At this time of year, we often see animals subjected to cruel holiday stunts, or treated as living props in our confusing pageantry.
Domino’s Japan recently announced it was canceling its ill-conceived plan to train reindeer to deliver pizza, following a PETA Asia campaign. And just this week, a man was charged with abusing a camel that was part of a hospital’s live Nativity scene in Pikeville, Ky.
Have you ever been enamored by a child’s sense of wonder? Their incredulous awe in myths like the tooth fairy and Santa, their wide-eyed anticipation of unwrapping a present?
We are most inspired by the unknown.
A magic trick — how did they do it?!
A movie with surprising plot twists.
A news scandal shrouded with mystery.
We are drawn to the unknown because it tickles the innate sense of curiosity within us to discover and explore. Mystery invites participation, not for the sake of removing what is unknown, but to ignite a passion for learning beyond what is certain and be changed through the process.
Why is it then, we insist on equating our Christian faith to certainty? We sing about a Blessed Assurance and hold intensive meetings to discuss the essentials of faith. We share testimonies of God stories to shelve any doubts of God’s existence. We preach the same sermons, pray the same prayers, tell the same stories, week after week to convince ourselves it all is still true.
Is this what our Christianity has been reduced to, more of the same? I am sorry, but I simply cannot muster up anymore enthusiasm for such a formulaic faith; it’s like taking elementary classes all over again. I already know that two plus two equals four.
I am longing for the gift of uncertainty, a type of profound mystery that welcomes questions, a faith that requires a leap of faith to sustain.
It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve decided to relax about him. I refuse to beat myself up over his presence anymore. He’s okay. I mean, don’t get me wrong — he’s annoying and I have concerns. And I know that many of my fellow parents will disagree, and that’s okay. This makes me cringe, but that little Elf on the Shelf can stay.
After some debate, my wife bought the Elf on the Shelf in 2010. If you aren’t familiar with the Elf on the Shelf myth, it goes something like this: Apparently Santa is incapable of knowing if children have been bad or good on his own, so Dec. 1 to Dec. 24 that Jolly Old Elf sends his little elves to houses to spy on boys and girls. Their job is to check to see if children are being naughty or nice. So, each morning before anyone is awake, our Elf flies in from the North Pole and hides in a different spot in our house. When our children wake up — noticeably earlier in December than any other month — they look for him. Yup, it’s hide-and-seek every morning with the Elf. Then, the National Security Agency Elf spies on our children throughout the day. When our children fall asleep at night, the Elf flies back to the North Pole to provide Santa with a report on how our children have behaved. Then the Elf promptly flies back to our house, hides in a new place, and the morning hide and seek ritual begins again.
Truth be told, my children love it. They. Love. It. They can’t wait to wake up in the morning and search for that little Elf.
There is certainly a warm, nostalgic feeling about the Christmas season. Social media fill up with pictures of Starbucks holiday cups and we get the play-by-play of Christmas trees being purchased and filled with homemade ornaments. Holiday parties become about as frequent as breathing and there is a general sense of camaraderie among people who wouldn’t otherwise interact.
As a local practitioner and neighbor, I’d even go as far as saying this season brings about the most opportunity for new relationships and shared life in the realities of everyday.
Last week I was talking to my 3-year-old daughter about Christmas. She knows we are going to see grandparents and cousins and even knows a thing or two about gifts being exchanged.
And then I asked her, "Whose birthday do we celebrate on Christmas?" With a big smile, she said, "Santa!"
Now, I get it. She’s 3 years old, it’s kinda cute and harmless and whatever.
But there is something to this.
Our family never talks about Santa Claus, but we regularly talk about Jesus and even go as far as trying to live like him as best we can. When we do talk about Christmas and presents, we try to talk about how we will be giving them away to friends, family, and people who need them.
But, despite our best efforts, Christmas is associated with Santa Claus. Now, if it were the historical “Santa Claus” who gave away his best to save the lives of some children, that’d be awesome. But, no, this is the Santa Claus of consumption who promotes values of selfish acquisition rather than sacrificial giving.
“Bubble living” might be delusional, but it expresses deep and serious yearnings.
Take “Champagne music” maker Lawrence Welk. His music variety show on ABC was built on perpetuating the squareness of a prewar world being challenged by postwar change.
My father was still watching Welk reruns 40 years after it ceased production in 1971. They reminded him of a world long supplanted.
