from the season in the continuing war on Christmas.
It is considered volatile to even mention the war; we are told by many people at this time of year that the war is simply a figment of imagination. These people, for example, will say that the greeting of “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas” is not proof of a war on Christmas since Christmas is a holy day and “holiday” is derived from holy day. See? A wave of the wand, a reconfiguration of understanding and definitions and the war disappears. But for honest individuals, the war is quite real since the war, as my priest said a few weeks ago in his homily, the war on Christmas is not about Starbucks making their “holiday cups” plain red; it is about removing Christ from the feast of His birth.
The culture has been removing Christ from December 25 (which was His actual birthday) and has been remaking the season into a time simply for snow, coco, and presents. Outrage has been expressed when grade schools offered students an opportunity to attend A Charlie Brown Christmas performance while other schools have exorcised the religious parts out of it and there has been the usual battle over Nativity scenes (such as here and here). It became so ridiculous this year that Charlene Story, a city councilwoman in New Jersey, resigned her seat when the city Christmas tree was renamed a Christmas tree because “the phrase wrongfully inserted religion into what was supposed to be a secular holiday event.”
And that rottenness has taken the next step as now that jolly old elf, Santa Claus, has been marked as person non grata of the Christmas season, with a Massachusetts school banning Santa from its winter concert and a school principle in Brooklyn attempting to scrub Santa out of the school.
The religious zealots of Secularism are not the only ones who have a problem with Santa, however, as Christians too have made some attempts to expunge the “jolly old elf” from the Christmastime. I cannot speak for all Christians, of course, and my social circles have been so small that I cannot even claim to have a legitimate sample number on the matter. All I have are three personal stories, all from my undergraduate days. The first concerned a young man who had gotten married just a few months before and he and his wife were already expecting their first child. Somehow or other the topic of Christmas came up and he said that he was not sure if he and his wife would tell their children about Santa as he took away from Jesus; another friend told me and a group of others that his parents had told him that Santa was not real when he was thirteen; and another friend, close to Christmas time, shared a cartoon on Facebook, showing Santa being arrested for impersonating St. Nicholas.
I can well understand the secularists’ desire to erase Santa Clause from Christmas as, even as materialistic and commercialistic as they have made him, he is still too close to the Christ Child for comfort; someone may accidently stumble upon the fact that “Santa Clause” is merely the Anglocized version of the Dutch “Sinter Klaus” which means St. Nicholas who was, in fact, a real man. A bishop of Myra (what is now modern day Turkey), Nicholas was exiled in the reign of Emperor Diocletian and who, after his release, attended the Council of Nicea and became a legend for his generosity and gift giving. If that story was discovered, Christmas could no longer be about cookies and snow and presents as the figure of the Bishop would tower over the entire narrative and lead to more questions, a scenario that the secularists cannot have.
I cannot understand as well Christians’ hesitation over Santa Claus. It is true that the modern society has turned Santa into something that he is not, a god of commercialism instead of a sign pointing the way to “the Reason for the Season.” But this does not mean that he must be banished to the outer darkness; Santa Claus is properly a Christian symbol and it is the duty of all Christians to fight to reclaim their symbols that have been corrupted by the world.
Beneath that, I also somewhat suspect that some Christians feel that Santa should not be made a part of Christmas because “he is not real;” St. Nicholas is real but Santa Claus is a charlatan made from bits and pieces of St. Nicholas. But merely because something “is not real” does not mean that it is not true. It is here that Myth has been so misunderstood, to our detriment.
Myths, so often today, are so often today understood as “make believe” or “pretty lies” or stories. If someone describes something as a “myth” it is understood to be untrue and therefore false, such as the “myth of Area 51.” That is not the correct way of understanding myth, however. Myth is nothing more than the use of imagination in seeking the truth. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man, “Mythology, then, sought God through the imagination; or sought truth by means of beauty.” Imagination can perform this duty of seeking God because, as Chesterton explains again, imaginative does not mean imaginary. It is the imagination seeking the Truth which he knows exists somewhere. This was, in fact, one of the arguments by which J.R.R. Tolkien helped C.S. Lewis to convert from atheism to Christianity. Lewis had argued that all myths were worthless lies; Tolkien countered that myths were true, that they were attempts, however shaky, by men to understand the Truth. In fact, Tolkien argued, myths were sometimes the only way to express truths that, without myth, would be forced to remain unspoken.
Understood in this way, Santa Claus becomes not a commercial hustler or a detriment to understanding that Christmas is the birthday of the Savior. The Myth of Santa Claus strengthens the Nativity Story and makes it tangible for us and our children; the myth of a man-a saint-who encircles the globe, unselfishly distributing presents to good children, is a sign that points to the Great Gift that was given to us so many generations ago in that humble stable. And just as that Great Gift died for us, the myth of Santa Claus, the Gift-Bringer tells us that we are fulfilled only when we give of ourselves-die to ourselves- for our fellow Man in Truth and Goodness for His sake.