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.
Merry Christmas to you Father! Thank you for writing again.
Merry Christmas, Brother Hubert. I hope everyone in the East is safe. I hear there is lots of snow.
Beautiful, just beautiful! Merry Christmas to you, too, Father Angelo! We’re having a white one here in CT after all!
We struggled with the ‘Do we let our children believe in Santa or not?’ I remember when my first-born started asking me about Santa. I was struggling with the whole ‘lying’ thing but every time I tried to ‘hint’ that Santa wasn’t real, she’d say something like, “So, the reindeer can really fly, Mom.” After bantering back and forth I realized that my daughter had this wonderful gift of an imagination that knew no limits … and she found GREAT joy in that. Who are we to spoil such a gift? It’s so short-lived. So I worked through my ‘lying’ issue by never lying! When the children would ask, “Does Santa really have elves and really come down the chimney?” I’d say, “That’s how the story goes.” They were fine with that response. I do wish we made a bigger deal out of St. Nicholas’ Feast Day but we just didn’t. Our Church did, though, so the kids always knew who he was though he was more of a saintly looking and acting Santa during the yearly children’s Christmas party.
For those who think the Santa dilemma is a new one, you might want to read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoirs. She discussed how people ‘today’ (in her day) don’t want to let their children believe in Santa Claus. She went on to discuss how much fun she felt that belief was during her childhood. I was shocked since I figured this dilemma was fairly recent. So, there’s nothing all that new under the sun, I suppose. People still struggle with the same things. Your lovely story would have cured me of it all twenty years ago when I was first struggling.
The center of Christmas is indeed Jesus and we should dedicate it to Him. When I was a kid, I have always looked forward for Christmas because of Santa and his gifts–Christmas was always fun and exciting. When I grew up, I came to realize that Christmas is all about Jesus and His love for us. Christmas became more meaningful to me. This is what I share to my kids now–keeping Christmas fun and exciting for the kids and at the same time having Jesus as the center of it. Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Merry Christmas, Father, and thank you for posting this. I can’t say I have any clear opinion of the Santa Question, having always been a bit scrupulous and annoyed about the whole situation of telling children that a fat man dressed in red breaks in once a year to leave gifts that I bought (but I’m not allowed to tell). My wife, however, who has clearer vision of these matters, informs me that I’m completely and utterly wrong on the Great Issue of the Elf, and has seen to it that our children have grown up safely within the Santa Celebratory Paradigm. She even makes me counterfeit Santa’s signature, claiming I have a special gift in this regard. As this seems to have resulted in very happy children, who also have a deep and deepening faith in Christ, and know full well what the celebration is really about, I recommend this tack to all Santambivalent husbands such as myself.
Or, to paraphrase Yogi Berra: I may be scrupulous, but I’m not Scrooge.
The rest of your discussion was also deeply helpful. As a jazz musician, I’ve sometimes wondered what to make of my experiences with the music–how is it that the muted trumpets behind Helen Forrest’s vocal in Harry James’s recording of ‘Skylark’ remind me, more than anything in the history of music, of the love of God shining on the hills? I don’t know…but your reasoning suggests that there is purpose in God’s love being found there, and perhaps helps me find good work to do.
I love the new look of the blog. Merry Christmas again!
So nice to hear from you Eric,
You are carrying on a long tradition of dads who do the darndest things for the love of family.
Franciscans have a tendency to relate all things wonderful to the humanity of Christ as their reason and ultimate end. The fact that we can sub-create, particularly through music is something that lies along the frontier of nature and grace, so to speak.
Glad to be back, and glad you like the new look.
Merry Christmas, Father!
I guess for us it was a little easier “back in the day” to remember the real St. Nicholas because one of our children is named Nicholas. However, what we really focused on with them was that what the whole hoopla Santa business that people go on about is really the spirit of giving and generosity- especially giving in secret, in imitation of Saint Nicholas… “and when you are old enough to understand, then you get to be helpers and give in secret as well.” It was really something that first Christmas when they were all old enough to understand, when on Christmas morning they were thinking of those gifts they had given in secret- and the people who would receive them and never even know who they were. Our children experienced a sense of not only generosity, but gratefulness.
Merry Christmas to you, too, Father Angelo. CT is just not the same without you. You are missed, but we have you here, thankfully.
I love this post, and appreciate the wider road you open up for the conscientious Catholic parent. Our own children are all well beyond the “Santa years”, but we have many fond memories of his visits. Yes, I promoted the notion of Santa on many occasions. Guilty as charged. Perhaps a tad much, from time to time. One year, I went so far as to send my brother-in-law outside on a snowy Christmas Eve to throw a basketball up onto the roof repeatedly to help me fool our oldest (Nicholas) into thinking that Santa was landing up there. This so he’d go to bed. The repeated thumping and clatter on the roof was explained as Santa landing, and then taking off, repeatedly because he was waiting; He knew someone was awake in the house. Our Nicholas was aware that presents could never, EVER, be delivered if children were still up in the house. You know, that child actually willed himself to sleep in minutes. (Amazing. I had no idea it would actually work so well.) I even left an oversized silver jingle bell on the ground for him to find the next day as evidence that the reindeer had been up there. This little masquerade was in addition to the usual trappings. There was always a note from St Nicholas, praising them for some goodness which was noted by him during the year. This note was always left neatly next to the half drunk glass of milk (Santa presumeably in too big a hurry to down a full glass) and plate of well nibbled carrots (the deer having more time to eat whilst Santa placed gifts about the room). All told, from oldest to youngest, me and the Mrs spent about a dozen years pitching the Santa brand. If anyone would like to sue me for defamation of the faith, go ahead. You may take this to be my only defense;. The children all liked these Christmas occurances. They enriched us. In time, these details were woven into the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of the Messiah. Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, St Nick, or, the Spirit of Christmas Giving, was always described as a close friend of Christ. He eventually transitioned from jolly Santa to something more, much more, quite nicely.
Over and out from the North pole.
PS- Skylark… one of the best songs of all time. Steeped in beauty. Always nice to know we are not alone in our beliefs… musical or otherwise. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year Mr Seddon!
PPS- I too dig Father’s new digs… e-digs, that is… Crisp and Clean.
Mr. and Mrs. V,
Thanks for the Christmas greetings! God bless you.
About the tree, some time ago I found an explanation. I don’t know if it is correct or true. I tried to find the source, but I coudn’t. Any the explanation is this:
The tradition of the Christmas tree has a Germanic origin. S. Boniface (eighth century) adopted it to replace the oak sacred sacrifices to the pagan god Odin. The Saint imposed the custom to offering a tree to the Child God (Child Jesus). We use the pine and fir. The choice of these trees has an explanation. Being evergreens, which symbolize eternal life is a gift of the risen Jesus. The green color of its leaves are a sign of hope. It is also used holly. This plant was for the Romans a symbol of peace and happiness.
Father, I don’t want to overflow here with my comments, but I have found a very interesting video about the Christmas Tree. I would like to share with you all. See.
Jesuit Father Michael Paul Gallagher talks about the beginnings of the Christmas tree tradition.