God-Clause: Reflections on Santa and Theology Proper

godclaus1.jpgHe is the all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent being, who rewards the good and punishes the bad. He is mysterious and beyond our comprehension. He is both transcendent and immanent, and we feel His presence in special ways around this time of year. Wait…I’ve lost myself in my own introduction. Are we talking about God or Santa?

The two seem not so dissimilar if you pause and reflect for a moment. And for the most part Christians don’t often pause and reflect on this Santa figure. Is his similarity to the Almighty an acceptable myth or does it have implications for Christian theology and life?

I am no Santa hater. I was welcomed to believe in him as a child, and did for several years. My family enjoyed the fantasy of the happy “old-elf” who ate our cookies while we slept and left us presents. And for my part I never struggled, as a youth, to believe in God. I can’t help but wonder, however, if there are those out there for whom God, as they grow older, becomes nothing more than a fictitious figure to be placed in the story-book next to “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” One surely can’t blame Santa Clause for an individual’s “fall from faith,” and I don’t intend to here. But he can be part of the larger problem of continually weakening view of the Divine. God, in the mind of the popular culture, is a lot like Santa Clause (think of “God, the Kindly Grandfather”).

Santa Clause is the sweet old man of myth and legend. He is a benevolent gift-giver and imbued with great magic. Of course there are a myriad of different interpretations of the Santa character, but in the mid-19th century America settled on the jolly old elf from the North Pole with a red suit and belly full of jelly. Every year on Christmas Eve this man flies a magical sleigh, pulled by magical reindeer, around the world, slips into your house while you sleep and puts presents under the tree. What’s interesting to me is the commonly associated attributes of Father Christmas. He knows all, can do the unimaginable, and to a certain degree he is a judge. These characteristics raise in my mind an important question to consider as the holiday season is now upon us: is Santa simply the culture’s attempt to make a more palatable God? And if so how should Christians respond? Does this confuse children? Does it contaminate theology? I am inclined to say that while it doesn’t necessarily contaminate our theology, it does perpetuate an already faulty doctrine of God in American and Western society.

The two men are in reality quite distinct. Santa is the grandfatherly kind old man who, if you’re good, gives you candy from his pocket. God, on the other hand, is the holy divine creator. He is the sovereign one who has every right to make demands on your life and hold you accountable for not fulfilling the purpose for which He created you: to glorify Him. These two distinct men pose two distinct worldviews. (1) The first says God was created for me; (2) the second says, I was created for God!

So what are we to do with Santa Clause as this holiday season approaches? That is a question for individual believers to carefully consider. The important thing is to be sure that we aren’t confusing God and Santa, and more importantly that the realization that one is a myth doesn’t lead to a conclusion that the other is also fiction, something for little kids but not those of a mature mind. Whatever you decide about Saint Nick do your best to teach your children that no matter how old they get they never grow out of believing in God.

About Dave Dunham
  • http://chestertonianrambler.blogspot.com ChestertonianRambler

    “He knows when you’ve been sleeping
    He knows when you’re awake
    He knows when you’ve been bad or good
    So be good…

    …for goodness’ sake.”

    Did anyone else find these lyrics TERRIFYING in their theological implications?

    I mean, if he knows all that and is good, and if you’re being constantly reminded of it…CAN one even be good for goodness’ sake?

  • http://www.myspace.com/wb6jbm RD Powell

    ahhh, someone else understands. Good writeup dave.
    /rick

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/crlyheddhuricane Adena

    Did my comments get deleted on purpose?

    *frump face*

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Yeah. I think Rich has it in for both you and Ben Bartlett – since your three comments were done in most ignominiously.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com Rich Clark

    I have no idea what happened to them. Were they there and then went away later?

  • Alan Noble

    Yeah, there was at least two comments from Adena, and I think one from someone else. I noticed they vanished a few days ago.

  • Rich Clark

    That is really weird. Sorry. I’ll try to get to the bottom of it.

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  • http://www.undergraceinaustin.wordpress.com Jacob Vanhorn

    Ah, finally someone who speaks my language on the Santa thing.

    While the Santa we have today shares some attributes of God, the big difference is that Santa is works based. Karma based even. Be good and get rewarded. Do bad and get left out.

    The gospel is grace. I want my son to know that I give good gifts because he is my son.

    Santa’s message (& religions message), “Do good and be accepted”

    God’s message, “Through grace, in Christ you are accepted, and through the Spirit you will grow in doing good”

    Santa gets it backwards.

  • http://www.undergraceinaustin.wordpress.com Jacob Vanhorn

    Oh, and if the stories of St. Nicholas are true, then he was also a fan of unmerited favor. That got lost on our Santa.

  • Geoffrey Seven

    It would be worth unpacking the way the Theology of Santa is elaborated through the various TV Christmas specials that we see throughout the season — e.g. “Charlie Brown Christmas, “Rudolph,” “Year Without a Santa Claus,” “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” etc. Even “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

    There seems to be a progression (or deterioration, depending on your POV) happening. Grinch and Rudolph replace the explicitly Christian message of “Charlie Brown” with some vague “Christmas values” that are about togetherness, tolerance, and giving. Giving is construed in basically commercial terms — Santa’s workshop stands in for the machinery of capitalist production (not to get all Marxist or anything)and the “magic” of Christmas, the truth at its core, the big payoff, is about getting stuff. Meanwhile, the harsh realities of production and distribution (think of underpaid child factory workers in China, applying lead paint to your kid’s Thomas the Tank Engine toys) are magically “disappeared” into cozy images of happy elves wielding tiny hammers.

    Then in “Year Without a Santa Claus” “T’was the Night” and “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” “faith” is reinterpreted as faith in — the existence of Santa Claus! “You gotta believe,” these shows urge us, and what we gotta believe in is Santa himself, or the spirit he supposedly embodies of, well, togetherness, tolerance and giving. Most of all, giving.

    Even when I was a kid, I wondered about it. At the end of “Grinch,” we are told the big lesson the Grinch learns is that “Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” I remember asking my dad, “Well if that’s true, then how come he has to bring all the presents back at the end?” Even then, I realized that we needed the Grinch to bring back the gifts; and that the ostensible message of the show, and its narrative trajectory completely contradicted each other. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that they offer a new logic of Christmas — one distinctly at odds with the Christian world view. It goes something like this:

    Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Instead, you gotta “believe” (in togetherness, tolerance, giving, Santa Claus) — and then you’ll get your stuff anyway.

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