One of the things that has always bothered me about Santa as a childish God archetype is the naughty list.
He’s making a list,
And checking it twice.
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He know’s when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good, for goodness sake.
Oh, you better watch out,
You better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town.
— “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (1934) by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie
I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the song because of its place in the movie Elf…
…but that song is seriously messed up. In her wonderful post, On Santa and Calvin’s Third Use of the Law, Presbyterian pastor Erica Schemper explored the issue brilliantly. Her first point is that since this is an empty threat, it’s simply bad practice for an authority figure. Empty threats erode authority.
And imagine if it were a real threat. Imagine any parent nowadays giving their child a lump of coal instead of gifts because they’ve been bad that year. What would we think of them?
We’d find that abhorrent because our perception of how a parent should act in such situations is based on unconditional love. Which leads to the main point.
A god that keeps a naughty list and punishes based on it is a model of God that I reject utterly. Can you find this god in Scripture? Sure. It’s the jealous tribal god who expects obedience and punishes those who disrespect it. You even get a hint of it in the Advent stories we’ve been reading, where Mary is celebrated and adored for her absolute obedience while John the Baptist’s father Zechariah is struck mute (temporarily) for daring to doubt God’s ability to perform a miracle (causing his post-menopausal wife to become pregnant.) But more often, modeled in the prodigal son parable and a hundred other examples, we find the unconditionally loving, always forgiving God.
I would prefer not to have a God who keeps a naughty list. We’re accountable, of course, for the awful stuff we do. But the naughty list comes without a hint of grace.
We don’t get gifts (or “graces”) because we’re good. We get gifts because we are loved.
Of course there’s karma. Bad deeds have consequences, we hope, because they take us out of communion with the Divine, out of union with our fellow humans and interconnected harmony around us. But when we’re talking about actions taken towards us, then I look to the example of ideal parenting: unconditional love and forgiveness, not withholding of love and favor.
Erica’s blog post was sparked by a conversation she had with her daughter, who asked about the naughty list. Here, Erica is responding to Zora:
Me: “And, here’s the thing: I think you should be good not to get on a list, or because you’ll get presents. You should do good things because you’re glad that there are people who love you.”
And that, friends, is Calvin’s Third Use of the Law (*see brief theological explanation below), right there, boiled down to first grade level (yes, it is more complicated than first grade level, but we have to start somewhere).
God doesn’t keep a naughty list that determines whether or not you are graced (gifted) with the presence of Jesus. God just loves you.
And being good isn’t about getting on the right list: you’re already on. You’re good because God loves you, and you’re thankful.
Santa’s naughty list wasn’t invented with the 1934 song, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” It’s part of the Sinterklaas legend I mentioned in my post on the history of Santa Claus from a few weeks ago:
In Dutch culture, Sinterklaas is undeniably St. Nicholas, wearing a bishops vestments, but the mixing of the stories is murky and takes a much darker turn. While it has this early Turkish bishop riding through the sky and distributing gifts, it adds the idea of a book noting which children were nice and which were naughty. The nice ones got gifts. The naughty ones risked being thrown in jute bags by Sinterklaas’s helper — originally a devil, later the legend took on racist tones — and stolen away!
This story dates back at least to the Middle Ages if not to the Norse god Odin, whose helper ravens reported back to him on people’s deeds.
Perhaps this issue stings because it hits a little close to home. As I’ve mentioned before, my parents came from pioneer stock — literal wagon train material, with a thread of Pilgrim in there as well — and the standard form of punishment was not yelling or anything physical, but shunning — the equivalent of the lump of coal, withholding the gift of love. Conditional love. Not really; they still loved me, but acting like they didn’t was how they punished. And that sounds a lot like the God who would keep a “naughty list.” That is not my God.
You can see all my Advent-themed pieces together at patheos.com/blogs/philfoxrose/tag/advent/. Please share this link, or just one to my blog, with anyone you think might be interested. Thanks!