Guest Columnist The curse of Santa

Christmas, the most beloved and widely celebrated holiday, is upon us. Yet while many long to experience Christmas joy, there are signs of a veritable Christmas war in schools, at cash registers, and on the phone with strangers.

Public institutions and certain principled organizations are adamant about keeping faith out of public places, and many endure daily moments of awkwardness at cash registers or with strangers on the phone over the choice of holiday versus Christmas greetings. Rather than point the finger, as many do at political correctness or liberal politics, I would like to suggest that the cause of the dying of the Christian Christmas has all along been … Santa. Yes, that jolly, burly fellow with the white beard, who once a year plops through the chimney with gifts, is the ultimate secularizer.

Everyone knows that the story of the virgin birth has nothing to do with a red-coated, sleigh-flying chap and his reindeer. And Christmas warriors would do well to recognize that it is Santa, not politically correct strangers or government bureaucrats, who has been chipping away at Christmas joy for years.

Critique of Santa's cultural takeover is hardly new, but goes back to heated debates in the 1920s when the Santa cult had just taken off. In America, the first Santa appeared at the Edgar Department Store, originally called the "Boston Store," in Brockton, Mass., in 1890. People traveled from as far as Rhode Island to have their children sit on Santa's lap. During the 1920s, "retail Santas" multiplied and commentators were quick to complain about the materialism tied up with Santa's storefront omnipresence. Santa, who began as a simple impostor standing in for the venerable and dignified Greek Bishop of Myra, the real Saint Nicholas, soon turned into a department store caricature for giving and, inevitably, spending. Fitting the good humor personification of Christmas, the American Christmas has become synonymous not only with shopping marathons, but with a holiday cheer replete with jazzy, funky, upbeat Christmas tunes.

As a Catholic from Germany, I love the American party version of Christmas, of sipping eggnog and "dancing around a tree" to cheerful, happy holiday songs in green and red velvet holiday attire. But is that all that's left in our culture of Christmas? If Santa is the only reminder of a deeper religious meaning of Christmas, Christmas warriors don't have much of a case.

Some have attempted to rescue both Santa and Christmas from secular misinterpretations while playing along with their cultural manifestations. The argument goes that Santa stands for generosity and family closeness and celebrates the wonder of childhood by making children the focus of attention. This, Santa defenders would argue, maintains the link to the "real" Christmas. But, by propping up the myth, Christmas warriors have lost more than they have gained, as Santa is more guilty of taking the mystery out of the Christmas than anyone.

The so-called "Christmas truce" of 1914 reminds us of a deeper, more universal meaning of Christmas. On Christmas day in 1914, five months after the outbreak of World War I, about 100,000 German, French, and British soldiers laid down arms and emerged from their trenches to exchange gifts across enemy lines and bury their dead. Most accounts agree that this legendary truce began with the singing of carols such as "Adeste Fideles" and "Silent Night." The spontaneous fraternization that took place on that day bore witness to a recognition of a shared humanity and a longing to remain hopeful through the celebration of a common joy, the celebration of hope and light emerging with the birth of Christ. It is unlikely that tunes of "Jingle Bells" or "Rockin' around the Christmas Tree" would have inspired similar fraternization in the midst of trench warfare. Surely, defenders of Christmas must keep in mind the true meaning of Christmas before battling to defend Christmas just for the sake of saving Christmas.

According to scholarly consensus, the Church chose to celebrate the nativity on Dec. 25 to rival and top popular pagan festivities such as Roman Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice, celebrating the end of darkness and the return of light, on the same date. Yet, the Christmas story is much older than even that. The pattern of the virgin birth and a savior being born goes back to ancient myths of Egypt, Babylon, and Mesopotamia. In fact, the story of hope and salvation is a universal theme that has meaning beyond the Christian story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The longing for hope and salvation has run deep within humanity since the beginning of history. It is a longing that transcends the concerns of our time and that finds answers in deep personal reflection and the powerful simplicity of the real Christmas story, not the jingle and cheer of the modern Christmas cocktail party or shopping desperation.

If everybody could pause, turn off the cheery tunes, dim the lights, and settle down, we might all embrace the Christmas season as an opportunity to reflect on themes that run deeper than Santa's beard. What the Christmas season means as a symbol to all is that we long for meaning and that we long for hope and ultimate salvation, in our messy, difficult world. We all long for answers and a sense of purpose and belonging. Coming together with our families for Christmas and exchanging gifts are important elements of Christmas celebration. Yet beyond the specifics of our own Christmas traditions and the omnipresent Santa, there looms the larger question of meaning in life. Reflecting more deeply, we might come to realize that family and friends are important not only at Christmas time, but always. Love, manifested in family connections and deep friendships, gives meaning beyond the Christmas tree, just like the legends and stories of a savior being born reflect any human's longing for greater meaning and hope. To a Christian, the gifts that Christ bears for humanity don't come through the chimney, but are discernible all around, each moment of every day of the year. Christ might not be everyone's answer, but he points the way to what hope personified might look like – a baby in a humble manger born to challenge the world. Once we discover the true revolution that Christ brought to this world with his message of hope, the jingle of American Christmas might more readily be exchanged for the triumphant sounds of real bells that proclaim the birth of a savior. 

Posted with permission from New Boston Post.

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