Somehow, somewhere along the way, we began to confuse Santa Claus with Jesus Christ. I think I know when it happened but I’m not sure how it happened. When I say I know when, I mean “a long time ago”. I can’t be more specific. One Christmas morning, Protestants woke up and realized that many of the same things we expected of Santa we also expected of Jesus. We wanted Jesus to give us things by simply asking. Because we were who we were we wanted to be given the best stuff, the stuff we wanted, for no better reason than it’s what we wanted. Eternal life could fit comfortably beside trains, video games, model cars, and jewelry in stockings of various sizes. We expected our rewards to be based on our good behavior.
People began to believe that God, like Santa, kept a “naughty” and “nice” list of sinners and saints. Those who were naughty were punished according to the volume and nature of their sins. Somehow this seemed in line with scripture. If Santa wasn’t Jesus or Jesus wasn’t Santa, one seemed to be working with the other. To top it all off Jesus and Santa arrived on the same day. Their methods, values, and ideals meshed into one overall message of rewards based theology. So it would seem, but I fear it isn’t true. My contention is simple. Our cultural co-opting and co-identification of Santa Claus’ message of fear motivated rewards, gifts, and punishments with the celebration of Jesus’ birth undermines what is traditionally known as the “reason for the season”.
To be accurate, the “reason for the season” is the tilting of the Earth’s axis (i.e. the Northern hemisphere) away from direct sunlight. This is why our hemisphere is in the season of winter. December 25th has nothing to do with Jesus’ actual birthday. The day isn’t mentioned in the Bible or other sacred sources. The date was picked much later. Yet, remembering Jesus’ entry into the world are what the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas are all about. Season, if anything should be plural. We are in the seasons of Advent and Christmas. The reasons we remember these seasons cannot be isolated to one idea. Jesus’ incarnation is central to Advent and Christmas. John’s the Baptizer’s preaching, Mary’s preparations, her encounters with Elizabeth, and other messages of hope and joy are all equally valid reasons for both seasons. In fact, Jesus’ entry onto the stage of humanity makes far more sense when seen in the light of the reasons and lives which have directly prepared for his arrival. In Advent, we are told the stories of men and women who expect nothing tangible from God. Entitlement isn’t an emotion one encounters in the Minor Prophets, Paul, Isaiah, or from the Mother of Jesus.
The idea of keeping score, a “naughty” or “nice” list seems foreign to the Advent readings and the people giving reason to the season. The building blocks of Advent and Christmas are laid by people who would be on Santa’s carefully constructed “naughty” list; people who shouldn’t get any presents, people who would be rejected by most standards of propriety. In Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew’s gospel, four women’s names appear; among them Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheeba. All were women with questionable pasts and lurid sexual histories; yet each important ancestors of Jesus Christ. Prostitutes and adulteresses run through Jesus’ DNA. He values people the world discredits and discounts. That message is there in the cradle on Christmas. Don’t be surprised when he starts eating with sinners 30 years later. As cuddly, warm, and fuzzy as the manger scene is, from the moment he breathes his first, Jesus appears in stark contrast to the established patterns of religion and morality.
The people you think are damned are about to be forgiven. What you see as a manger is really a table. People on the naughty list and damned rotten sinners have been invited to sit down at a table with you. In due course, you will be offered bread and told it represents the broken body of baby whose birth we remember. A cup will then be shared around the table. The cup helps us to recall, that on a night like tonight, the child would grow to be a man, share his cup, and ask us to drink from it. Because the very life flowing in his veins represents the new promise God has made to us. Even now as we sing carols, we take this cup and break this bread because a place was made for everyone at a table.
Here, if anywhere, Jesus’ priorities and Santa’s misguided intentions must diverge. There is no place for lists at the manger. There are no distinctions at the table. Santa is a crutch. We don’t need him. The guilt he carries in his sack or the way he warps our understanding of Jesus have long passed their sell by date. When we come to church, we can check Santa at the door. Unmerited grace is far more important than a petty list of who deserves to be rewarded by Santa’s subjective standards of “naughty” or “nice”.