Only 11 months remain before Santa Claus returns to malls and televisions across America, and you will once more be faced with a familiar dilemma: “What do I teach my child about this invasive holiday species?” Does Santa know if I’ve been bad or good, and is he really coming to town? Or is he just a story? This year marks the first that I was personally drawn to the quintessential photo with Santa, given the recent arrival of our baby girl, so it got me thinking about how American society in particular deals with cultural narrative.
Growing up, my skeptical mind would not rest around Christmas. My heart would not allow that those wiser than I could perpetuate a lie, and so I would not give in to the handful of friends casting doubt on the Great Giver in the sky. Instead, I put the idea to the test to prove them wrong. For example, I would give my parents one wish list and Santa Claus another, in anticipation of unwrapping the truth on Christmas morning (believe it or not, Santa actually won this test). I vividly remember lying awake one Christmas Eve, when a bright flash of light crossed my bedroom window. Moments later, I heard footsteps in the living room near our tree, accompanied by a series of baritone holiday wishes: “Merry Christmas to you. Merry Christmas to you.” Perhaps lucky for me, I was too nervous to sneak a peak at the welcomed intruder, but I felt I had my proof of Santa Claus.
Over the years, a stream of movies would teach me and others how to wrestle with this legendary figure. From “Miracle on 34th Street” to “Elf” and “Ernest Saves Christmas” to “The Santa Clause”, a common theme emerged: the story of Santa is historical narrative, so believe it as written or be gone. The attitude is further exemplified on network news channels, where it seems every weather station catches a blip of Santa’s sleigh on their radar, convincing kids of its physical reality. In modern American culture, it seems, Santa Claus can be neither myth nor eponym nor archetype. He either is or he isn’t.
This emphasis on the existence or non-existence of Santa took its toll on my imagination, once I realized I had to oust myself from the community of faith, so to speak. If I could not accept the story word for word, then obviously it meant nothing to me. A similar dilemma would characterize much of my life, both on the bookshelf and in the church. Surely, I’m not alone.
From my youth, I was an avid reader, but once I reached high school, only non-fiction titles seemed worthy of my time. In my AP Literature class, I did force myself to endure hundreds of pages of ‘untruth’, but “If I want to be entertained,” the argument went, “I’d rather play a game or watch a movie.” Novels simply moved too slowly.
My shallow attitude toward fiction was no fault of my English teacher, whose profound lessons and passion for literature took nearly a decade to pass on to me (thankfully, they eventually did). Before I could appreciate narrative, you see, I had to overcome another stumbling block in the form of a false dichotomy: Young-Earth Creationism. Scientifically, I had long abandoned young-Earth ideas as being even remotely plausible. But there lingered a more detrimental impact, perhaps, which until last week I had completely underestimated: the ability of biblical literalism to destroy narrative, historical or not.
Today, I realize that the sort of young-Earth readings of the Bible propagated by Answers in Genesis and kin may be accurately described as scratching the surface with a dull knife. To be clear, I don’t mean this pejoratively, but objectively so. The modern young-Earth paradigm, fueled by the writings of Henry Morris and refined by Ken Ham, is so utterly resistant to symbolism in key texts of the Bible that meaning is often lost entirely. The text of the Bible either is, or it isn’t.
I witnessed this effect firsthand at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in San Diego last month, where Answers in Genesis had a booth. I decided to stop by with some honest questions about Genesis, such as “What was God doing on the 8th day?” It seemed to me that the symbolic significance of a 7-day divine workweek could not be missed, unless it were forced out by a false hermeneutical dichotomy, and I was right. Their response swiftly became defensive positioning behind the authority of the text, which supposedly would collapse if these 7 days were not tied directly to an earthly timeline. Neither could the AiG representative allow for the language of ‘uncreation/creation’ to be found in the story of Noah, of Israel in Egypt, or even of Jesus. Thus I reaffirmed my prior conviction that by isolating the text from its cultural and historical contexts, as well as literary analysis, YEC readings are actually quite postmodern.
So what does creationism have to do with teaching kids about Santa?
In case you missed it, Santa Claus was commemorated this year by western churches on Saturday, December 6th—the day named for Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Strictly speaking, therefore, the story of Santa is historical narrative, despite that some of the tales surrounding this figure may have been embellished over time. But in remembering this Saint, we do not simply affirm his existence within the space-time continuum. Rather, we call ourselves to live out his narrative, which has been characterized by selfless charity. As such, Santa Claus is an archetypal Christian that dared to heed the words of Jesus, and his eponymous story is transformative myth. So should it be even with the cartoonish renditions of a jolly old man with a magical sleigh.
Whatever we decide to teach ourselves and our kids about Santa, let us remember the power of cultural narrative. Reducing story to history does not preserve the importance of the historical referent, but rather destroys the narrative threads that bind our lives through time. The same could be said for the famed figures of the Pentateuch, from Adam to Joshua, whom young-Earth creationists have practically converted to modern Santa Clauses. Whether or not these biblical figures were real saints in history (let’s presume they were), their lives are recounted in archetypal and mythic language for a reason—namely, to call readers to faithfulness and elucidate their identity as a covenant people.
Instead of emphasizing our faith or unfaith in Santa, perhaps we should call ourselves to an eponymous faithfulness worthy of Christ’s blessing—one of charitable giving and selfless love.
[And for the record, this probably shouldn’t include the punching of anyone, heretic or not… ;)]
Featured image: Tim Allen in The Santa Clause