It happens almost every year during the week before Christmas.
Someone sends an email to a list of friends (usually veteran parents and grandparents), or posts an item on Facebook that raises this old question: Is anyone else getting uncomfortable with the whole Santa drama?
There is always a second question that flows naturally out of that: What is the purpose of this elaborate and dramatic lie? What are we trying to teach our children by doing this and what do we say to them once the charade is up? After all, in families with many children the old ones have to help sustain the lie for the little folks.
A confession from me: My wife and I, even before converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, decided -- primarily based on my work in mass-media studies, with a lot of reading about advertising -- to skip Santa Claus and tell our children that St. Nicholas of Myra -- as in the 4th-century bishop -- was a real person. The also noted that people have long honored him on his feast day (Dec. 6th on the Gregorian calendar) with gift-giving traditions that eventually, in culture after culture, morphed into something else. We told them not to play that game with other kids, but not to mock them or, well, tell them the truth, either. The key: In our faith, saints are real.
Journalists, if this subject interests you -- especially the secular, materialistic side of this equation -- then you should read and file an essay at The Atlantic by Megan Garber that ran with the loaded headline:
Spoiler: Santa Claus and the Invention of Childhood
How St. Nick went from “beloved icon” to “beloved lie”
Here is an early and very short historical summary:
First, the Santa myth itself. There are, best I can tell, three general assumptions that have survived today to explain the origins of Santa as a Christmas icon. One is that his imagery is based on St. Nicholas, the fourth-century Bishop of Myra. Another is that he was introduced, as a commercial figure, in ads for the Coca-Cola company in the early 20th century. Another is that he’s a tale as old as time -- that the current manifestations of Santa are iterations of a figure who’s been part of Western culture for as long as that culture has involved rooftops and reindeer and Christmas trees.
Those are all, like Santa himself, simultaneously true and not-true. The figure we know today is certainly an extension -- you might even say a camp version -- of St. Nicholas, but he is also influenced by similar, loosely Christmasy figures across Western cultures: Sinterklaas (Dutch), Père Noël (French), Santa Lucia andJultomten (Swedish), Babushka (Russian), Christkind and Knecht Ruprecht(German), Befana (Italian), and the Roman god Saturn.
I have always heard, and read, that elements of the traditions linked to St. Nicholas of Myra evolved -- especially in Protestant lands -- into other forms. This was especially true in the European cultures that, eventually, came to New Amsterdam-New York. Then, when it came time to seek the face of a non-Christian Christmas (with a serious push from Episcopalian poet Clement Clarke Moore, of course), merchants and advertisers worked with what was around them in the emerging super-city.
St. Nicholas the jolly elf quickly became -- during a rapid ascent in the 19th century -- the super hero of the shopping mall faith.
This brings us to Stephen Nissenbaum and the must-read book "The Battle For Christmas," which is not really about Fox News and manger scenes on courthouse lawns. This is the heart of the article:
One reason the right jolly old elf may have caught on in homes (and ships) as well as ads, Stephen Nissenbaum suggests, is that he offered something that was particularly appealing to parents of the time: gift-giving that could pretend not to be gift-giving. The 19th century, like our own, had deep anxieties about the commercialism creeping into Christmas. “Even more than today, the exchange of Christmas gifts in the 1820s and ‘30s was a ritual gesture,” Nissenbaum notes, “intended to generate the sense that sincere expressions of intimacy were more important than matters of money or business.”And yet -- the paradox of Christmas -- gifts are generally very much matters of money and business. Santa, the most intimate gift-giver of them all, offered a way for parents to participate in that ritual without expressly participating in it. He allowed parents to indulge their children while outsourcing all the indulgence.
At first, there were major tensions between this take on Christmas and the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Eventually, the mall won. The "wonder" and "magic" of Santa became the heart of an Americanized season, with a non-creedal, even non-religious faith:
In that, the commercial images and religious iconography and dramatic character collided: Here was a figure -- reindeer, fur, elves, “Saint” -- who seemed to speak to an older time, a simpler time, a more magical and mystical time. Here was a figure who seemed to speak of the things Americans who were experiencing the pangs of social upheaval were craving above all: the warmth and reassurance of tradition. That he was essentially a contemporary invention did not much matter; he suggested, in everything he did and claimed to be, nostalgia.
“Santa Claus represented an old-fashioned Christmas, a ritual so old that it was, in essence, beyond history,” Nissenbaum notes. People knew, of course, that he was not real. “But in another sense they believed in his reality -- his reality as a figure who stood above mere history. In that sense, it was adults who needed to believe in Santa Claus.”
Read it all. It's weak on the actual religious side of things, of course. That's the way it goes, today.
But here is my question for journalists: Could you write actual news features linked to this without getting stoned? Would editors take this seriously?