Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, not a jolly man in a red suit.
My dad was Santa Claus. I didn’t realise this until, one evening when I was about eight years old, he and my mother went out “to visit friends”. Less than an hour later, I answered the door to a tall, portly gentleman dressed in a red robe, with a flowing white beard. His laughing green eyes gave it away—this was my father, not Father Christmas. The costume belonged to the county hospital where he worked, and by virtue of being the only man on staff, the festive duty of dispensing talc, soap and aftershave to patients fell to him each year.
Years later my future husband was Santa Claus. One Christmas Eve, he donned the red suit and stood in front of his mother, who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She recognised him immediately; I don’t know how, but I suspect that it was the same thing again—the eyes. He had kind, brown eyes with a mischievous expression.
Having had the privilege of knowing and loving two Santas, I am well-placed to write a critique of the jolly fellow. His image is everywhere at this time of year and children (and their parents) are queuing up to meet him. He has become the focus of Christmas, the kindly fulfiller of wishes. If you ask Santa for something, he will not refuse because he is good.
I can remember believing in this mythical figure. It was magical, and there is certainly a place for that in the life of every child. But he was not always the ubiquitous figure that he has become, and I think he has changed into something much more sinister than many of us realise.
It isn’t that once a year we encourage a complete stranger to enter our homes during the night and help himself to our food before leaving without being seen. (Surprisingly enough, that still seems to be an acceptable part of the Christmas narrative.) No, it’s more that he has displaced the person who really gives Christmas its meaning. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is all very well, but he doesn’t give presents or grant wishes. He is just a nice adjunct to the main event, which arguably is a frenzy of greed.
Far from being the benevolent man of my childhood, Santa is now some sort of god of consumerism, granting wishes and handing over whatever your little ones may desire. How can Jesus hope to compare with that?
It’s not the presents we will open on Christmas Day brought by the jolly man in the red suit that make Christmas perfect.
His birth was most unlike that of lesser kings. It had none of the costly trappings of rank or rich display because, from the very first, he was gently telling us that none of that matters.
Yet, when the wise men came from the East, they brought expensive gifts for him. Why would a child born in such lowly circumstances require such valuable and seemingly impractical presents? Because their gifts recognised who this child was.
Gold was for his kingship; frankincense for his deity; and myrrh, commonly used as an embalming oil, recognised his mortality as one who was God, yet fully human. These gifts, which have become the background noise of “the Christmas story”, are in fact a significant part of it because they foreshadowed what this infant would be to mankind.
Last year, on the weekend before Christmas, I travelled into the city centre. To me, it seemed like a boiling frenzy of consumerism, with people rushing about, beguiled by advertisements promising the ‘perfect’ Christmas Day. But it’s not the presents we will open on Christmas Day brought by the jolly man in the red suit that make Christmas perfect. That perfection was attained 2,000 years ago, and began when a little child was offered gifts representing what he already possessed: deity, kingship and the keys to death.
Those gifts already in his possession are now offered to us to share. We may benefit from his kingship and from his Godness, and we may accept his offer of freedom from the bonds of death. Nothing on Santa’s sleigh can compare with that.
Catriona Murray blogs at posttenebrasluxweb.com