When I was a boy, my dad preached a message he called “Satan’s Claws.” My dad was an avid doodler, and he loved to preach with a whiteboard marker in his hand. So, while he preached his message, he drew up a Santa on the whiteboard, and then as he spoke, he kept adding details. I remember particularly the claw he drew up on the board in that message.
Immediately after the message, a great purging took place in our home, and for the next few years, Santa Claus was canceled in the Mallinak home. No Santa hats, no Rudolph, no “Here Comes Santa Claus,” no Bing Crosby. I think my dad found it tough to eradicate all the Santa references since they tend to be everywhere and in everything at this time of year. But, he made a valiant effort. Eventually, as things go, he didn’t feel the need to expunge Santa from the holiday. But I have never forgotten those “Santa-free” years.
Every culture develops traditions that reflect and reinforce the values of that culture. Like it or not, Santa Claus is a cultural symbol. Our modern-day, Coke-drinking Santa has been loosely connected to the legendary St. Nicholas from the fourth century, but the connections are hard to decipher. I think of Santa as a modern-day American version of Robin Hood. The legend of Robin Hood is loosely connected to an actual historical figure and shows up in a variety of ancient English Literature. But somewhere along the line, Robin Hood became a cultural icon, representative of some of the virtues that English culture came to value. Even so, Santa Claus.
The American version of Santa Claus, which has become the default version worldwide (due to our status in the world), started with a loose attachment to the ancient St. Nicholas. Once popularized, it quickly detached from the historical figure. According to Stephen Nissenbaum in his book The Battle for Christmas, the very wealthy John Pintard spent an unhappy New Year’s Eve in 1820 as a band of ruffians stood outside his house making a very loud and peculiar form of music that involved banging pots and pans and singing off-key for several hours. His daughter was frightened by the sound of a back door to their house opening, and in the morning, it appeared that several of the hooligans had broken into their home. Such was the tradition of that time. The rich and powerful enjoyed much ease and leisure during the holidays, while the poor and destitute struggled to provide food for their families. To “even the score,” the poor would infiltrate wealthy neighborhoods late at night to harass the rich. If the poor couldn’t enjoy their luxury, they could at least rob the rich of their peace of mind.
To comfort his children, the next year Pintard commissioned a broadside of St. Nicholas, who he pictured as an Episcopal bishop. The broadside included a very large picture of the bishop, complete with halo and scepter, then in the next frame a picture of a happy, giggling girl with her apron full of presents and a sobbing, crying boy who looks as if he has just been chastised. Beneath the picture, a poem promises Saint Nicholas, “If you will now me something give, I’ll serve you ever while I live.”
Pintard belonged to a group of New Yorkers called the Knickerbockers, which included such imminent men as Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Pintard is credited with inventing Santa Claus, and Washington Irving with popularizing him. Initially, Pintard pictured St. Nicholas as a judge, come to reward the good and punish the evil. Nissenbaum describes Pintard’s Santa as a teaching tool for children.
To be sure, this kind of Christmas ritual was designed largely for children, while Judgment Day was for adults. Christmas took place once a year, Judgment Day once an eternity. The “judge” at Christmas was St. Nicholas; on Judgment Day it was God himself. And both the rewards and the punishments meted out on Christmas – a cookie on the one hand, or a birch rod on the other – were far less weighty than those of eternal joy or eternal damnation. But the parallel was always there, and always meant to be there. Christmas was a child’s version of Judgment Day, and its ambiguous prospects of reward or punishment (like those of Judgment Day itself) were a means of regulating children’s behavior – and preparing them for the greater judgment that was to come.Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: a Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday, p. 74
A decade later, Clement Moore eliminated the elements of judgment and popularized the notion of Santa as a generous benefactor who shows up at Christmas with gifts and leaves us alone for the rest of the year. Moore’s Santa fit better with the god America embraced then. For it was at this same time that America abandoned the Trinity in favor of a Unitarian God. Santa symbolized that clock-maker god.
Washington Irving took up the tale in his Sketch Book, portraying “the good St. Nicolas “riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children…” And Clement Moore described Santa Claus as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,” driving a “miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.”
Each new version of Santa brought a subtle shift that reflected America’s changing cultural values in the early 1800s. Pintard pictured Santa as a judge who came to reward the good and punish the evil. But while this particular Santa served parents with a means of threatening their children against bad behavior, St. Nicholas also maintained the uncomfortable reminder of a coming judgment day.
