A Theology of Santa Claus

Original art by Sam Wedelich (samwedelich.com).

By Shannon Vowell –

Ready or not, tis the season! Open your email inbox, turn on the radio, check your Facebook feed, venture out to the mall – incontrovertible evidence abounds that It Is Time. The number of shopping days until Christmas usurps all other countdowns; diets and budgets and routines are blown to smithereens as momentum builds.

At the center of the ever-increasing hubbub, the North Pole’s most famous inhabitant is “making a list, and checking it twice.” And American small fries are doing likewise – hurrying to ensure Santa receives their lists in plenty of time to corral the loot they reckon they deserve this year. Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and social media in all its formats lend powers of persuasion and confer a sense of honorable gravitas to what has essentially become an annual festival of childhood covetousness.

We in the church, whether parents, grandparents, children’s ministry helpers, or nostalgic onlookers, generally go with the flow because the tsunami force of said flow discourages resistance.

Oh, we may throw a “birthday party for Jesus.” We may point to the allure of a live nativity scene as a one-night-refocus on the main players of the real story. We may even distribute advent calendars with Bible verses behind each door – hoping the advent calendars with chocolate that the kids already have at home won’t entirely eclipse the scripture messages.

But we tacitly acknowledge our (distant second) place in the pecking order of Christmas in all sorts of subtle ways. We host Christmas markets (because Jesus wasn’t clear on how he felt about buying and selling in his Father’s house, right?). We “deck the halls” of the church with Christmas trees and greenery (because ancient Palestine and the early church were all about the scent of firs, right?). And we lead Advent studies that are designed to counter-balance consumer culture rather than to catechize the faithful on the Incarnation.

We mean well. We muddle through. And we cross our fingers that the kids are hearing some truth, somehow, over the hubbub of the stuff-celebration.

As a mom whose eighth child is nine-years-old this Christmas, I’ve been around the block with Santa and the Seasonal Frenzy yearly, over several decades. Any insights I have on the potential theological richness of Santa Claus as Saint were gained through painful, humbling, even ridiculous missteps on my part as I’ve parented. Confession on the table, I will describe what I now call “my Santa Epiphany.”

One December years ago, my four sons were streaming in the door after school. Our fifth grade son came first, in a panicky rush to clear his name: “Mom, I didn’t do it! I didn’t tell him! Honest! I promise!”

“Didn’t tell who?” I said. “Tell him what?”

Second grade son was next. “Mommy, we didn’t tell him. For real.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked again.

Kindergarten son, hard on their heels, eyes ablaze: “Mommy! There is No Such Thing as Santa Claus!”

Oh. Tell him. Tell him that. Ouch. I was taken aback and floundering. “Really? Hmm. You seem upset,” I said. “Are you sure? How do you know, Honey?”

Kindergarten son, in a high-pitched bellow of righteous indignation: “Because! Reindeer are mammals. And the ONLY mammals that can fly are BATS.”

Completely at a loss (who can argue with “bats”?), I watched as those three went off to play outside, while the Junior-in-high-school son came in more slowly, his car keys jangling. “Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Light, right?” Junior wore his carefully-calibrated “grown-ups are such imbeciles” expression.

Me, cautiously: “Right.”

“So. Why do we tell little kids such a ridiculous lie, on purpose?”

Why, indeed? His question transported me from the discomfort of that episode to the root of my investment in Santa Claus: my own childhood, lived wholly outside the church and faith.

Why did I tell my children that a man in a red suit flew through the air to bring them presents on Christmas Eve? Because, when I was a little girl, Santa formed the basis of my understanding of adult goodness, justice, and lavish love.

Where my children knew to point to Jesus as the standard and standard-bearer, children who haven’t met Jesus yet (of whom I was one) look instinctively for someone to whom to point. Culture offers them plenty of options – professional athletes, celebrities in entertainment, fictitious super-heroes made plausible by state-of-the-art special effects, etc. But the longing for that someone who can only be Jesus, Augustine argues, is holy and co-resident in each of us: “Thou hast formed us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

Among the Someones readily available for seeking children, Santa Claus stands out as uniquely Christ-like.

Like Jesus, Santa knows us. All of us. Each of us. By name.

Like Jesus, Santa also knows our behavior (all of it – good and bad). We are free to be our authentic selves with him – nothing to hide! – because he already knows us completely.

Like Jesus, Santa also knows our desires. He knows our secret hopes – every color, shape, size, and intended use. Yet, like Jesus, Santa invites us to tell him what he already knows, presumably just because he likes hearing from us.

Like Jesus, Santa wants to bless us with the fulfillment of our desires, and like Jesus, Santa has the unique capacity to bring about that fulfillment.

Like Jesus, Santa has a standard of behavior that reflects his own “good” character. Like Jesus, Santa expects us to be good, because he is good, and because his gifts are good.

Setting aside the limited nature of the gifts Santa can bring and the once-a-year time frame of his gift giving, Santa stands in quite nicely for a child’s view of a Savior whose love is personal, specific, and unconditional.

Even the magical, fantastic elements of Santa Claus’s supporting cast (flying reindeer! unlikely helpers! a hidden kingdom at the very top of the world!) suggest scriptural roots such as flying angels and a hidden kingdom that requires belief to be seen.

Of course, this metaphor is limited – nothing and nobody is like Jesus, except Jesus! But the nature of Santa Claus does point to the nature of Christ: lavishly generous, servant-hearted, invested in the character of all whom he loves (and he loves ALL). Accordingly, the Santa Claus story can serve as an effective means for communicating the truth of Christ’s gospel – a “postmodern parable,” if you will. Augustine serves us again here, reminding us that “All truth is God’s truth.”

In my own faith journey, Santa Claus stood in for Jesus Christ during years when adult models of goodness, faithfulness, and lavish love were in short supply. I might even say that believing in Santa – in the possibility of such a person – created space in my brain for the Holy Spirit to appropriate later, in his perfect timing.

I hope that my children saw in my fondness for Santa, the idea, an extension of my faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord. And I cannot help but wonder whether the children in our churches might not already grasp a connection which adults are too prone to see as a defeat.

So, let’s get ready! Because, tis the season. And rather than railing against the ascendant Elf and his consumer gospel, let’s leverage the lights and magic and sweetness that he brings packed in his sleigh, and appropriate the story of Santa Claus to help center our hearts and homes on the Christ Child.

After all, Santa may be coming to town, but praise God – Jesus is already here!

Shannon Vowell writes and teaches on loving Christ and making disciples.

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