In the classic Bill Murray comedy “Stripes,” there’s a scene in which all the new Army recruits are introducing themselves to each other and to their drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka. This is one memorable exchange between Hulka and a tightly-wound recruit named Francis:
Psycho: [My] name’s Francis Soyer, but everybody calls me Psycho. Any of you guys call me Francis, and I’ll kill you.
Psycho: You just made the list, buddy. And I don’t like nobody touching my stuff. So just keep your meat-hooks off. If I catch any of you guys in my stuff, I’ll kill you…
Sergeant Hulka: Lighten up, Francis.
“Lighten up, Francis.”
That’s how I feel at this time of year when I see articles from my fellow Christians complaining about Santa Claus. “It’s lying to your kids,” they say. Or “It’s just commercialism.” My fellow Patheos blogger Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry makes this argument in a piece he wrote today called “Kill Santa:”
the reasons to eradicate Santa go well beyond the lying argument. If you are a Christian, as I am, you are really shooting yourself in the foot. “No, the thing about the magic flying fat man, that was just a made-up story, but the thing about the magic bearded Jesus, that part, that’s totally true!” That sounds silly, doesn’t it? Mainstream popular culture works hard enough telling people Christianity is unbelievable; we should not join the chorus ourselves.
Having been raised in a Catholic family myself, I would have to say, “Mule fritters!” (to quote the immortal Colonel Potter).
My grandparents on my mother’s side were immigrants to this country, coming from Germany via Jugoslavia. They grew up with St. Nicholas bringing gifts on his Feast day, Dec. 6, while Christkindl (the Christ child) brought gifts on Christmas Eve.
When I came into the picture, they continued their German tradition of St. Nicholas but also adopted the more American Santa Claus. Jesus never got short shrift, but Santa was the one who brought the presents on Christmas Eve. That’s what I was told by all my family members. And let me assure you that my dearly departed, very Catholic, Pepperidge Farm-type Oma wouldn’t have put up with any kind of nonsense that contradicted the faith. (And if you even suggest that she would, she will likely return to this world briefly in order to hit you with her rolling pin.)
When I discovered that the adults were actually buying the presents and putting them under the tree, I was a little disappointed, but I had already begun to suspect that was the case. However, I wasn’t traumatized and I didn’t think of my family members as liars. If anything, I saw that the legend of Santa Claus was conveying truth even if it wasn’t entirely factual.
After all, here was a man who brings children unmerited gifts on the day that we remember a God who sent us the unmerited gift of His Son. As a child, that latter concept is tough to grasp, but the former is easy. Rather than contradict Christianity, it actually planted a seed that helped me better understand it.
And now that I’m an adult, I look back on that time and see Santa Claus as even more important, as a joyful and happy part of my childhood who represented the best parts of human nature: generosity, selflessness, hope, faith, a positive spirit. Perhaps there wasn’t a literal fat man in a red suit who brought the gifts under the tree, but the godly spirit he represents was embodied by the family and friends who gave me not just Star Wars figures and Atari games, but, most importantly, love, the memories of which still linger to this day. By no means do I associate that love with material things. The spirit behind the gifts is what made the difference.
Of course, Santa and Christmas are what you make them. If kids see the holiday as all about getting stuff, then they’re missing out.
But if Santa Claus is simply one part of your Christmas tradition – a part that reflects a spirit of giving, brings a smile to children’s faces, and allows them to experience some innocent joy in our cynical world – then by all means indulge in the Santa myth.
At its heart lies a truth, one in which I believe to this day.
Or, to quote the classic New York Sun editorial “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus:”
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
– The Great Santa Truth by Calah Alexander
– The Secret Society of Saint Nick by Rebecca Lane Frech
– A Modern Heir to St. Nicholas by Jerry Costello
– Santa Cop is Coming to Town by Deacon Greg Kandra