I was raised in a church that had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on Santa Claus. You would find nothing in the church that spoke to or about the jolly old elf. There were almost no attempts to persuade or dissuade individual families on the subject. People pretty much did what they wanted and didn’t talk about it. Generally we were able to pick up subtle clues and understand where others fell on the yes/no scale but this was not a huge church-wide issue.
Of course, this is not true in all churches and among all Christians. I remember sitting at a dinner table while the 3-year-old son of a close friend chanted “Boo Santa! Yay Jesus!” as his parents proudly looked on. John Piper is among those who decry the whole Santa thing. One thing he focuses on is, IMHO, the key to this discussion – Santa is a myth, Jesus is real. While both sides of that statement are obviously true, and we probably don’t need Piper to point that out, I think it misses the whole point.
Let’s start with the concept of myth. Among the many gifts we have received from the Jews is the concept we now call history. Jewish writing, including specifically what we call the Old Testament, were markedly different that those of their pagan neighbors. Great Jewish heroes were understood to be real and historical. We have so absorbed that concept that we can’t truly grasp any other way to understand the world.
We tend to treat mythic stories either with a condescending pat on the head or outright disapproval. Yet there is something about them that call to us. Even among most Christians the mythic writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien are loved. Outside the faith we only need to look at the current Star Wars movie to understand that there is a call that tugs on many human hearts in mythic stories.
G. K. Chesterton told us that “the ancient religions were not stupid people who believed stupid things….They were not saying that this is how things are; they were saying ‘Why can’t these things be?’” He goes on to say that “The student cannot make a scientific statement about the savage, because the savage is not making a scientific statement about the world. He is saying something quite different…” Put simply, they were presenting myth and those myths had a point they were teaching and we go seriously wrong in trying to read them historically.
Enter Santa Claus. Piper is worried that the Santa myth teaches works and not grace. “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you are awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” He compares this to the inspiring grace of God’s Son coming to earth and, in so doing, compares myth to history. This is apples to oranges.
So, in breaking news to nobody over eight, Santa is a myth. But what does this myth teach us? It is not a gospel of works as Piper contends; it is that behaviors matter and that we are wise to learn the good from the bad. What parent doesn’t teach that to their children? Frankly, as anyone who has ever taught Sunday School to young children knows, many applications are made from Bible stories that teach good behavior or works.
So tonight, if you want to use “stockings hung by the chimney with care” as a behavioral teaching tool, go for it. If you are more comfortable using (for example) the Sunday School story of the loaves and the fishes to teach your children the importance of sharing that is great too. Happy Christmas to all.