Seems to me there is more than the usual pooh-poohing of Christmas this year. True, Santa and all the glitter-spangled gluttony he has come to represent is a far cry from the third century bishop who reportedly gave his inheritance to the poor (according to Jesus’ words, “sell what you own and give to those in need”), but the deeper meaning of the holiday remains. Does it matter much that Jesus was more likely to have been born in a desert in early spring than in a snowy, glowy, Thomas Kinkade vision of Bethlehem? To me, no it doesn’t. Christmas and other “midwinter” holidays have a more subliminal purpose, although it’s true that the modern Christmas mania seems to more closely resemble the revels of Saturnalia than the humble birth of a peasant in the desert. (Maybe except for the orgies.)
The re-aligning of the birth of a Savior of the world with the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, makes sense to me. Winter is cold, and dark. Many of the indigenous people of the northern hemisphere had a festival that attempted to keep the cold at bay by bringing community together and celebrate the lengthening of the days. Good cheer is necessary on the coldest of nights, and a fire in the hearth with good company can help to stall the deepest winter blues. And if you have none of those, there is always the hope that out of the darkness will come a superhero, a supreme being, a Savior, to light the way in times of confusion, loneliness and despair. Gladys Herdman in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” sums it up well: “Shazam! Out of the darkness, right? Out of the black night, right?” Whether your Savior is Santa Claus or Jesus, or someone else entirely, we could all use another reason to hope.
And in defense of Santa, he is a bit of an easier concept to grasp for kids. Be good and you’ll be rewarded. When you’re a kid you get that you’ll be rewarded with presents. The concept of being rewarded with eternal life in heaven comes later (sometimes). I would hazard a guess that most people raised as Christians (or secularly) remember when they stopped believing in Santa, and for many it was probably the beginning of the end of childhood. “How drear would be the world if there were no Santa,” wrote the Sun editor to young Virginia all those years ago. And that’s true–a friend of my parents, retired, gives of his (real) snowy white beard to the cause of Believing In Santa during the month of December. It seems to be one of the highlights of his year.
While I don’t think I can properly call myself a Christian anymore, the Christmas season is a reason for me, too, to welcome a light in the darkness, and stomp my boots on the doorsteps of friends before warming my hands–and my soul–in their home. Merry Christmas, friends. Namaste.