Tuesday, December 16, 2008

So the answer is "yes"

And the question is, "If a guy writes a post about a priest and Santa Claus, and nobody likes it, does it make a sound?"

It makes (as of this morning) 99 sounds, as half the world has begun to chime in. In brief - a visiting priest takes Santa as his homily. From the post I gather that he was trying for a "Yes, Virginia" sort of Frank Church moment, because he concludes that Santa is real - and we see him when people are generous to each other. The debate over the propriety of the priest talking about Santa in a church half-filled with kids who may still believe in him turned quickly on the point that there is, in fact, no Santa Claus. And things (as you can see) are quickly getting rough.

At the risk of repeating myself as if I matter.... this seems to me a situation for charity for differences and not a mighty theological debate of import. Turning Santa's reality into a referendum on lying is a good way to miss the forest for the trees. It's also a good way to get me to waver on my initial reaction, which was to lighten up a little on the young guy who forwarded the somewhat over-zealous position that telling kids about Santa was UTTERLY WRONG.

OK, not waver per se; but I do wish to clarify, because to me the charity on this should run both ways. I still think that Christopher Michael, the zealous Santa-debunker, deserves some charity from those who regard it all as a gentle and harmless game of childhood... only based on the comments since my initial request, I am forced to add that Christopher ought to show a similar charity to those folks, that seems lacking in his forceful denunciations.

In so many cases people insist that a true difference of kind ought to be treated as a difference in degree: for example, that we believers ought to have equal regard for the disbelief of others as we do for our own faith. This is patent nonsense. We are told to love others as we do ourselves, not necessarily what they say or do. There's no reason why I ought to respect equally the theory that Jesus is the Son of God, and the theory that faith in Him is a psychological illness. There's no reason to give brutality the same respect as kindness or lies the same respect as the truth.

This is not that case. Because we have so many other cases where we have to defend truth against grave error, we tend to vault to the ramparts the second any sort of difference comes up instead of stopping to think a moment. Is it a grave matter (such as abortion) or merely incidental (such as St. Paul's example of eating and drinking)? The second category is far the larger, and because of our backwards culture, we tend to miss that - we're too busy trying to keep folks from emptying out the first category entirely, to the point where we make everything too important. To me, Santa falls under the far larger second category.

I am impressed with the restraint of the rest of the CMR commenters, who have not once brought up "Miracle on 34th Street" during the entire discussion of whether or not to tell kids there's really a Santa Claus. Forgive me, but I'm going to go ahead and bring it up right now to illustrate what I'm trying to say - only with a little twist. To me, the point isn't Fred's debate with Doris, but Santa's debate with little Susan, the schoolgirl iconoclast. For her St. Nick is "a nice old man with a beard, like my mama said," and she tells him that doesn't play with the other kids. They're just silly to her. One says that he's a tiger or an elephant and then asks what animal she is. "I'm a little girl," she sniffs.

Of course, you know the rest. Santa gets her to pretend that she's a monkey, and soon she's engrossed in the game. His point is that of course everyone knows she's not an animal, it's just a fun game for the imagination - a tool that can take you to all sorts of wonderous places.

That, to me, is the point about Santa claus. Contrary to Christopher Michael's assertion, nobody wants kids to believe that St. Nicholas of Smyrna has, upon his death, become a creature who literally flies across the entire face of the Earth over one 24-hour period, delivering presents to all good children. (Ironically, as a saint he's in a better position than ever to actually succeed in such a task.) When kids stop believing it, parents don't normally protest. So, why tell them that when it's not the literal truth? For the same reason that Edmund Gwynn teaches Natalie Wood how to be a monkey. It's for the fun and the wonder of it all.

I grant Christopher's statement that the actual virgin birth of Jesus is more wonderful still; that should go without saying. I just don't think that one necessarily banishes the other. Before one gets iconoclastic about Santa, remember that the birth of Jesus is also a mythic truth. One of the reasons why the iconoclasts are always glumly debunking Jesus is that they only see that side of His story, the mythic side, and miss that it is also the literal truth. I would likewise hate to see anyone make the opposite error, and insist on literal truth to the exclusion of the mythological tone of it. When Man fell, we lost our integrity - and in that fall many things were broken, including the union of myth and fact. I am convinced that God knows we need both things - to cling to truth with our minds as a fact AND to cling to it in our imaginations as a myth - and when He came to set all things right, that breach was one of the things He healed. His life story is the factual myth, and it addresses us as complete creatures, not merely as minds or souls.

To my thinking, it is thus a mistake to so cling to one side of understanding that we lose the other. One is perfectly welcome to concentrate only on the life story of St. Nicholas, bishop of Smyrna, and dismiss as folderol the myth of old Kris Kringle. But one should also be perfectly welcome to indulge the myth of Santa rocketing around the world in a reindeer-drawn sleigh and a sack of toys. Certainly I think that those who chose one way shouldn't be looked down upon by the others.

In fact, I don't particularly mind that Christopher Michael thinks it all stuff and nonsense... only that he thinks that nobody else should have their fun either. I understand that he thinks it's a danger to the soul - but I don't agree with him in the least. Children play. I disagree with his contention that kids should have a sense of wonder about Christ instead, because in Christian homes I've never seen one offered as a substitute for the other... the kids get to have both. It's not that the childhood wonder is misplaced, but that it is so abundant that it cannot be confined. Even fairly normal kids find magic in all manner of commonplace things. They refuse to step on colored squares on a supermarket floor because they're made of lava, or ride their beds on the high seas in search of adventure. Kids believe in Santa for the same reason that they can't dribble a ball in the driveway without counting "3... 2.... 1!" and then launching a shot at the buzzer. No kid ever pretended to work a walk in the third inning of a May matinee; every last one of them has had about a thousand at-bats with the bases loaded and two outs in the World Series. When December rolls around they see the whole world adorn itself, prepare feasts, and build up to a great celebration; their family puts up a tree and a nativity, and (in the observant families) they say Advent prayers and hear about the coming birth of Jesus in church. Then, upon waking one morning they find presents underneath their tree. That moment is magic. The whole Santa story fits in very well with such a wonder as to get gifts simply because it is someone else's Birthday, even if the kids are old enough to know who did all the buying and wrapping. If all goes well they are taught to do the buying and wrapping themselves; not to replace the wonder, but to take part in it.

update, 12/17 - turns out that commenter Haus Frau DID toss in a quote, and I missed it. Drat. But thanks to all for a lively discussion on the original thread, and to the CMR folks for linking this in their "Creative Minority Reader" section. And welcome to the Hive, all newcomers!

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