I do not believe in Santa Claus. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m uncomfortable with the traditional, metaphorical idea of Santa Claus that most adults hold once they’ve been let in on the lie. The idea of the strange, smelly man from the mall being allowed into our home (at one time by my parents, nonetheless) to leave Christmas presents around our tree, drink our milk, and eat a portion of our cookies, made me uneasy. To paraphrase the great country music singer Ronnie Milsap, I didn’t like the idea of a “stranger in my house.” I am an only child. I never felt more vulnerable and fearful than on the night of December 24th. Of course, I kept these feelings to myself for the most part. Everyone seemed oblivious to the realities of the impending break-ins that were about to occur.
We would eat dinner on Christmas Eve at my aunt’s home year. After eating a large meal and opening gifts from those on my mother’s side of the family, the conversation would start slowly shifting toward heading home. At about 8:30, someone would invariably say, “You need to hurry up and get home and get to bed, or Santa won’t come.” That was okay with me. I didn’t want him to come. I’d be OK with my parents shopping for me or buying my gifts. I didn’t want an unknown Scandinavian in my living room. I didn’t want to get home to stay up all night to encounter Santa to see him, the sleigh, and the eight tiny reindeer. I wanted to make sure the doors were locked. If he were going to leave anything for me and my house, he could leave it on the porch or by the front door.
Even as a young person, the math and physics of Santa Claus didn’t jive with reality. On Christmas Eve, the local television station would pick up radar transmissions from NORAD (a branch of the US Air Force charged with detecting incoming Soviet nuclear missiles) depicting Santa crossing Canada southward toward the United States. If I had been a Wiley Coyote-like godless Communist sometime in the mid-1980s, Christmas Eve would have been an ideal time to launch a sneak attack on the United States. America would have been unable to differentiate from all those Santa Clauses heading to North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, or Minnesota, and Soviet ICBM’s being launched toward major military bases.
But the biggest question of all was never answered. How did Santa go to every child’s house in one night? This out-of-shape old man performed an inexplicable feat, which was attributed to the magic of Christmas. He broke into locked homes, over dozens of time zones, delivered gifts, ate the regional equivalents of cookies and milk, wasn’t spotted, and we were expected to never question this preposterous lie. My parents, who’d worked hard to buy my gifts, stood around and watched me say “thank you” for a new X-Wing fighter to a man who didn’t exist. That’s what the tag said, “To Richard, From Santa.” Who was I to question the tag? How did they feel that an imaginary man was getting all the credit for their hard work?
I could never get it out of my mind that something was wrong with “the Santa Claus system” on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There was something off about the whole process. You can’t build meaningful stories on bits and pieces of mythology and lies. Eventually, the entire story falls apart, especially when anyone starts to ask simple, common-sense questions. Christmas Eve is good. Christmas is even better. It’s when we start telling (and adding) these unnecessary lies about Santa Claus that mess up one of the greatest stories ever told.
We should stop lying to our children about Santa Claus. It’s messed up on so many levels. We should also stop putting so much emphasis on the unnecessary parts of Luke 2. We’ve retold these parts for so long that we don’t listen to them anymore. We’ve become numb and tuned them out. We pretend to listen. Thanks to Linus and the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, our hearts are warmed by the simplicity and beauty of Luke’s narrative. We know to expect this soliloquy. Yet, when it happens, it’s like hearing Charlie Brown’s teacher on the phone, “wawawawa.” Some parts of what Luke tells us are beautiful and essential. Others, like the yearly rituals of Santa’s break-ins and cookie consumption, challenge common sense and historical evidence, need to be questioned, and undermine the critical message Luke conveys.
I don’t like lying to my congregation; I don’t like doing it year after year. But pastors do it with abandon, especially at Christmas. Luke got the date of Quirinus’ reign wrong. The census of Quirinus, the great administrative reason for putting Joseph and Mary on the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, never occurred. It did not happen. If you, as I did, used Raymond Brown’s New Testament textbook in seminary, you learned there wasn’t an empire-wide census during the reign of Caesar Augustus, nor did Romans have systems for directly taxing client states. We know this from multiple attested ancient sources. Unless we’re preaching from Biblical footnotes, most clergy are repeating a comfortable, well-worn lie. A tyrannical imperial bureaucracy didn’t force Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem. Why do we put so many unnecessary preconditions on Jesus’ birth? The truth is this: Jesus was born. More likely than not, he was born in Nazareth, at home. That’s what matters. Jesus was born.
Here’s another commonsense smell test. What husband in his right mind would put his wife in her last few months of pregnancy on a weeks-long donkey trip across open country for a census that only he needed to complete? Women couldn’t own property in 1st century Palestine; her presence was entirely superfluous and would pose a danger to her and the unborn child’s health. The census story, like Santa’s Christmas Eve trip around the world, is one we repeat without caring that it is false and doesn’t make sense. It is fiction, one that can be spun in any number of directions depending on our theological proclivities. Why prevaricate?
What makes the story unique? The truth that Jesus was born at home into a supportive and loving family may not make a good copy for a Christmas Eve sermon, but at least it’s true. If we need anything now, we need the truth.
We hear a good deal these days about “scriptural authority.” Members of my congregation have told me that the problem with the United Methodist Church isn’t our position on human sexuality but our stance on “scriptural authority.” I don’t think they know what those words mean. Here’s what I mean: I’m tired of prioritizing specific passages over others and giving some texts a factual basis in history, year after year, Sunday after Sunday, that doesn’t exist. It’s exasperating to be told that I have no respect for scripture when I have tremendous respect for scripture. What’s burning me out is the weekly recycling of the same old lies, both large and small, when there are better truths to be told about God, whose love for humanity I believe knows no bounds.