In Defense of Santa's Values

A 6-year-old boy asserted confidently that God and Santa are next-door neighbors. He might not be far from the truth.

In an essay I read a while back, a social scientist described an American visitor to Japan who was walking through a Tokyo department store during the Christmas season. It was obvious the Japanese had begun to make considerable use of the Christmas symbols that are all-too-familiar to Westerners. But the visitor was not prepared for one combination of images he encountered: Santa Claus nailed to a cross.

I have heard enough sermons condemning the commercialization of Christmas to know what some Christian thinkers would make of this composite image. Here we have in a stark display, they would tell us, a symbol of all that is bad about our Christmas celebrations. Not only have we taken the Christ out of Christmas, we have even taken him down from the Cross--to be replaced by a symbol of the worst of Yuletide greed.

Behold, Santa Claus, the new consumerist savior!

While I have no desire to endorse all that is associated with holiday commercialism, I am not fully convinced by Santa's Christian critics. To be sure, the commercialization of Christmas is an obvious fact of contemporary life. But there is often a breakthrough in the Christmas season of something very different: We might call it the "Christmas-ization of commerce." In the midst of all the consumerist hoopla, there are genuine outbreaks of goodwill and a sacrificial spirit. And when this happens, Santa Claus sometimes serves a large and noble purpose.


Actually, the perspective of the Tokyo merchandiser who put Santa on a cross isn't so far removed from that of our own children. In her book "Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith," Cindy Dell Clark reports on interviews she conducted with children about their favorite holiday legends. She discovered a strong desire to integrate the Santa story with the Christian narrative. Not only did the children think of Santa as a guide to moral development ("He knows if you've been bad or good"), they also linked him directly to the God of the Bible. One 6-year-old boy asserted confidently that God and Santa are next-door neighbors. A girl of the same age reported that Santa distributes his gifts on direct orders from the Lord.

I think these children are on to something. While Santa Claus certainly has a prominent marketing role in the Christmas season, that is not the whole of his job description. The reductionist view of Santa as a mere consumer icon can only be sustained by assuming a similarly reductionist view of human nature.

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