I’ve already revealed that I am a bad person who hates Christmas (although this Novena looks promising!), so I may as well take a swipe at Santa while we’re here. As a father of young children, I’m not particularly worked up about Santa one way or the other. He’s not really worth the time to discourage the kids from knowing about him, reading stories about him, or watching Christmas movies featuring him. My kids know all about him but also know that he is pretend. Children are quite capable of enjoying make-believe, so I have no interest in stopping them if Santa catches their fancy. To me, he isn’t challenging to faith, an affront to Christmas, or a rival to the Nativity of Our Lord, so it isn’t bothersome to see him at the mall or even a special event at Church. He seems like a swell, generous guy. He’s part of the Christmas fun.
Let’s admit, though, that Santa is one-dimensional and safe. If anything, I am offended at his blandness. But if we do embrace the Santa myth, if we do allow his story to eclipse that of Our Lord, what does that say about us? What is our ability to critically think about story, moral ambiguity, and the challenge of examining the big questions about our existence? At Christmas we are presented with two different myths, one of them happens to be true and the other make-believe, but let’s not focus on that*, instead let’s examine the stories purely as story and ask which is more robust? Which is more beautiful? Which is better?
If we were to hazard a few basic elements of a good story, we might come up with a list like the following:
- A cohesive plot that includes an arc
- Strongly defined, unique characters who are capable of growth
- A defined space for the action
- A protagonist, and better yet a protagonist on a quest
- An antagonist or setting for conflict
- A moral that is true (and thus beautiful and good), even if the moral is complicated, ironic, or inconclusive
I should note that the Santa myth has numerous antecedents. I don’t want to get into this theory of the ‘shroomed out, Coca-Cola crafted Santa, though, and we are also going to ignore Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, and St. Nicholas to focus on the Kris Kringle of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town vintage. The Eddie Cantor song of 1934 and Fred Astaire narrated stop-motion movie of 1970 is the version that has soaked into pop culture.
Let’s engage in some comparative mythology!
The plot of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is summarized here. The film connects the dots of various Christmas traditions by writing an underlying, cohesive myth. The plot does yeoman’s work to fit everything in, but is muddled for the effort. Although quite popular in its time and still screened today, I’m not sure that the plot itself has stood the test of time; subsequent films have taken great liberties in re-writing it without much fuss. The plot is a bit of a dead end, cleverly explaining how Santa came to be in the North Pole and interested in presents, but unable to make a lasting contribution to the tradition.
We don’t see any attempt to rewrite the plot to The Nativity of Our Lord. With its antecedent beginning at the creation of the world itself, the story maintains cosmic explanatory power. There is tremendous background, including dense foreshadowing and symbolism, and it was thousands of years in the making. Our Lord arrives with a purpose, the nail holes already etched in his hands, and he goes forth to leave the world forever changed. In such a manner is the curve of history bent heavenward.
Some of the Santa characters are more defined than others, and the story is the occasion for a number of “changes of heart.” Other than Santa himself, though, I don’t know that any of them make much of an impression. The elves and reindeer are still around, for sure, but Mrs. Claus, the Mayor, and the Warlock have faded. Perhaps this is why in recent years movies such as Elf have eclipsed the earlier myth with more memorable characters.
The Nativity includes Joseph, who turns away from his intention to leave his betrothed and instead learns the duties and joy of Fatherhood. And of course there is Mary, who cooperates with the divine plan to become the tabernacle of God Incarnate. The Wise Men encounter the God who is all truth and master even of the night sky. Each of these characters has inspired intense devotion, suggesting that they are highly relatable and well described. None leave the story the same as they began it. As we ponder their struggles with welcoming God into their lives, we come to see our lives reflected in theirs. And of course, Our Lord himself continues to be very real to multitudes of people.
A Defined Space
Santa has this in spades, and the creativity of the claymation and fairy-tale setting is what exudes the most appeal in the film. My only critique would be that Santa no longer inhabits that world but has since relocated. When we think about him today, it is very rarely in the context of Sombertown.
The Nativity is set in Bethlehem, a historical place, and in the context of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. It is strange but familiar. For his reason, the story continues to be present to all of us today. It begins where we are and slowly unfolds a whole, wonderful world of miracles and beauty. This is the world in which we live!
A Protagonist On a Quest
Santa is our guy, here. He will deliver toys come hell or high water, and we cannot help but admire his persistence. He will dive down a chimney, get reindeer hopped up on magic corn, whatever it takes! His quest is straightforward, to make the world a little bit happier through the gospel of giving. Unlike the Olympian gods, his activity is not an ironic commentary on fate. Unlike the Roman heroes, his myth is not foundational to a specific culture or a meditation on archaic violence. He simply wants to be nice. Because of its lack of nuance, I don’t see how Santa escapes moralism, still evident in the current insistence that we all believe and stop being scrooges or we are terrible people who hate children. Moralism presented in a didactic manner does not a great story make.
