Thinking Deeply about Santa Claus

I like the character, story and decorative theme of Santa Claus, but you may hate me for writing this (or you may give me an amen).  Our culture celebrates Santa Claus as the benevolent gift giver of children around the world during Christmas, spreading a message of warmth and jolly.  But if you were to think about the principles of Santa he is quite the opposite of warmth and jolly.

Let’s see how the story goes.  He’s making a list and he’s checking it twice.  He has a list that is based on an omniscient quality of knowing every person.  This list, however, is not just a gift-list.  It is a cut-list, because he’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice.  He’s determining who are good children and bad children – not simply who are the children that did good or bad deeds.  Santa’s worldview is moralism because he judges and accepts people purely on the moral or immoral things they have done.  It’s vague though as far as whether his moralistic standard includes thoughts, attitudes, and desires, the internal aspects of a person versus just the external factors of actions.  Since the lyrics say he’s determining who is naughty or nice, I would assume that Santa evaluates the whole person and not just the deeds performed.  That’s a pretty tough standard.  It’s also vague as far as what the standard is in terms making the cut off of being considered “nice.”  Would a child had three temper tantrums, hit his sister twice and accidentally blurted out one curse word when he stubbed his toe during the whole year be considered naughty or nice?  Or is two tantrums the maximum limit?  In fact, the lyrics tell us, “You better not pout.  You better not cry.”  So, a child who has pouted and cried is considered naughty.   That’s pretty rough if you ask me.  On the basis of moralism, the acceptance and implied worth of a person is based on how good he or she is.

What may surprise us, then, is that Santa does not actually give out gifts according to his moralistic worldviews.  Because, gifts by definition are free, unconditional and unearned.  But according to Santa, his “gifts” are earned by the moral disposition of a person.  If you performed enough good deeds and had enough of the right kind of thinking and attitudes (whatever “enough” means), then you were tagged by Santa as “nice,” and he would drop off presents for you.  So what Santa actually gives are rewards.  They are rewards for not only doing the right things but being a right person.  Those who are considered “naughty,” having done too many wrong things in Santa’s eyes, are not given presents or perhaps are given lesser presents.  Santa gives you something if you deserve it – that’s what we call a reward.  This kind of present is earned and not gifted.  Gifts however carry the message that you may not deserve what is given to you but you’re given this because you are loved and you’re inherently a worthwhile person.

In our culture, we popularly teach about Santa in one sense to emphasize the gift giving side and sometimes as parents/teachers to enforce good behavior among children.  “If you’re not a good boy, Santa won’t bring you anything this year,” is a common threat we may hear.  Do we then orient our children to a worldview of moralism, teaching them that their self-worth is based on the good they are and have done which is a subjective standard of judgment at best since no one can be absolutely perfect?  Do we teach children that their worth to us is based on moralistic measures and they must earn our favor (like they earn Santa’s)?  Or, instead, should they be taught a message of acceptance and unconditional love that forms the basis of their self-identity and, therefore, the measures of good they can be and do emerges out of being accepted and loved?  And, should they be taught about forgiveness – forgiveness for self because we all mess up and, in turn, forgiveness for others because others will mess up?  In Santa’s moralistic basis, forgiveness is not a key theme of his.  He’s more of a judge.

I grew up with the impression that Santa and Jesus were best friends, because I thought of Jesus as judge more than savior.  The other icon of Christmas is Jesus.  In Jesus’ story, it is about a benevolent gift giver who doesn’t descend down a chimney but down from heaven.  The wrapped present he brought was himself, swaddled in cloths as a baby.  The gift he gives is not a thing but eternal life paid for with his own life upon the cross of calvary.  On Santa’s list, some are marked “naughty” or “nice” and the nice ones get rewards.  On Jesus’ list, everyone is marked “naughty,” because we’re all flawed and imperfect, and he offers a gift to every one of them.  That’s the big difference.  Santa comes down the chimney for the nice.  Jesus comes down from heaven for the naughty.  Christmas can be made into a holiday of moralism or celebrated as a holiday of grace.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a Santa hater.  Just thinking deeply about the implications of elements in our culture.

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