Friday, January 27, 2012

Biography: Santa Claus

The holidays have passed, but I wanted to share a program I watched in December with my daughters.  I haven’t watched the series in years, but generally I have enjoyed Biography because I love history and learning about people’s back stories is fascinating to me.  I rented the DVD of the Biography episode on Santa Claus from 2005.  If you are interested, here is a link to the DVD on Amazon:
The episode was fascinating.  It traced the Santa Claus myth from the real life Turkish Christian, popularly known as St. Nicholas, to the modern pop culture and commercialization icon in the United States. 
Nicholas of Myrna was a fascinating man.  He pragmatically used his resources to save women in his community who lacked a dowry from a life of slavery and/or prostitution.  He gave gifts of money to help them marry so they could avoid a life of exploitation and misery.  That type of pragmatic giving is certainly a great role model to follow. 
But as a modern Christian, it makes me sad that the example set by Nicholas has been so twisted.  It is now used as a justification for all kinds of unhealthy splurging that racks up tremendous debt for many.  Moreover, it also takes our focus from things of lasting importance towards emphasis on worldly diversions that can amuse us only a relatively short while before they break, wear out, get lost and/or lose their attractiveness.
The Biography episode describes how the real life St. Nicholas was transformed in the United States by the rich and by merchants for their own purposes.  What a fascinating transformation!
The episode first explains that in the 1800s the rich in New York disliked the imported European custom of recent immigrants to call on the homes of the well-to-do at Christmas to be served food and presents.  In the age of the robber barons, the rich propagated a new tradition of “Santa Claus,” who brought the goodies to each family’s home.  They liked the notion of the poor waiting in their own homes instead of imposing on the hospitality of the more affluent in the community.
The Biography episode also describes how the Santa Claus myth proved to be an unparalleled marketing boom for merchants.  It was popular with children, and thus spurred retail spending by their adult relatives.  Indeed, the episode noted how the Santa Claus figure seems to contradictorily encourage buying while the myth features a giver of gifts, who explicitly avoids commercial venues and actually makes all of his own gifts in order to give them away for free.  I thought that was an interesting paradox.
The Biography episode interviewed a number of people from authors, who have researched and written about the Santa Claus phenomenon, to people in the entertainment industry, which has exploited and greatly enhanced our modern view of the Santa myth.  It was fascinating to hear the perspective of all these people, none of whom I could discern were practicing Christians. 
As some interviewees pointed out, though Santa Claus is linked intimately with Christmas, he bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to the original reason for observing Christmas.  The Santa Claus myth does not in any way reflect the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  There is nothing at all religious about the character of Santa Claus.  Very odd if you think about it.  To me, this is a quite offensive aspect of the Santa myth.  It is evidence of the secularization of an important religious celebration.  As a Christ-follower and a parent, I don’t appreciate that distraction.
Fascinatingly, it was also noted by one of the interviewees that Santa Claus is viewed in our pop culture as a sort of “deity.”  (That was his wording, not mine.)  One interviewee even described that the role of Santa is equivalent for children to the role of God for adults.  What an eye-opening (and terrifying) perspective!  And how insightful coming from an apparent non-Christian.  The interviewee elaborated that both Santa Claus and God are endowed with supernatural powers, are understood to be benevolent and are viewed as approachable.  The difference to me is that unlike the one true God, Santa Claus is simply a human-created myth and his sole purpose is to facilitate splurging on materialistic pleasures. 
I found both of these characterizations from non-Christians to be fascinating and confirming.  I’ve written before that I’ve always been honest with my kids about the Santa myth.  I didn’t want them to believe in a secular myth rooted in untruth and emphasizing materialistic values.  I also didn’t want them to confuse the one true God with the make-believe Santa Claus character.  Finally, I didn’t want to tell my children things that were untrue for fear that it would undercut their ability to trust what I tell them (e.g., the existence of God).  All of these concerns were based in part on my own experiences growing up.  It is interesting that a secular television program would in some ways confirm the concerns I already had.
However, as the Biography episode notes, in our modern culture if you deny the existence of Santa in our culture, you are viewed as a heartless “Scrooge.”   I’ve certainly dealt with that characterization myself.  It is a sticky wick for Christian parents!

Deuteronomy 9:16
It was then that I saw how you sinned against the LORD your God: you made yourselves a calf, an idol made of cast metal! You couldn’t wait to turn from the path the LORD commanded you!

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