As I write this, I am sitting at a Books a Million in Southeast Louisiana three days after Christmas. From my vantage point I can see a sad remnant of leftover stuffed Santa dolls and other unwanted Santa swag that sit all but ignored in their little island of misfit toys marked down to half price. Like many, many parents before me I had to deal with that troublesome imaginary elf this year. Santa presents a dilemma for Christians. If we reject Santa all together our children’s friends and acquaintances will almost certainly not. Then parents start looking like another imaginary figure from holiday lore–the Grinch. On the other hand, if we embrace Santa we have a whole different set of problems. First, we seem to decieve our children for a few years about a man who lives at the north pole and defies the laws of physics every Christmas eve. Then one day, the magic fades and we make cynics of our kids. Perhaps they begin to wonder is there anything else we blindly believe in that makes us happy but ultimately is a myth. In other words, we run the risk of creating not just cynics but hard core skeptics about anything they can’t see like Natalie Wood’s character in Miracle on 34th Street. My own mother has a novel way of solving this conundrum the first time I exhibited skepticism about whether or not Santa was real. My mother’s response was, “Honey, Santa Claus is an imaginary elf . . . that brings real presents.” Huh? Even my philosphically untrained, pre-teen mind recognized a metaphysical paradox when I heard one. Maybe that was what prompted me to become a philosopher.
It seems I’m not the one dealing with this issue. Ultra-hip pastor Marc Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle wrote an article in the Washington Post about this very dilemma. Except Marc sees it as a tri-lemma. There are three options. We can reject Santa, We can embrace Santa, or we can redeem Santa. Marc isn’t worried as much as I am about resembling the Grinch but he does say that Santa is so pervasive in our culture that its impossible to reject the myth and demonizing Santa is out of the question. Even I don’t want my kids being the Sadducee on the playground, enlightening everyone into tears about Santa’s non-existence. As you would expect, Driscoll opts for redeeming the Santa idea:
We tell our kids that he was a real person who did live a long time ago. We also explain how people dress up as Santa and pretend to be him for fun, kind of like how young children like to dress up as pirates, princesses, superheroes, and a host of other people, real and imaginary. We explain how, in addition to the actual story of Santa, a lot of other stories have been added (e.g., flying reindeer, living in the North Pole, delivering presents to every child in one night) so that Santa is a combination of true and make-believe stories.We do not, however, demonize Santa. Dressing up, having fun, and using the imagination God gave can be an act of holy worship and is something that, frankly, a lot of adults need to learn from children.
This seems reasonable. After all, Nicholas was a real person and he did bring presents. But alot about Santa has nothing to do with fact. Nicholas had no red and white suit. You can thank Coca-Cola for that. More importantly he didn’t have powers that mimic God’s attributes such as Omnipresence and Omniscience (“He sees you when your sleeping and knows when you’re awake . . .”) Nor did he presumably deign to stand in God’s place as moral authority (“So be good for goodness sake.”)
Marc does seem concerned about the problem of turning his kids into cynics or skeptics:
Since we also teach our children that Jesus is a real person who did perform real miracles, our fear is that if we teach them fanciful, make-believe stories as truth, it could erode confidence in our truthfulness where it really matters. So, we distinguish between lies, secrets, surprises, and pretend for our kids. We ask them not to tell lies or keep secrets, but do teach them that some surprises (like gift-giving) and pretending (like dressing up) can be fun and should be encouraged.
As you might guess, several atheists and agnostics couldn’t help but try to draw parallels with cynicism and skepticism about Christianity in the comments section of the Washington Post’s op-ed page:
The concept of Santa is a rehersal or practice for theism. Much more appealing to children than God, Santa-belief teaches them they are being constantly watched, that they will be rewarded or punished by the watcher, that impossible things can REALLY happen, that there are invisible agents ever present, that you will be rewarded for believing this. The best thing about Santa is that by age 8 they have figured out that their parents have lied to them, fooled them, tricked them, played a game on them, conned them. It is the parents that need to be forgiven! My christmas wish is that more adults will have the “8 year old” experience and realize that God belief is just as unnecessary and false – even though it may also be rewarding.
Your explanation is uncannily similar to how I explain Jesus to children. Yes, I say, there was a Jesus who lived long ago in ancient Palestine. But after he died people told many stories about him, so that in addition to the ‘actual story’ of Jesus a lot of other stories have been added (e.g. stories about Jesus doing miraculous things, stories that he didn’t really die, and stories that he was God incarnate!).
It seems that if Nicholas can be molded into Santa, Jesus can be molded into the Christ. Of course there is the problem that’s Nicholas’ apotheosis took centuries while we have Paul conservatively declaring the “myth” of Jesus’ divinity within a few decades. C.S. Lewis remarks that those who normally would say the Gospels are mere legends have spent precious little time with the type of literature they are so sure the Gospels are:
If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel (From “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”)
(Of course Lewis also thought that much of the first third of Genesis was in fact allegorical myth but that’s for another day). The point is that these kind of leaps are far, far too easy to make. Here’s another example:
I explain to children that the Jesus who actually lived was different from the stories told about him. Not only that, as I explain, Jesus himself was the first ‘story-teller’ about Jesus. For Jesus probably claimed that he was a divine intermediary called ‘The Son of Man’, and claimed that he had a special role in bringing about the end times, and even (incorrectly) claimed that these end times were coming very soon! He did and said many good things, but also many things that weren’t so good and should not be followed by children or even adults.
Perhaps more dangerous is the idea that we can exact the “spirit” of Jesus’ teachings from any historical facts about him:
I don’t see how anyone can doubt the historical existence of Jesus, he was obviously a great moralist and a wonderful storyteller. I think of him as a 1st century Abraham Lincoln, who shared many of his moralizing and storytelling traits (along with a martyrdom). Does anyone doubt the existence of Honest Abe?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it is far more damaging to reduce Jesus to a human moralist with a past shrouded in myth, than it is to rail against his teachings. But if we do both, then he can be safely put on a shelf along with other well-meaning moral personifications like Santa Claus. Then, like Santa Claus, he can be useful for children and as a piece of nostalgia. He too can be something to grow out of and looked upon fondly once a year when we remember that well meaning myth we once believed. We could even have a stuffed version at the Books a Million that we can mark down every December 26th.
You’ll notice, dear reader, that I’m not providing any instruction about the Santa Dilemma. I’m still figuring it out myself. I would welcome your thoughts.