The secular myth of Santa Claus has its historical roots in the life of Nicholas of Myrna (270 to 343 CE), who had become legendary for his practice of secret gift-giving, especially to children and families in poverty. His feast day on December 6 is still celebrated today by exchanging presents, and children who leave their shoes outside their doors at night can hope to find them filled with gifts in the morning.
It may have been the confluence of St. Nick’s gift-giving reputation and the story from the Gospel According to Matthew about three Oriental wise men bringing gifts to honor Jesus at his home in Bethlehem, that eventually put their celebrations on the same date of December 25. At any rate, the decision to set the birth of Jesus at the Winter Solstice, when the 24-hour cycle is just starting to break in favor of light over darkness (the “birth” of light), was on good mythological foundations.
I find it interesting how both the secular myth of Santa and the sacred myth of Jesus – myth here being used in its technical sense as the structural plot (Greek mythos) of any story – have followed a similar course over time, inspiring a childlike wonder in the beginning but ending up on the shelf with other fairytales as we resolve (or resign ourselves) to carry on with our grown-up lives in the real world of hard knocks.
The Christmas myth of Santa Claus predictably gets children excited. Who doesn’t find it magical that this jolly gift-bringer visits all the houses of children around the world in a single night? And who doesn’t thrill with anticipation over what special presents they will discover under the tree and in their stockings when they wake in the morning?
If you’ve been good all year, Santa will reward you with candy and shiny toys; but if you’ve not been so good, you might get a lump of coal or nothing at all.
The whole schtick about Nicholas of Myrna and his generosity toward children and poor families probably doesn’t make it to the ears of most children these days. The difference is stark when we set these two versions of Santa Claus side by side. One (the original version) is about helping others and giving what we have to make their lives a little better, while the other (the commercialized version) is focused on what we want and feel we deserve.
It’s not surprising how the secular myth has reinforced all the core values of consumerism: self-centered, discontent, materialistic, and possessive. Neither should we be surprised that this holiday drives so much of our capitalist economy year by year, and is the reason why so many of us spend what we don’t have and slide a little closer to bankruptcy as the years go by.
So maybe it’s a combination of a child’s normal disillusionment with magic and fairytales at a certain age, along with the parents’ holiday exhaustion and post-retail depression, that hastens the time when the Santa myth breaks and Christmas becomes just another holiday to drag out and then pack away.
Could it go differently?
Rather than dropping the magic associated with the Santa myth, what would happen if parents told their children the real story of Saint Nicholas, who felt compassion for the poor and wanted vulnerable children especially to know that someone was thinking of them and cared about their happiness? They could teach their children that the spirit of Christmas is about compassion, kindness, generosity, and charity – the four virtues built into the “unconditional love” of the Latin caritas and Greek agape.
And at that critical time of disillusionment, when their children are naturally advancing into formal operational thinking and a more reality-oriented mindset, parents could help them understand that the spirit of Christmas embodied by Santa Claus can also live in them.
Having experienced the joy in receiving gifts, they now have an opportunity to bring that same joy to others by “being Santa” in their world. This would go beyond merely exchanging presents with friends and loved ones, to intentionally looking for ways to comfort, uplift, and possibly liberate those who are struggling in life.
In this way, the myth of Santa Claus could be effectively translated from the story (about Santa), through reflective meditation (on the virtues of love), and out to others in concrete acts of empathy and goodwill. From, through, and out: We can think of this as the path of Santa’s “second coming.”
The Christmas myth of Jesus not only features a similar theme of gift-giving – the gifts of the three wise men in Matthew, the gift of light to the world, Jesus as God’s gift to humanity – but it has also taken a similar trajectory as the myth of Santa.
Very normal Bible-reading, church-going, true-believing Christians eventually reach a point where they begin to doubt the historicity of a virgin birth, harking angels in the night sky (Luke), a guiding star supposedly lightyears overhead that stops directly above the street address of the Carpenter house (Matthew); and going on from there to Jesus walking on water, turning water into wine, calming a sea storm, and raising the dead to life.
If pastors and Sunday School teachers make the mistake of keeping the story exclusively about Jesus, refusing to assist these budding skeptics through their disillusionment and into a deeper meditation on what the story is really about, they will be left with the choice of ‘believing what they know ain’t so’, or else – which is more intellectually honest – closing their Bibles, leaving the church, maybe giving up on religion, and getting on with their lives as best they can.
It’s ironic and amusing how Christian leaders fault everything for the sharp decline in church attendance these days except its most likely cause, which is their own dogmatic insistence that everything in the myth of Jesus (and in the Bible) must be literally true.
Interestingly enough, reflective meditation on the story of Jesus reveals a very similar theme to what we find in the original myth of Santa. And why should that surprise us, if the historical Nicholas of Myrna was indeed a devout follower of Jesus and his Way, who sought to bring the spirit of Jesus to the poor in acts of unconditional love (agape, caritas)?
According to the larger myth of Jesus, he himself followed the light of compassion, kindness, generosity, and charity wherever it led, and that was frequently into confrontation with rules and with rulers who profited from things staying as they were.
When these defenders of empire and orthodoxy finally managed to get Jesus out of the picture, his myth continued in those who remembered him, who meditated together on the deeper meaning of his life and message, and who then committed themselves to manifesting his spirit in loving service for others – for their liberation, happiness, and wellbeing.
That is the true second coming of Jesus, happening over and over again and all around the world – maybe even in your home this Christmas.