“He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows when you’ve been bad or good
so be good for goodness’ sake!”
Santa sees me when I’m sleeping? Who can possibly sleep after hearing that!
I think this simple bit of lyrical poetry from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” has done more to damage my psyche than perhaps any song outside of “Hotel California” (I still refuse to check into any professional bedding establishment named “hotel” when I’m in the state). Written in 1934 by by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” added a few more dimensions to the whole Santa Claus mythology. Now, not only is Santa invading homes on Christmas Eve, coming down through the chimney and leaving presents, but he even has a crystal ball and a check list stationed at the North Pole, looking in on all the children of the world to see who has been naughty and who has been nice. Basically, Santa is semi-omniscient. Yikes!
People may wonder why I’m so fascinated by the Santa Claus legend. He is a stumbling block to so many Christians every year because our culture lives and breathes Santa and reindeer and elves every Christmas. We know that Santa doesn’t exist but our kids are bombarded by Santa this and Santa that at school and at the mall. The big-boned “jolly” fellow with a bushy white beard that puts mine to shame is everywhere. Long gone is any remnant of the original saint from the southern coast of Turkey. In his place we have gradually created a larger-than-life superhero with many layers. Complex guy, this Santa Claus.
At the first part of the 19th Century (1834), a poem was published in a small New York newspaper that forever revolutionized the concept of Santa Claus. Anonymous in authorship, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” better known as, “The Night Before Christmas,” took the legends of the saint and added an American twist. Santa now drove a flying sleigh with eight reindeer (no Rudolph yet), dropped down chimneys, and left toys for girls and boys. He was supernatural, maybe even an angelic messenger, and his legend took off like that flying sleigh.
Santa Claus is a fascinating figure to study. He represents both the negative and positive views of God in our Western society.
Negatively, as the legend sits this year (2012), Santa Claus has become a defacto “god” figure for the winter time. He is eternal, loving, just, giver of gifts, omniscient, magical, and defies the laws of the universe. He is, for all practical purposes, the old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud — which is how so many view God the Father. But Santa is also human. He has a backstory (elaborate and varying by story) and a wife. And, according to some movies, children. In his humanity, Santa is also a Jesus figure. These days, Santa also brings with him the Spirit… of Christmas. I dare not explore this further.
God is all of these things and yet our culture is in rebellion against God, so it has set up one man — Santa Claus — like a golden calf to represent God. After all, Santa looks better than God. We have an image to put on our walls and we can dress up in Santa costumes. And we can eat a dozen turkey legs every day to gain our “Santa shape.” Can’t do that with God. Santa gives us what we want. His elves even gift wrap.
Positively, I see our fascination with Santa Claus as further evidence that mankind, despite its rebellion, has a God shaped hole that it is trying to fill. People have a hunger to know and understand God at their core. But not all will seek Him. Many will ignore their spiritual itch and cover that emptiness with stuff. Sometimes they are material things. Other times it is philosophies. We talk ourselves into denying that we have a need for God. But all people have an inherent longing for relationship with God. It is in our very beings. It is how God created Adam and Eve. He walked in the Garden of Eden with them. He had a relationship with them. And it was good. Our desire to set Santa Claus up as a God-like being displays this innate desire for divine relationship. It is misplaced in Santa Claus, but it brings out the need nonetheless.
Here’s where followers of Jesus can step in — show that God is not an old white man with a long white beard on a cloud passing time in eternity. He is way beyond Santa Claus and an active relationship with Him is more fulfilling than anything that comes from the imaginations of men. God is eternal. God is just. God is graceful. God is loving. God is all-knowing. God is all-powerful. And He doesn’t just come around one day of the year but is available to us every day of the year — every hour. He is more than Santa — he is restoring and reconciling through His Son, Jesus, and He is sealing and binding in loving relationship with His Spirit. A Spirit who brings peace, love, joy, hope, light, etc. not only every Christmas season but all year round.
This is our God, the one Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, bowed down to. The one who rewarded the gift giver when he gave in secret and who blessed many poor and needy ones later on in the saint’s name. This is our God, who took on flesh and blood so He could walk among us and know us and save us.