The Trojan Horse of Christmas
Santa's message to children is that Christmas is about gifts
A recent poll revealed that almost one-third of Americans and Brits are in favor of “rebranding” Santa Claus. Santa 2.0 might wear sneakers instead of his trademark boots or he might become she or it, with 27% of respondents favoring either gender neutralizing him or making him a woman. Christian groups were quick to respond that this is just one more shot in the war against Christmas. The fact that an attack against “Father Christmas” is viewed as an attack against Christmas itself shows just how far we have drifted from the Christian meaning of the holiday.
In truth there is nothing particularly Christian about Santa Claus. Yes, I realize he is loosely based upon St. Nicholas of Myra, a 4th-century bishop who was known to leave presents in the shoes of the poor and punching heretics. But the similarities stop there. Santa Claus as we know him today is a literary creation of Clement Moore in his story The Night Before Christmas. In the poem, the Jolly Old Elf leaves presents for the children and transforms Christmas into a children’s holiday without any religious connection whatsoever. The poem was so popular that Americans adopted the myth of Santa Claus as a true Christmas tradition.
In short, Santa was a Trojan horse of sorts, a means of secularizing Christmas. Moore was joined by his literary companions Washington Irving (A Christmas at Bracebridge Hall) and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol) in moving Christmas from the religious to the secular plane. Christmas became a time of family celebration and gift giving. Lest I be accused of turning into Dickens’ most famous character, I admit that there is nothing particularly anti-Christian about the change in tone. But neither is it particularly Christian. Fellowship and gift giving are both good things and in and of themselves are not threats to Christmas proper.
Nevertheless, the secularizing of Christmas can be a threat to the celebration of Christian Christmas because of a certain inertia that surrounds it. First, it leads to an eclipse of Advent. Advent serves as a “little Lent” in which the faithful set aside four weeks to prepare for an encounter with Christ at the end of (their) time. Four weeks of fasting prepares for twelve days of feasting in celebration of the splendor of the Word Made Flesh. But secular Christmas does not concern itself with fasting, only feasting. And feasting without fasting is empty gluttony. The “hustle and bustle” of buying gifts and stuff, spending money you don’t really have, and going to “holiday parties” before Christmas all rob us of inner quiet and make union with the Prince of Peace extremely difficult.
Absent religious meaning, the secular always becomes a consumerist Christmas. The avalanche of consumerism is entirely antithetical to the Christian meaning of Christmas. And in truth Santa Claus is to blame. He gives one message to children and that is that Christmas is about gifts. We can try to connect that message back to Jesus as the true gift of the Father, but ultimately the connection fails. To try to keep overpriced tech gadgets and the poor Messiah in a cave in Bethlehem together is a practical impossibility.
So, are we doomed to be social pariahs by not celebrating the secular Christmas? No, not necessarily. As Catholics we should absolutely preserve our Advent from the hustle and bustle of the season and use it as preparation time. We can avoid rabid consumerism by purchasing any gifts prior to Advent. But we can also learn a lesson from the secular-Christmas emphasis on fellowship and make those gifts experience-oriented. Rather than the latest gadget, plan an outing with the loved one. Take the emphasis off having and put it on being together. Also, celebrate the twelve days of Christmas. Spread the gift-giving over twelve days instead of bombarding people with gifts all at once. Make it a true festival during the liturgical season of Christmas. Of course this might mean letting go of Santa Claus, but after his/her/its rebranding that might have to happen anyway.
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