It’s odd, Christianity is often accused of moralism, but the Nativity is far less preachy. Obviously, the God of the Universe arriving in a dank cave and bedding down next to his exhausted mother, dependent on her for sustenance and life, marked with a mission to save the whole world from its sins, whose coming has been the concern of a thousand years of prophecy, for whom an entire people were created and called, makes for a good protagonist. The fate of the world hinges on his actions. Although he knows what he is about, we readers must journey and learn along the way the nature of his true mission. He is a King who becomes a servant, who conquers through defeat, who reveals that God loves the downcast and the humble. Not only does he love them, but he becomes one with them, a victim just like them. This is a protagonist on a quest unlike any other.
Santa is opposed by the Winter Warlock and the Mayor of Sombertown. There is certainly something to the redemption of the dark, winter months with the light of generosity. There is also something to be said for maintaining a childlike innocence even as adults. The battle against winter has been won and the Warlock converted. Today, he doesn’t remain a vital part of the tradition and winter has been romanticized by ice skating and snowfall. Adults are still a problem, though, at least according to the movies. Almost every Christmas film concerns a grumpy adult trying to ruin Christmas by failing to share in the spirit of the season.
In the Nativity, the whole world bears down against the coming of the humble Savior. Joseph is concerned about having an illegitimate son, Herod is willing and ready to murder any challengers to his throne, the innkeeper is concerned that his inn not collapse under the weight of too many people. The Sadducees certainly aren’t going to like Jesus, and we even glimpse his impending death in the gifts of the Magi. We also glimpse the manner of his victory in his birth in Bethlehem, the “Bread House,” swaddled in a feeding trough. If he is to be sacrificed, he will in turn feed the world. It is a child who will save the adults, not through a conversion to childish, blind faith, but through a reasonable yet child-like trust in the God who is very real.
Is it true that a good boy always prospers, that good behavior earns a reward? Is it beautiful to consider the goal of morality to be material attainments? Is it good behavior if in fact it is undertaken with an ulterior motive? I worry about these questions in relation to Santa. To be fair, though, the movie aims for a different moral:
Poor, misguided folks. They missed the whole point. Lots of unhappiness? Maybe so. But doesn’t Santa take a little bit of that unhappiness away? Doesn’t a smile on Christmas morning scratch out a tear cried on a sadder day? Not much maybe. But what would happen if we all tried to be like Santa and learned to give as only he can give: of ourselves, our talents, our love and our hearts? Maybe we could all learn Santa’s beautiful lesson and maybe there would finally be peace on Earth and good will toward men.
Here is the simple encouragement to generously love. It really isn’t a bad start, but ultimately it is inadequate, the victim of sentimentality. In reality we are not good, we don’t love the way we ought, we let each other down, and we cannot bring peace on earth through our own efforts. The encouragement to try is well received, but we need more. Good stories are not sentimental, because sentiment is shallow and individualistic. Our desires cannot redefine reality any more than the United States Post office giving letters for Santa to a random man can actually make him Santa Claus.
Again, Santa seems like a fun guy to have around and he will always remain a part of the Christmas festivities, but the myth itself shows inadequacies. I went back and forth while I was writing this essay, trying to decide which Santa myth is definitive. The answer seems to be that none is; anecdotally speaking, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town seems to have faded and has been replaced by Polar Express, Will Ferrell’s Elf, and a resurgent Krampus.
Speaking of Will Ferrell, he recently went out of his way to invent a new Santa entirely, telling Jimmy Fallon that Kris Kringle is, “old and lame,” and commenting that reindeer are passé, “Bro, this is the year of the drone.” Santa now spends his time “in Cabo, bro.” listening to a new band called “Smashmouth.” I like the new Santa.
Santa constantly adapts. He follows culture instead of creating it, and because of this he is fun but uninspired. A good myth is not one that we outgrow and subsequently feel guilt about doing so. A good myth is like a song or a poem, endlessly challenging, ever revealing new insights, fascinating on all levels.
The child in the manger continues to grow with us. We are challenged to accept God’s mercy, to grasp salvation not by our own efforts but by divine gift, comforted to know that he has not abandoned us, taught that humility is the path to greatness, shown the beauty of the world through its connection to the Incarnation. We see the simple goodness of Mary, the willingness of God to interact with even the lowliest of shepherds, his cooperation with us in our salvation. Motherhood is venerated. Fatherhood is sanctified. Wisdom is shown to be the persistent, dogged search for God wherever he may be found. There is much truth to ponder, here, and much beauty to be admired. In the Nativity, we have a true story that is challenging, compelling, beautiful and terrifying all at the same time. It is the greatest story ever told.
* Some would argue that insisting Santa is real is called Gaslighting.