The center of every Christmas is the Christ Child in the manger, really present in the Holy Eucharist on our altars and visually represented in our mangers. We are all aware of how many ways contemporary culture provides us with distractions from this supreme truth in our celebration of Christmas. It is a bit of a paradox. Chesterton said that the mystery of Christmas is too good to be true, except that it is true. Mankind has never gotten over it, even if it has largely forgotten why the lights and tinsel are so important.
This Christmas entry is a rewriting of one I posted several years ago about the place of Santa Clause in our celebration of the Birth of Christ. It is the fruit of further reflection on a subject relevant to those concerned about our culture.
Our cultural practices have never been the result of engineering but of organic development. The exceptions to the rule more or less prove it, as cultural engineers tend to do more harm than good. The mythology that has developed around the person of St. Nicholas of Myra is an enduring artifact from English speaking culture. It was not engineered. It may or may not become a distraction from the person of the Infant Jesus, depending our own dispositions.
Between 1920 and 1943, each Christmas J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a letter to his children in the name of Father Christmas (the English designation of Santa Claus), which were posthumously published under the title The Father Christmas Letters or Letters from Father Christmas. Tolkien handwrote and illustrated the letters and even pasted the envelopes with his own hand-illustrated postage stamps from the North Pole. In each of the letters the old elf told the children of the goings-on and adventures in the North Pole.
Were these letters a distraction from the central truth of Christmas, or somehow a compromise with heathenry? The Santa Claus myth draws the celebration of Christmas and the experience of winter into correlation, not unlike the way in which Spring correlates to Easter through the visual “myth” of form and color of the earth’s yearly new growth. Chesterton wrote that this use of the imagination attempts to reach beyond the visual to what stands behind its beauty. In the liturgy’s Christmas preface we declare that through the God made visible we are drawn up into the love of things invisible. This means that the Christ child must be central to our vision. But the truth of Christmas is legitimately celebrated in many ways, through the liturgy, the reading of the infancy narratives in the Gospel, through light, color, gift giving and storytelling. . . and eggnog (in moderation).
It was Tolkien’s love for the ancient literature of the North that in a large measure inspired the form of his mythology of Middle Earth. Such things in the hand of a master produce masterpieces. However, in the hands of a knave, the same things can produce atrocities. One such knave was Adolf Hitler. Tolkien wrote the following to his son during the great war:
You have to understand the good in things, to detect the real evil. . .Yet I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this ‘Nordic’ nonsense. Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized. . . (Letters, # 45).
Hitler had taken Norse mythology and turned into a diabolical religion of hate and racism. Tolkien took the same material and Christianized it as a natural form of natural mysticism. The myth of Santa Claus or Father Christmas is an element of Western culture that has the same quality. It is what you make of it.
I most certainly think that we do well to lift the Christian history out from the myth so that we can once again see it for what it is. We need to celebrate the memorial of St. Nicholas of Myra (December 6), with some solemnity and make sure our children hear the true story and develop a devotion to the real saint. There are all kinds of Catholic, ethnically based customs that could be adopted to do this. But that the Father Christmas myth should be banished from every true Christian home? I don’t see that such a precept should follow from an authentic understanding of the Catholic faith.
True, much of the image and story of the modern Santa Claus takes its origin from heathen mythology, some of which is of that Norse persuasion for which Tolkien had such a fondness. But so what? I have heard arguments that the Christmas Tree is of pagan origins also and I have heard arguments to the contrary. I have never bothered to resolve the issue because I really don’t see the point. It is true, there are elements of culture that are truly beyond rescue, but I don’t see a historical or doctrinal basis for the narrowest possible interpretation of these issues.
Myths vs. Lies
I cannot imagine that the letters from Father Christmas harmed Tolkien’s children, though I do believe that the question of lying to one’s children about Santa Claus is a legitimate and important one. But the power of a myth, even in respect to children, is not dependent on confusing fiction with reality. The suspension of disbelief is more easily accomplished in children, but this does not mean that they don’t know the difference between make believe and reality. Make believe has a power all of its own precisely as make believe. I can’t imagine that as adults Tolkien’s children had anything but fond and wholesome memories of their childhood Christmases. What would it have been like to be a child at the feet of J.R.R. Tolkien and hear him tell a story or read a letter from Father Christmas?!
And this brings me to a larger issue. I have no problem with people arriving at their own solution to this question or ones like it, and I don’t see why anyone should be particularly bothered that we might make up our minds differently. I am just concerned about ideological absolutes that tend to turn Catholic culture into a walled ghetto. It is myth that there was no diversity of culture and usage among the people of Christendom. The culture of Christendom was Catholic but not uniform.
The Christian imagination is not an instrument of propaganda, but one of praise that resides in the world of natural beauty and is able to elevate it. It is our patrimony as children of God to be sub-creators, that is, to take what God has given us and ornament it for his praise, as we do in a primary way through the ornamentation of the sacred liturgy. It is a patrimony that can be used or abused, but as Tolkien himself said:
. . . Abusus non tollit usum [the abuse of a thing does not take away its proper use]. . .[W]e make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker (“On Fairy-stories”).
We should use this power wisely, but use it we must for the glory and praise of our God invisible made visible in His Son.