“Santa Claus is an imaginary character,” said Bishop Antonio Staglianò of Noto, Sicily, on the feast of St. Nicholas to a church full of families and to audible gasps. “In fact,” His Excellency went on, “I would add that the red of the suit he wears was chosen by Coca Cola exclusively for advertising purposes.” The buzz began about the bishop’s barrage against Babbo Natale, and the diocese issued an apology.
While we may reserve the millstones for those who cause greater scandals than this, we should not, at the same time, understate the scandal that this was—and from a bishop too, no less. Granting that Christmas has fallen under heavy secular attack, belief in Santa Claus is a right and proper thing for Catholics. For besides such poetic household praxes enlivening the liturgy of the home, it also prepares children to grow in the strength of wonder and the security that there are benevolent powers at work in the world that affect us and which we cannot see. And if anything can save our children from the untruths of the age, it may be in large part the whimsical truth of Santa Claus.
But for many, the scandal is saying that Santa Claus is real. “We don’t ‘do’ Santa Claus,” is a phrase I’ve had mouthed to me furtively above the heads of kids at Christmas gatherings, and I always have the same response: “Why not?” It seems to me, in an age of toxic falsehoods, we need to teach our children—and perhaps ourselves—how to take and retain a hold of rejuvenating truth, and especially of those truths which are invisible. The presence of Santa Claus at Christmas at Christian hearths is an almost indispensable exercise in building this mystical sensitivity to the most real things in the world, which are the least substantial.
So, why would any parent not “do” Santa Claus with their children? I suppose some would say that it is, at bottom, a lie. No one really believes that a white-bearded gnome in a fur-lined red suit slides down the chimney, leaving his reindeer-drawn sleigh up on the roof, to fill stockings and place presents under the tree. All of that is not literally true—but, taken in the right frame of mind and heart, Santa Claus is symbolic of something absolutely true.
For all you “don’t doers,” think of it this way for a moment. No father thinks he is lying when, after a prayer to St. Joseph before a difficult cut with the miter saw, he says to his assisting son, “St. Joseph really came through for us there.” No mother thinks she is lying when, upon missing a child’s shoe, she recites the jingling prayer to St. Anthony as she looks under the sofa and, finding it, says, “St. Anthony never fails us.” No parent thinks they are lying when their child has a near accident and they say, “Your guardian angel was watching out for you today.”
If these are not lies, then why is it a lie when we tell our children that St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, played a part in the holy day for children? Especially if the stockings were filled with a simple prayer for blessing from that jolly old saint. These are not lies. They are words of faith for very true things.
It falls to parents to rescue St. Nicholas out of the mire of commercialism and cute nonsense. As Pope Francis recently encouraged us, “Let us not experience a fake, commercial Christmas.” The world is bent on making our lives inextricably tangled in the fake, but nothing keeps Christmas real like Santa Claus. Catholics should, therefore, allow St. Nick to wink and twist his head like the holy old elf he actually is. This is the place of pious and playful lore, creations and cooperations that mingle Heaven with earth.
Man is not a disembodied spirit, and he requires bodily things to draw him to the divine. He needs incarnations just as he needed the Incarnation. And fathers and mothers who pray to St. Nicholas during Advent all the way up to the night before Christmas, asking the Bishop of Myra, that patron saint of all children, to lay his hands on theirs as they fill stockings and wrap presents, are participating in a great truth. It is no lie, then, to say that St. Nicholas, that Santa Claus, came in the night and was a sharer in that secret ritual that is between him and parents. Who’s to say he didn’t? It all depends on what you choose to believe.
And why not believe? Children are already drawn to this holy day of childhood and the family, and the wonderful miracle of Santa Claus only makes it more joyful—even miraculous. And to miss the opportunity to make the universe more wonderful is a mistake. We live in a time of intense falsehood and fabrication, and if children aren’t given a strong sense of the sacred in their imaginations, it will not be long, unfortunately, before society and its chimerical sins lures them into thinking that nothing is sacred.
But minds that are alive with wonder will be blessed with a type of resistance against the narrow over-simplifications of secularism and scientism. Wonder can make virtual reality the shallow unfulfilling thing it is. Wonder can resist the beautiful bait of pornography that leads to a prison of desensitization to all beauty. Wonder teaches us to be content with mystery, which can be indispensable in a culture of stripping exposure. As Socrates taught, wonder is the beginning of wisdom, and in an age of aggressive and unmannerly pleasure, a little wonder can go a long way to save a soul.
There is a new and less-bloody slaughter of innocents taking place, and it is being perpetrated by strategies and agendas that actually murder innocence. The falsehood that is rampant in our culture will rob our children of their purity, given half a chance, through the elimination of the motions of the heart. And it will leave them severely impaired in their ability to be awed by truth or to find joy in the beautiful.
The sad result is that jaded spirits are not very susceptible to formation or inspiration. Cynicism quickly develops as a defense mechanism, leaving young people crusted over and swallowed up by the distractions of addicting entertainment. Boys and girls are often lost to apathy in a world that eventually fails to titillate. The fantasy, or blasphemy, of reality results in a loss of desire for reality, which is the foundation of any sound mind.
Santa Claus is no such fantasy, however. He is a positive principle of truth. He is a firm figure of faith. He is a solid symbol of spiritual consequence. He is a real occasion for wonder and innocence and Heavenly visitation. As such, the traditions of this Christmastime saint are particularly powerful platforms to raise the young high above the popular, pernicious gutters.
Children tend to be highly sensory, imaginative, and active, and the experience of the world and its mysteries, both the visible and invisible, is the best arena for wonder. Being too heavy-handed with facts and figures, instead of flowing with the spirit of faith, can eradicate mystery unnecessarily—and without mystery, kids will lose their ability to wonder, and in a large part, their ability to grow in wisdom.
There is more to the canon of Christmas than the Gospels. There are symbols and sacramentals that proceed from this source, and Santa Claus is among them. Parents should not cut him out—especially not on the pretense of St. Nick being untrue. There are mysteries that subsist in the Mystery of the Word made Flesh. Keeping Christmas well, therefore, should include things wild and wonderful; things like elves, fairies, ghosts, and, yes, Bishop Staglianò, Santa Claus; things that reflect and recall that time when Heavenly nature took on earthly nature; and “doing” Santa Claus is preeminently one of those things.
So, let us by all means keep the worldly noise out of our children’s ears and let them enjoy the fancifulness of our Faith without burden. Telling kids that there is no Santa Claus, and that Christmas is just a tragedy of commercialism, is a kind of millstone that interrupts the innocence of children and puts up an obstacle to wonder. If children are deprived of wonder, their path to cynicism, virtual reality, pornography, and addiction is that much shorter. This Christmas, let us find the beauty in those invisible realities that include Santa Claus so that they can sustain us and our children through the fake world that lurks at our door.
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