December 23, 2002

DALLAS--A church in Rockwall, Texas, offers families the option of having photos taken with Santa Claus or with its Nativity. A church in San Angelo, Texas, invites Santa to worship.

And in cities everywhere, outdoor Christmas decorations feature Santa's sleigh stopping at Jesus' manger. Never mind that St. Nick didn't exist when Jesus was born.

Because Santa is so embedded in the cultural celebration of Christmas, most churches accommodate him but downplay the commercialism that he represents, studies show.

"He's terrible to compete with," said Aida Collins, who teaches children on Sundays at St. Luke Community United Methodist Church in Dallas.

Some conservative Christians consider Santa the devil himself. They say he's a mouthpiece for the commercialism that distracts people from the true meaning of Christmas.

The Internet and comics love to parody this view.

A Web site asks: Santa and Satan - are they the same?

Both wear red, the site says. Both live in extreme climates. Both use unusual means of getting around. Even the letters spelling S-A-N-T-A can be rearranged to spell S-A-T-A-N.

"Who could help grown men peel the focus from baby Jesus on his birthday?" asked the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live." Could it be SATAN?"

Hold onto your reindeer.

Many Christians embrace Santa as the spirit of Christmas or a St. Nicholas figure who rewards good children with presents. He's a saintly model of ho-ho-holiness.

In early America, psychologists frowned on teaching children that Santa was real. They said kids would become disillusioned when they realized he wasn't. And ministers argued that children weren't sophisticated enough to distinguish between Santa and God. When they learned Santa wasn't real, they might conclude that God wasn't, either.

"In the late 19th century, people were feeling the pressures of a modern society on them and were trying to reserve the spiritual as a completely different world," said Penne Restad of Austin, author of "Christmas in America: A History."

In 1881, a Lutheran magazine pleaded: "Do not substitute for the babe in Bethlehem the figure of Santa Claus." But as time passed, Christians began seeing Santa as a bridge to the spiritual.

"Everybody worries that with the focus on Santa Claus, children will miss what Christmas is all about," said Sylvia Guerra, 28, of Red Oak, Texas, "but I stress the difference."

Her daughter, Anyssa Hernandez, said she's asking Santa for Barbie dolls this year. "I'm asking Jesus for love," the 4-year-old said.

In 1937, the Salvation Army ordered its bell ringers to stop wearing Santa suits. Santas on every corner would only confuse children, the group said. That same year, the country's first Santa Claus school opened in Albion, N.Y. For $150, would-be Santas were given a weeklong course on the toy industry, child psychology and makeup.

Meanwhile, Christian children were asking: Should we approach Santa and God for the same things? It's a question that Santas today are sometimes called upon to answer.

"I handle toys and all the things that the elves and Mattel can make," said the Santa Claus at a Dallas-area shopping center. "God handles all the rest." But the distinction isn't always so clear to some.

Theologians widely criticized the book "The Prayer of Jabez" as presenting a Santa Claus view of God. Readers were taken to 1 Chronicles 4:10 to discover how they could experience prosperity and blessings. The book became a runaway bestseller.

An Internet site also draws similarities between Santa Claus and God:

- Santa personifies love,goodwill and giving, justas God does.

- Santa Claus comes on Christmas; God's Son was born on Christmas.

- Santa promises presents for good behavior, coal for bad behavior; God promises heaven for good behavior, hell for bad behavior.

Of course, not all Christians view God or, for that matter, Santa, in such a stern way.

"Telling kids Santa will punish them for not being good is pretty negative," said Richard Trexler of New York, who has written a book about the magi. "You can see how easily that fits the notion of God punishing you."

Fred Schmidt, an Episcopal priest who teaches Christian spirituality at Southern Methodist University, said Santa Claus-driven conceptions of God are misguided.

"They focus on what we're going to get out of the relationship rather than the relationship itself," he said. "It's important to own that God, more than anything else, is passionate for a relationship with us."

The Bible doesn't say that Jesus was literally born on Dec. 25. The church adopted that day as his birth date, in part, to counter pagan solstice celebrations. "The church tried to control the celebrations by giving it a Christian veneer," said Stephen Nissenbaum, a historian and author of "The Battle for Christmas." He argues that the church was never fully successful in making the holiday religious.

"It's that paradox - it's enormously popular and profoundly difficult to make religious - that informed the holiday from the earliest days," he said. "It's too powerful a season to have been fully Christianized."

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