This post was originally published in The Finger Lakes Times (NY), as a weekly column in the series, “Denim Spirit:” http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-a-christmas-note-in-a-bottle/article_4c47760c-079f-5679-a0c6-860bfbb87003.html
Spoiler Alert: Do not read this column to your children or grandchildren for whom you are preserving the myth of Santa Claus.
Many years ago, when I was a young Episcopal priest serving as solo pastor in my first congregation, I had a colleague in a nearby church that was also of my tender age. Unlike my smaller, humbler congregation, he found himself – through a unique set of quirky circumstances – as the senior pastor of a very large, very wealthy congregation with a school attached. He had a brand new assistant priest, just out of seminary and only a few years younger than him. The younger priest was squeaky clean, energetically evangelistic, and more or less a black and white thinker. My friend was wise beyond his years, and seemed born for the job he was doing, whereas his younger assistant was an awkward fit for that particular highbrow and well-heeled congregation.
Long story short, my friend gave his younger priest the early Christmas Eve service to preach, the one which was organize around the children’s Christmas pageant. Full of himself and flush with righteousness, he preached about Santa Claus being a fake and impressed upon his horrified congregation of children and adults, what Christmas was really about. Needless to say, my friend had a mess to clean up after Christmas that year.
To my Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and non-religious friends, I feel compelled to lean in and whisper that Christians don’t believe in Santa either.
In fact, if I could, what I would like to share with them, is that the Christmas story is a refugee story. It is a dark tale of danger and risk encountered by non-citizens of a country they had lived in all their lives. It is the tale of an impoverished family seeking to fulfill the exploitative demands of an imperial edict while also escaping the murderous intentions of more local despots.
As decorated by the commercial culture around the religion, and in a conspiracy with religious institutions to romanticize and so disguise the blatantly political and economic implications of the gospel stories, Christmas has been wrapped in red bows and tasseled hats. While I recognize the mere mention of this fact will agitate some folks towards apoplexy, I am not preaching to the choir here (or children’s pageant). This is a note in a bottle tossed upon the see of consumeristic and cultural spew in hopes that those standing on the outside of the Christmas craziness will read it and say, “Ah ha!”
To those who are on the outside looking in at such moments, and wondering how rational adults could believe in Santa and elves and Easter bunnies, please understand that such things are the invention of those who would distract us from the true nature of these stories and profound wisdom embedded in them.
Christmas, and many of the stories and teachings associated with it, are deeply subversive to systematic injustice, exploitation of the poor, abuse of immigrants and strangers among us, and environmental degradation as we practice them today. Elves and bunnies are the fluff of “fake religion” that has come to form a veneer around the authentic, and truly radical narrative from those ancients.
Even so, amidst it all are some lovely moments for family and community. Merry Christmas (and happy holidays).