I had a religious experience at Macy’s department store in New York City when I took my four year old son there to meet Santa. It was a Saturday morning. There were billions of us (I’m not exaggerating) standing between two yellow lines of tape on the floor which led to a far away door. We followed the yellow tape road. In the distance, in red and green neon letters, a sign said, SantaLand!
It seemed like forty minutes passed between each step forward in the line. The rest of the time we stood with one arm full of merchandise and the other arm around the neck of a squirming child who was desperately trying to break loose and make a mad dash through the armed security guards standing at the gates of SantaLand.
My son’s only thought was to get to Santa. My only thought was to do whatever I had to do to get out of that Christmas madhouse as soon as possible. The further we advanced in the line to SantaLand, the more the situation deteriorated. People crowded closer and closer to each other, leaning on the person in front of them, as if schmooshing someone to death would somehow make the line move faster.
I imagined that some plump-faced, lollipop-licking, son-of-a-millionaire child was taking more than their share of time on Santa’s lap and that was what was holding up the line. The injustice of it all was prolonging my suffering. Grumpiness, impatience, and even an occasional obscenity could be heard above the sound of Jingle Bells that was blasting out of the store’s PA system.
If this is the spirit of Christmas, I thought to myself, you can keep it!
We finally made it through the pearly gates of SantaLand! Once inside, my son and I were instantly mesmerized by thousands of little, white lights suspended from the ceiling like stars in a midnight sky. We walked over wooden foot bridges with magical creatures swimming underneath in rivers of multi-colored water. Elves sat high on tree branches, whistling Christmas carols and fishing with candy cane poles. Toy children lay on their backs, making snow-angels in fields of cotton candy. Real children, dressed as elves, handed out free cookies and pointed the way to Santa’s living room.
Suddenly, there he was!
“He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, and I laughed when I saw him in spite of myself. His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin was as white as the snow. A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack. His eyes ~ how they twinkled; his dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!” And he wanted nothing more in life than to fulfill the wishes of children and their loved ones.
The rest of the time in line to sit on Santa’s lap was no more stressful than five minutes on a hammock. There was an occasional delay as one child had a hard time gaining courage to get on Santa’s lap, and another child had a hard time getting off Santa’s lap when it was time to leave.
Later that night I put my child to bed, laid on the couch, closed my eyes and reviewed the events of the day. A traditional advent Bible passage came to mind. John the Baptist was in the wilderness when the word of God came to him and he cried out, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
It occurred to me that while preparing to enter SantaLand, we too had been in the wilderness, crying out. We were in the wilderness of New York City. We were in the wilderness of Macy’s with its constant, seductive demand that in order to experience Christmas you must buy something. We were in the wilderness of anonymity, being just another nameless person with just another nameless kid standing on line in a department store. And we were in the wilderness of hope itself, waiting and hoping that something spiritually meaningful would happen to us ~ in Macy’s, of all places!
There are scores of people who decorate their homes at Christmas but would never think of going to church. Some Christians detest the Santafication of Christmas. Some people love Santa but hate church. And some people hate Santa but love church.
I know that Jesus Loves Santa. I know that because I saw them together at Macy’s where I learned that the Spirit of Christmas is everywhere, waiting to lift us up and help us transcend the wilderness and to enter the Promised Land of milk and honey, of sugar cookies and candy canes; the Promised Land of joy and peace where all God’s children are equally loved and welcomed.
Jesus loves Santa because Jesus loves anyone who helps people to get in touch with the living spirit of God and the sense of awe that accompanies the realization that there is a supreme spirit of love at work in the universe that is bigger than us all.
Lying on the couch with eyes closed, I saw that the church could become as spiritually rewarding, awe-filled and wondrous as a trip to SantaLand. I began to see Jesus in all things, including Santa. And I began to see Santa in all things, including Jesus. And I began to see that, perhaps, the greatest gift we could ever receive and unwrap is an awareness of God’s presence among us at all times and in all places ~ even at Macy’s.
Dwight Leee Wolter is the pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York. He blogs at dwightleewolter.com
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