In 1821, John Pintard’s friend Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem that came to define the American ideal of Santa Claus. In “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Moore eliminated the elements of judgment and popularized the notion of Santa as a generous benefactor who shows up annually at Christmas with gifts and leaves us alone for the rest of the year. Not surprisingly, this notion of Santa Claus stuck at a time when America had abandoned the Trinity in favor of a Unitarian God, the great clockmaker who wound the clock and let it run out. In other words, Santa became a sort-of symbolic representation of the god America embraced in the early 1800s.
We should not find it shocking that, given the rise of rabid atheism in this modern-day, even Santa himself is now under assault from our culture. Perhaps he has outlived his status as a useful fiction. And while I have never felt compelled either to attack or defend Santa Claus (and have never sought to expunge all references to Santa from our family celebrations), I do welcome the opportunity to say that Jesus is better.
Perhaps we could argue for some value in the idea of Santa Claus as symbolic of a coming judgment day. And if we recognize a depiction of the goodness of God, “who causes the rain to fall on the just and on the unjust,” we might have something. But we must quickly say that the God of the Bible is no “celestial Santa Claus.”
Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. (Romans 11:22)
The Bible invites us to view the two together, the conjunction of goodness and severity. God’s goodness and His moral character are not a dream of a god who is all love, no hate, no contrary opinions, but all warmth and indulgence. His goodness is a two-sided coin — goodness and severity. And in the face of Jesus Christ, the Bible invites us to see this whole picture of God.
But this is not the god of popular Christianity. That God is a little pudgy, a little soft, a little teddy bear with a twinkle in his eye, who wouldn’t harm a fly. That is why Santa is still pretty popular, aside from the foaming-at-the-mouth atheism.
In his book Knowing God, J.I. Packer explains our cultural God delusion, making three points:
People have got into the way of flowing private religious hunches rather than learning of God from His own Word.
Modern man thinks of all religions as equal and equivalent, and draws his stock of ideas about God from pagan as well as Christian sources.
Men have ceased to recognize the reality of their own sinfulness, which imparts a degree of perversity and enmity against God to all that they think and do.Packer, p. 145
This idea of a benevolent, doting, Grandfather-like Santa God who tells corny jokes and falls asleep (conveniently) whenever you get to sinning has contributed heavily to our modern rejection of sin. Ideas have consequences. If God doesn’t have a problem with us sinning, then we for sure shouldn’t have a problem with anyone else sinning. For that matter, we really don’t need God. We might like having Him around at holidays, especially Christmas (since He gives some really awesome gifts). But by and large, we have found God very dispensable and largely superfluous, like extra baggage.
The goodness of God is hard to make out when there is no severity of God, no wrath to escape. If my sin is no problem, then why do I need the atonement? And if I don’t need the atonement, then God is just an extra. Convenient at Christmastime but inconvenient if we have to deal with this guy all year around.
This is the way the man on the street views it. If there is no severity of God, then we don’t need God’s goodness either. Packer points out that this is the reason the so-called “problem of evil” has become such a problem in our day when it wasn’t considered a problem by past generations. More than any generation in the past, our generation has no idea what to do with evil. They can’t cope with it at all. A growing majority of people want nothing to do with death. They do not do funerals. They want the body disposed of and they don’t want to deal with it. And so, the problem of evil has become the hottest topic in the realm of Christian apologetics.
This was inevitable, for it is not possible to see the good will of a heavenly Santa Claus in heartbreaking and destructive things like cruelty, or marital infidelity, or death on the road, or lunch cancer. (Packer, p. 145)
And this has given rise to the angry atheist, who is very certain that God isn’t there, and is also very angry at Him for not being there.
Thus he is left with a kind God who means well, but cannot always insulate His children from trouble and grief. When trouble comes, therefore, there is nothing to do but grin and bear it. In this way, by an ironic paradox, faith in a God who is all goodness and no severity tends to confirm men in a fatalistic and pessimistic attitude to life. (Packer, p. 145)
And that is why Jesus beats Santa Claus. Because Jesus shows us both the goodness and severity of God. He did this by entering into our world of grief and pain, by suffering ridicule and temptation and poverty, and then by taking our sins upon Himself so that He might endure God’s wrath against sin for us, as our substitute. And having satisfied God’s justice, Jesus provides something better than “little toy dolls and little toy drums, rooty-toot-toot and rummy-tum-tum.” Jesus gives eternal life.
This is the triumph of the skies, and you are warmly invited to join it!