BREAKING NEWS: Santa has overtaken Jesus as “the reason for the season.” While many claim that a thriving movement cannot be measured in numbers, and that faith will ultimately triumph over folly ~ it is clear that religious festivities and services continue to lose ground to secular ones; spiritual is being routed by commercial; and Christmas is celebrated most often ~ not at communion in the church ~ but at the food court in the mall.
This reality will not be reversed with appeals to “come join us” or with defensive slogans like, “Keep Christ in Christmas” aimed at people who didn’t know he was leaving.
One way out of this dispute is to reach a spiritual détente and avoid an all-out war waged at the mall and manger. The “Christmasites” can celebrate “Christmas” and the “Holidites” can celebrate “Santamas.” We can be of one accord and verify the validity of both realities. Jesus is the Savior and Santa is a Saint. Characters dressed as Jesus and Santa could meet on Main Street. Jesus could offer Santa an olive branch, and Santa could offer Jesus a sprig of Mistletoe. The character depicting Savior Jesus could wear a Santa hat, and Saint Santa could don a crown of thorns.
Oh, church, hear my plea: Santa warrants being considered for sainthood: he has led a virtuous and heroic life in pursuit of peace on earth. Many people proclaim that miracles that have taken place through the intercession of Saint Santa. Scientifically unexplainable healings of frozen and broken hearts have taken place. Lives have been transformed. Hope has been restored. Sightings of Santa count in the millions. Letters, forwarded to the North Pole by the United States Post Office, have been delivered and answered ~ and everybody knows that mail delivered promptly and accurately at this time of year is, in and of itself, a miracle.
How in the world did we get into this simmering tension at the border where manger and mall meet? What would Jesus do? What would Santa say? Here is what both have said to me: We do not need to choose between being a disciple of Jesus and an elf of Santa. Although an ordained minister serving as pastor of an historic church on Long Island ~ I was not raised with Jesus; I was raised with Santa. I was not raised in the church; I was raised in the mall.
The stories of toys and candy made it seem easy to love Santa; but the stories of lepers and the birthday gift of myrrh (an embalming spice) to a baby made loving Jesus seem dangerous. I entered a church for the first time in my life at age 34. Some Christians to me they did not appreciate it that Santa kept a list of who is naughty and nice because it was divisive, shaming and blaming. Other Christians told me that Jesus kept a list of who is gay and who is straight, and that was divisive, shaming and blaming. It left me wondering who is making up stories; what is fact; and what is fiction.
I also wondered why stores at the mall where I encountered Santa were clean and open late; whereas churches where I encountered Jesus were musty and seldom open. It seemed that Santa warmed but Jesus warned me. Santa fed and Jesus bled. The bearded and plump Santa looked like a healthy role model. The bearded and lank Jesus dying on a cross did not. Santa was depicted as a jolly, old elf preparing to enter every home, heart and hearth bearing gifts without price tags. Jesus was depicted as a dead icon from a church asking for your money before even asking your name.
Yes, I entered a church for the first time in my life at age 34 and was baptized at 43 and ordained at 47. And so I say this as a Christian: It is no wonder that Santa is on the fire truck at the Holiday/Christmas parade and not Jesus. It is no wonder that more people go to the mall than to the church. It is no wonder that people choose the easier, softer story.
My first “religious” experience was at Macy’s department store in New York City where I took my then two year old son to meet Santa Claus. It was a Saturday morning. There were several billion (I am not exaggerating!) people in front of us in the line. It seemed like forty minutes passed between each step forward. Finally, (Hallelujah!) we made it through the pearly gates to Santa Land. 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 us 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 candy and pointed the way to the Promised Land of Santa’s living room. And suddenly, there he was! ~ a right jolly old elf, and I laughed when I saw him in spite of myself. His eyes ~ how they twinkled; his dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
And this Santa dude wanted nothing more in life than to fulfill the wishes of children, like mine, and their loved ones, like me.
That night I put my son to bed and reviewed the events of the day in my head. The story of John the Baptist came to mind. John was in the wilderness when the word of God came to him and he cried out! And I too had been crying out as a single parent wanting help in learning how to raise my child. It occurred to me that, while preparing to enter Santa Land, I too, like the Baptist, had been in the wilderness, crying out. My son and I were in the wilderness of New York City. We were in the wilderness of anonymity. I was just another nameless person with just another nameless kid standing on line in a department store waiting to catch a glimpse of beauty. And my child and I were in the wilderness of hope itself, waiting and hoping that something spiritually meaningful would happen to us ~ in Macy’s of all places!
What I was seeking, without even knowing it, was an experience of transcendence ~ of rising above and beyond the limits of my self. I did not know enough to care whether I found that transcendent experience in a toy or in a relationship with Christ. Saint Santa at Macy’s led me to Christ Jesus at church; where I have stayed ever since.
I accept that some people love Santa, but hate church and that some people hate Santa, but love church. But I know that Santa doesn’t hate church and Jesus doesn’t hate Santa. Jesus is Lord and Santa is Saint. And I am a disciple, a follower with leadership skills bestowed on me like gifts under a dazzling tree and I have transcended the wilderness and entered the Promised Land of milk and honey ~ by way of the promised land of sugar cookies and candy canes.
Jesus loves Saint Santa and anyone who helps people to get in touch with the living spirit of the God of their understanding with a sense of awe and awareness that there is at work in the universe a supreme spirit of love that is bigger than us all. If the Christian church was as spiritually rewarding and awe-filled as a trip to Santa Land, there would be no need for Saint Santa and he could finally retire to a long winter’s nap. People would see that the greatest gift they could possibly ask for and unwrap is the awareness of God’s presence among us at all times, not just at Christmas.
Sorry to end this so abruptly, but I have important things to attend to ~ I see Jesus in everyone; I hear sleigh bells ringing; I smell cookies; and my heart is held captive by hope.
Dwight Lee Wolter is the pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York. He is the author of several books and blogs at dwightleewolter.com