Conservative talk show host Megyn Kelly claimed on her Fox News show last week that “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white ... just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change, you know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too ... that’s a verifiable fact, I just want kids to know that.”
This statement was in response to a Slate piece by Aisha Harris, “Santa Should Not Be a White Man Anymore,” which notes her confusion between seeing a black Santa figurine in her home while white Santas were popularized elsewhere at the mall and her school. Because the real history of St. Nicholas is so far removed from his present iteration as Santa Claus, she argues that it would be easier and less culturally problematic to change him into a penguin. This avoids questions of race and culture and makes him accessible to all. While I see her point about wanting to avoid cultural problems, it might be a good idea to confront the underlying issue of racism in America rather than continue to ignore it.
Have you ever given someone a gift knowing that person probably wasn’t going to keep it? You had no idea what to give, so you gave something — a sweater, let’s say, even though you knew the recipient had more than enough sweaters — along with a gift return receipt.
That’s kind of how God gives, isn’t it? No, no, not the sweater part. The part about giving and then letting the others choose what they’ll do with the gifts.
Isn’t that how God gives to us?
And if we’re to be like God, shouldn’t we be giving the same way?
This is a challenging question, but one that’s relevant at this season of giving. Do we give with no strings attached? Or do we give with conditions? Do we give only to those we deem worthy?
A few weeks ago a well-meaning adult asked my youngest child, “What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?” She said, “Oh, I don’t believe in Santa.” I observed an uncomfortable silence, a nervous laugh, then came the question in that tone. “Why wouldn’t you teach your children about Santa? Don’t you like Santa?” Followed by: “Aren’t you concerned that they will ruin the fun for other children” and “Are you using some crazy psychological theory?” as well as “Your children must miss out on so much fun.”
Similarly a pastor friend encountered a strong reaction when he accidently revealed Santa to be a myth in a small group of Christian middle school students. A young girl became emotional and her parents were angry. Until that moment she had believed that Santa provided gifts for all children and her family had intentionally preserved that belief in service of imagination and wonder. I wonder if her parents were aware that had she grown up in a less financially comfortable situation, she would not have been a believer of Santa in middle school. That kind of “innocence” is available only to those with resources to isolate their children from the realities of the world.
On behalf of Christians everywhere, this holiday season I’d like to extend an olive branch (some assembly required; batteries not included) to the non-Christian faith community.
More than 2,000 Christmases have come and gone, and it’s time. It just is. It’s time for one of you to step up and adopt-a-Santa, the Santa. Did I say “please”? Write him into the Ramadan tradition, or fold the jolly old elf into Hanukkah. Put some Kringle in your Karma. Let Rudolph’s nose illuminate the path, the way. How hard can it be?
I’m serious — we’re tired of him, because spiritually speaking, Santa Claus is a colossal pain in the wassail.
When I was 4 and 5 years old, my parents hung our stockings up at the beginning of Advent. Each morning, my younger sister and I would run down to the rec room to see if Santa had left us anything during the night. Finding an empty stocking was a huge relief, because the only reason Santa would leave us anything before Christmas was if we had been bad. Bad children would get a warning, you see. An onion or turnip swelling the stocking’s toe meant we were on probation and we had better shape up before Christmas or we’d end up on the naughty list.
This put the fear of God, er, Santa in me, I can tell you! When it happened to me (and it happened a lot — I reigned over my younger sister with the zeal of a tyrant!), I would rack my brain to figure out what I had done the day before that had garnered Santa’s judgment. Sometimes I knew what it was and I’d apologize for it and promise to do better, but sometimes I didn’t know what I’d done wrong and that was the worst of all. How can you fix something when you don’t quite know what needs fixing? I would worry and fret until Christmas morning. My stocking filled with candy and the presents under the tree were a relief, tangible evidence that in Santa’s estimation, I was a good girl. At least good enough to stay off the naughty list!
One of the great debates around Christmastime for Christians is whether to encourage or allow the belief in Santa Claus. I have friends and family on both sides of this debate, so I want to be careful here. I have a great deal of respect for the desire to keep the focus on Jesus and his birth at this time of year. I want to encourage that focus, too.
And, yet, I allow my children … I encourage them even … to believe in Santa.
We — my husband and I — don’t just stop there. We also have elves that visit our house every year during this season. Some would say that at best I am distracting from the message of Christ. At worst I am lying to my children.
The line between fantasy and falsehood is delightfully fuzzy during childhood. God created it to be this way and it is so important for a child to be able to play in this grey area.
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