Can the Christ Child tolerate Santa crowding the manger scene?
For a very long time I have come to dislike the Christmas season. It is not that I identify with the Dickensian character of Ebenezer Scrooge but, in regards to most of the hoopla around this time of the year, I would probably borrow his famous “Bah! Humbug!”
I have survived more than 60 Christmas seasons, some more joyous than others. All have been major efforts which seem like false tsunamis – more than a month of swelling expectations and then suddenly it is all over with a splash of tinsel and turkey.
In the Christian tradition, we know that Holy Week, the story of the passion and death of the Christ leading to the Sunday celebration of Resurrection, is the most important liturgical celebration of the year. It is in Easter that the core of the Christian message is expressed. Christmas is a mini-Easter, where the message of Easter lays beneath the surface in the gifts of the journeying Magi and the tragic cruelty of Herod the Great.
We know in our heads that the Christmas story, a combination of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, is designed to position the figure of Jesus as the Messiah with celestial markings from the beginning. These accounts written 40 to 60 years after the execution of Jesus of Nazareth are based on a developing theology using Hebrew biblical prophesies and mythical concepts (such as virgin birth) to give the Christ child supernatural qualities. The earliest gospel (Mark) has nothing to say about the early origins of Jesus, yet historically the writer of Mark would have had the best chance to actually know something from persons still alive who would have known Jesus. John’s gospel, which is the most theological of the gospels, is also silent on these nativity events. John chooses to set the Christ in a cosmological frame, the Word that existed from the beginning and is identified with the moment of creation.
What do we know about the nativity of Jesus? He had a mother whose name was
some Hebrew version of Mary, and his father traditionally is known as Joseph. Very little else about these two individuals is revealed in Scripture. Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, in the northern province of Galilee, an area known for its poverty and prone to the presence of Roman armies traveling south to Judea. Joseph is described as a carpenter; although today it is a noble trade that is much in demand, in the beginning of the first millennium it was the designation of a landless labourer who would pick up jobs wherever available. Insecurity would be the daily bread of this peasant life.
Along with the lack of information regarding the parents of Jesus, other inconsistencies arise with the other elements of the Nativity narrative. The angelic visitation to the shepherds – not likely. The inn with no rooms – not likely. The trip to Bethlehem for the purpose of the census decreed by Caesar – not likely. The story of the Magi
from the East – full of meaning – but again unlikely. The massacre of the infant boys by the wicked Herod – and he was capable of such cruelty – but unlikely. And consequently the flight into Egypt, although rich in scriptural parallels to the figure of Moses (quite possibly another mythical figure), is also unlikely.
In the general nativity story, there is a hidden message core to the Easter message: this child is destined to be the Saviour, the long awaited Messiah, the suffering servant of Yahweh. This message however requires a prior understanding of the Easter story.
The nativity narrative developed in the Northern Hemisphere during the Roman
Empire. After the conversion of Constantine, many of the pagan or Roman festivals were adapted to Christian themes. Pagan symbols were transformed into Christian symbols such as the tree decorated with lights. Significant cosmic markings like the northern winter solstice were attributed theological meanings –Light overcoming the darkness – and Christmas was set purposefully in this period of darkness, anticipating the return of light.
Moving along to the year 1224, St. Francis of Assisi creates the first known Nativity Scene (as we know it today) – a live dramatization of the birth of Jesus incorporating elements of Matthew and Luke and adding a few characters to the pastoral setting. St. Francis is also credited with creating the first “Christmas carols” – songs to the Christ Child. St. Francis, according to tradition and a written account by St. Bonaventure, sought to bring the message of the Nativity to the rural poor of a village called Grecio with a type of live dramatization. Apparently it was a great success, and has been repeated throughout the Christian world in dramatizations and artistic representations. In a non-literate world, this form of catechesis was probably the most effective method of teaching and evangelizing. The Passion Play serves the same function in regards to the Easter story.
