Monday, January 30, 2012

Polar Express

To continue in the theme of the prior blog post, I wanted to write a bit about Polar Express.  The author of the book was actually one of the interviewees in the Biography episode mentioned in the prior post. 

I first became aware of the Polar Express book in the 1990s when I was an elementary school teacher.  It won the 1986 Caldecott Medal, a respected prize in children’s literature.   Like many Caldecott winners, we read the book to our students.  At the time, Polar Express was already being viewed as an emerging classic of children’s literature.   When I first read the book, it seemed fairly innocuous.  As I have mentioned, I am not a fan of the Santa Claus myth.  But Polar Express was a sweet story and didn’t emphasize materialism.

Years later, in 2004, the book was adapted by Hollywood to be a major motion picture with an accompanying cottage industry of products and services to exploit the film.  When I watched the longer, more detailed feature film adaptation with Tom Hanks a few years ago, I found it much more concerning than the original book ever had been.  Leave it to Hollywood to really bring out the worst elements in a mediocre story!

The basic plot of the book is that a young boy on Christmas Eve is transported with other kids in their PJs on the magical Polar Express train to the North Pole where they witness the elves’ send-off of Santa as he leaves to deliver gifts.  As a stand-alone, the book is ok.  I’m not wild about it because it perpetuates the Santa myth and it has nothing to do with the real reason for the observance of Christmas.  But Polar Express is a celebrated piece of children’s literature.  If for no other reason than cultural literacy, it is not a book I thought I should keep from my children’s repertoire.  Indeed, it is on our kids’ book shelf because of a gift years ago from a devout Christian relative.

However, the film version is much more objectionable to me.  To convert to a feature length film, there is a tremendous amount of Hollywood elaboration not found in the original book.  The gist of the film is that there is something admirable—perhaps even sacred—about believing in Santa Claus.  The slogan “Believe!” is used throughout the film.  I don’t understand that message.  I don’t know why it would be good to believe in something that is not true and doesn’t seem to be in any way beneficial.  I find it offensive that the film keeps lecturing us to believe when that phrase means belief in a secular myth.

Further, in the film, there is a new character that to me demonstrates one of the many cruelties of the Santa Claus myth.  The last child to board the Polar Express before heading to the North Pole is a mysterious little guy who keeps apart from the other kids for much of the film.  He literally comes from the wrong side of the tracks.  He indicates has never had luck with Santa or Christmas.  Apparently, this means that he has never received presents.  So, this little guy is portrayed in a tragic light because he doesn’t believe in Santa.  There is almost an insinuation that his moral character is lacking in some way for his lack of faith in this secular myth.

But the reality is that like this unfortunate character in the film many kids don’t receive presents because their parents cannot afford the splurge.  There is unfortunately no jolly elf making the rounds to lavish us all with gifts. 

Further, kids who don’t get a magical visit from Santa--and have few or no gifts on Christmas morning--feel extremely deprived and embarrassed because of the situation.  As adults, we may discount and not appreciate how real that hurt is.  As an adult in middle age, Oprah Winfrey still remembered vividly the sting of such experiences from her own childhood.  Such heartbreak spurred her philanthropy in South Africa.  She hated to think of other kids going through that same deprivation and shame. 

But per the Santa myth, when kids don’t get presents, it is because they were naughty and didn’t deserve them.  How incredibly cruel is that??!  It is really hitting human beings at a very vulnerable point in their lives when they are already down.  

The Santa myth plants the seed that those who don’t get visited by Santa are undeserving of treats that pop culture says everyone enjoys at that time of year.  The Santa myth instead sends the message that such kids are deserving of their misfortunate.   

I find such a tradition to be neither quaint nor harmless.  In fact, I want nothing to do with it.  To me, it does more than just ignore the real reason for the celebration of Christmas.  The Santa myth distracts otherwise good people from spiritual values and towards materialistic consumption.  It also is cruel and hurtful to some of the most vulnerable in our society.  None of these things are compatible with Christianity in my opinion.

Job 31:24

I have never trusted in riches.
I never said even to pure gold, “You are my hope.”

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