Santa and God Don’t Keep Naughty Lists

VG Cats #230: Judgmental — © 2007 Scott Ramsoomair

One of the things that has always bothered me about Santa as a childish God archetype is the naughty list.

You know:

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

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…but that is seriously messed up. In her wonderful post, On Santa and Calvin’s Third Use of the Law a few days ago, 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 (of causing his post-menopausal wife to become pregnant.) But more often we find the unconditionally loving, always forgiving God modeled in the prodigal son parable and a hundred other examples.

Erica says:

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 sometimes portrayed in Hebrew Scripture, and it sounds 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!

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Bill S

    Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try.
    No hell below us. Above us only sky.
    There is no God to judge anyone.
    Not even Adolf Hitler was judged and punished.
    The moment our brain stops functioning we cease to exist.
    People should strive for goodness for its own sake and not for fear of punishment or hope for reward. Having said that I do believe that what goes around comes around in some strange and unexplainable way.

  • Dan

    Imagine there’s no goodness to strive for. Imagine there’s no evil to strive against. Because that’s what atheism actually means. It means there was nothing wrong with what happened at Sandy Hook and nothing right about what happens in Mother Teresa’s convents around the globe. It means nothing means anything. Why someone would choose to believe that God doesn’t exist in the utter absence of evidence is crazy.

  • Bill S

    People should strive for goodness for its own sake. John Lennon wrote Imagine. Did he think there was no goodness to strive for and no evil to strive against? How does it mean there was nothing wrong at Sandy Hook or nothing right in Mother Teresa’s convents? There is no hell for Adam Lanza and no heaven for Mother Teresa. That is not good or bad. It is just what it is.


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