The late 20th Century witnessed a major shift in the Nativity story. The figures of
Mary and Joseph, the Wise Men, the angels, the shepherds and their flocks disappeared. In their place, kneeling before the manger is Santa Claus, dressed in his red and white Coca-Cola uniform with the black belt. The historical character of the Greek St. Nicholas, the bishop who gave gifts to the poor children, experienced different transformations over the centuries. For example, the Dutch called him Sinterklaas and celebrate his feast on December 6, when good little Dutch children still receive their gifts. (Strangely, Sinterklaas still
appears with Black Pete, a slave, rather than the more socially acceptable and politically correct industrious elves.)
The fat, jolly, Santa Claus of today is a Coca-Cola creation. In 1931, the company commissioned an artist from Chicago, Haddon Sundblom, to create a Santa symbol to use in their advertising. Coca-Cola did not create Santa Claus, but the current image of Santa that dominates the commercial Christmas industry is much beholden to this
iconic image and continues to play a major role in advertising during the Christmas season. This modern image of Santa Claus marks a transition of Christmas from a primarily religious celebration to a secular seasonal celebration that is marked by consumption, consumerism and commercialization.
You might think that the church, ecumenically speaking, would be concerned that its second most important liturgical narrative had been appropriated by someone else and used for very different purposes. However, the church has accommodated itself to whatever ideological power with which it has to share influence. Much to my horror, I first saw the now common “Kneeling Santa” figure in the early 1980’s. Catholic bookstores, gift shops and shrines have quickly recognized the profitability of the Kneeling Santa in its many forms: figurines, cards, nativity sets, and books.
One popular book is “Santa and the Christ Child” by Nicholas Bakewell, which tells the story of how an incarnation of the Christ child at the age of 10 saves Christmas by helping a injured Santa and the elves deliver all the toys to good little boys and girls. The child then takes Santa to the original nativity scene, the little boy’s birthplace, whereupon Santa Claus falls to his knees in adoration. It is the (im)perfect blend of faith and fantasy, removing the sting of poverty from the original nativity scene and investing it with the corporate symbol of capitalism. I spoke of my aversion to this image with a religious education consultant who admonished me for not appreciating the beauty of the Kneeling Santa.
Not long afterwards, I was attending a family mass in downtown Toronto when after communion, the priest celebrant, known for his colloquial style, engaged the children in conversation. He asked, “Does anyone know who is coming soon?” The expected answer should have been the baby Jesus in light of the setting. However, the answer was Santa. The priest proceeded to leave the altar, instructing the congregation to continue singing carols and after a short absence, he reappeared dressed as Santa Claus. Of course, the children were excited and the parents were thrilled that their children could enjoy their moment with Santa. It is no wonder why so many young adults have abandoned the church. They have grown up and they now know there is no Santa Claus but are willing to accept Santa in his proper shrine – in the malls. In the bedlam of consumerism, the new nativity is the booth where the children, or even the family pet, are able to purchase Santa’s favour and a photo to remember the experience. The old mythology has lost its power and given way to the secular Santa.
The real nativity story is a subversive narrative. In the words of Mary (Luke 1:45ff), the echoes of Hebrew spirituality rebound. The powerful creator has blessed the “humble servant”, he “scatters the proud”, “puts down the mighty” and “exalts the humble”. The hungry are filled while the rich are sent away empty. There are hints of danger to anyone who embraces this story of glad tidings as the powerful will stop at nothing to protect their privileges. The child is presented with funeral spices to foreshadow his short life and his unnatural death. There is even a cosmic dimension, the famous star, indicating that these events are not limited to one time but in a dimension beyond even human history.
From the lack of faithfulness to the original intended message, it can be inferred that
the church has yet to understand the message of the nativity story. The institutional church has accommodated itself and sought to share the wealth, privilege and prestige of conquerors and oppressors. In the process its own iconography has been corrupted, and the Christmas story becomes an amalgam of contradictory themes.
It is difficult not to get caught up in the Christmas madness. It is forced upon us by the dominant culture that continues to proclaim itself as Christian. Jews, Muslims and even recovering Christians are bombarded with the corporate Christmas season. It is easier just to give in and let it happen. I will again struggle with a churchless Christmas – not that such is a solution but it is better than the alternative.