Every year, just like you and I, my children get older. And each year that passes they become smarter and more aware. And each year at Christmas the topic of Santa comes into play. Of course the songs about eight tiny reindeer and a certain amorous red-suited man kissing someone’s mother plays on the radio. And we all love it and sing along. But I can see in my eldest the question and reality of Santa Claus running through his benevolent mind. I see with all passion and innocence his desire to believe. I see his spirit light up with every viewing of The Polar Express. I see his face brighten when the cheesy radio DJ begins reporting on how the NORAD analysts caught a blip of a sleigh dashing and dancing and prancing its way across their radar screens. And I also see his intellect sorting through the practicality of one jelly-bellied man crossing the planet in a single night delivering gifts to every child on the planet using only the horse (reindeer) power of a flying sled. And beyond the logistics, how does he get into homes like ours that don’t have a chimney? So I began asking myself, why do I keep this story going? Why has it become my seasonal mission to keep this legend alive in our Cypress Street home? I think it has something to do with magic.
Before you dismiss me as some heretical pagan, let me explain the type of magic I am describing. I don’t mean a literal casting of spells and mixing of potions on your backyard turkey fryer. By magic I mean the type of stories that remove us from this world of strife and misery and sweep us up into the enchanting beauty of elven kingdoms and tranquil shires. I am talking about legends like Gandalf (who was a wizard, if you recall) that reflects a loving mentor we all long for. I am speaking about trees that walk, animals that talk, and worlds nestled just beyond the closet door. Why do we need these stories? We need them because we need something greater than ourselves to believe in. We need them to transfigure us and spark life in our hearts once more. We need them because in many ways they tell us the Christian story better than our churches did, where the Bible has been horribly sanitized, desensitized, and neutered. We need these stories now more than ever.
We are turning the corner on two years of a pandemic-riddled life complete with lockdowns, mandates, illness, fear, and isolation. The news literally cannot help itself but report on the newest variant, death count or policy change. Our country feels as though we are one vote away from irreparably fracturing. Citywide riots have become commonplace. Rage barely phases us. Gender has been stricken from legalease. The world has gone mad. And many
parents (birthing people?), like the father Luigi from “Life is Beautiful”, have spent their lives bravely guarding our children from the heinous attacks on their hearts, joy, and imagination. And the story of Christmas and Santa is just one more attempt at this shielding.
I know I am not alone in recognizing the mythical nature of Christmas. Books, movies, and fireside tales are filled with Christmas miracles. Who hasn’t heard that beautiful hymn “O Holy Night”? But have you been told about how it came to be? When an insignificant French clergyman in 1847 commissioned a lapsed-Catholic to write a song about the invasion of Christ into this world of darkness? And how the church unsuccessfully (thank God) attempted to quash the carol, only to have it become a world-renowned Christmastide favorite? Or the story of how opposing forces left climbed out of their foxholes and sang that blessed tune on Christmas Eve during the Franco-Prussian War? And how it became the anthem of the abolitionist movement in the antebellum United States? Or how the very tune that was nearly canceled by religious bureaucracy was the first song ever to be played across the airwaves, catching tuned-in sailors and soldiers by total surprise?
Or who hasn’t heard of the fabled World War I story where British and German troops called a ceasefire for one Christmas Day and played soccer together on the blood-stained battlefield? Where for 24 hours the true sense of Christmas prevailed even over totalitarianism and violence? How soldiers cut pine trees and hung lanterns on their boughs to symbolize a Christmas from peaceful bygone years? When opposing forces sang carols together and even exchanged gifts? We love these stories– rather, we need these stories. We need these stories of the transcendent to meet us in the here and now amidst blood and blasphemy.
These legends come from many years ago, glimmers of light in that generation’s darkness. How much further have we strayed since 1847, 1914, or even last year? How much more hatred has been sown, how much more irreverence, cynicism, and skepticism shade our days? If we are to keep our hearts alive, how much more are we in need of magic? How much more are our children in need of the spirit of Christmas? Of Santa?
The world has done a remarkable job of striking God from our daily lives throughout most of the year. But in an incredibly cunning way, He still makes himself known for a season, albeit disguised as a jolly old saint. The marketers and advertisers, the parade marshals and proprietors all unwittingly evangelize the Spirit behind the Greatest Story ever told- and it is a story of hope and joy. And that spirit is what makes mankind for a few glorious weeks become a little more patient in traffic. It is what makes people wave to each other a little more cheerfully while passing on the sidewalk, or offer a hearty “Merry Christmas!” from the stoop. It is what makes neighbors string lights and decorate trees, reminding us of the Light that once came, is still here, and shall come again. It is what makes differences a little less glaring, politics a little less divisive, and our days a little bit brighter.
Now back to the original question: Why do I keep the story of Santa alive in our home? Because we all need more magic in our lives. And to a seven-year old, the magic of Santa calls his heart up to something greater. It gives him something he can see, feel and believe in. To my son, Santa is as real as kindness, generosity, joy and even mystery. The magic of Christmas and the legend of Santa, like Gandolf and Aslan, are allegories for the King and Kingdom we are made for. And when people question whether encouraging the story of Santa will take my children away from God, secularizing them in a sense, I think of the words CS Lewis wrote to a mother who was troubled by her son’s love for Aslan (in our case Santa):
He can’t really love [Santa] more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves [Santa] for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when your son thinks he is loving [Santa], he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.
This year, whether you choose to tell the story of Santa or not, I pray that you allow a little more magic into your Christmas season–the magic that pauses wars, breaks the chains of oppression, and has the thrill of hope. Lord knows our weary world could use some more rejoicing. Whether you’re a soldier hanging lanterns on a tree in a trench, or an obscure clergyman in France, or just a layman like me, tonight let us praise His holy name. For there is something very real indeed behind the magic of this season. O holy night. O night divine.