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Thursday, December 26, 2013
Santa: Caricature of God
Santa: Caricature of God
December. We are mobbed by Santas. Inflatable Santas, poster Santas, song lyric Santas, manikin Santas, department store Santas, and other varieties on end. They are all part of a conspiracy to bolster the faith of children like the 8-year-old O’Hanlan girl addressed in Francis P. Church’s 1897 editorial “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.”
That little essay is a masterful piece of rhetoric. (If you need to reread it, you can find it here: http://www.newseum.org/yesvirginia/). Church worded the piece to make a child believe the jolly old elf is real and “lives and lives forever.” The same words say to adults, with a wink and a nudge, that Santa exists only as an abstraction. Key line: “Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies.” The trick is called equivocation, and we are supposed to chuckle at how cleverly Church plays it. He conveys contradictory meanings to two audiences simultaneously.
I don’t chuckle. The trick is nasty.
Santa is one idea where I agree with Armstrongism, at least to the extent that adults should not persuade the young to believe lies. Fiction is fun. Deceit is twisted. My Radio CoG parents let us kids know in no uncertain terms that Santa was a fiction. My wife, who grew up in a Baptist household, says her mother led her to believe in Santa till she was in fourth grade. After finding out the truth she resented being made a fool of for all those years. She also tells a story about one of co-workers. The woman’s daughter’s teacher called her and said, “Jean, you’ve got to get down here to the school. The other kids have told your daughter there is no Santa, and she’s standing here with tears streaming down her face saying, ‘My mother and father told me it was true, and they would never lie to me!’” So when my wife and I had kids ourselves, we made sure to let them know Santa is a game people play. Fun, but not real.
In a sermon, Garner Ted told an anecdote about a different hazard of the Santa lie. The Santa story would make kids doubt god. After two boys had just found out about Santa, one of them said, “And I’m going to look into this Jesus Christ business, too!”
After mulling over the problem for years, I realize that may be the point. Parallels between Santa and conventional images make Santa into a parody, a cartoon version of the Christian deity. So pretending to believe in Santa is practice for pretending to believe in the Christian God. Not Jesus Christ, but God the Father.
Both characters are distinguished-looking old gentleman with flowing white hair and beard. If Santa wore a white robe instead of a red suit, we would be hard put to tell them apart in a lineup.
Both are omniscient; they see you while you’re sleeping; they know when you’re awake; they know when you’ve been bad or good. And the intended lesson is the same: “so be good for goodness’ sake.”
Knowing who has been good and who bad, they both pass judgement; they reward the good and punish the bad. The rewards are vastly different, of course: toys and sweets from Santa and eternity in heaven from God. Not to worry; substitution of the concrete and temporal for the ethereal and eternal is a normal parody technique. A connection between the punishments is easier to see. Santa brings lumps of coal for bad children. Coal is brimstone. It burns hot and gives off sulfurous black smoke. All a kid has to do is ignite it to get a preview of eternity in hell.
Many parents go to great lengths to convince their offspring Santa is real—expending almost as much effort as they do to persuade them to believe in God. They express outrage when another kid spills the beans and robs their darlings of their innocent faith in God’s comic double—almost as much as if they had been robbed of their faith in God himself. In fact, some other fundamentalists besides Armstrongists fear that when children find out about God’s avatar, they will suspect God is nothing but a lie too.
Maybe that’s actually why, on a subconscious level, mainstream Christians push the Santa story: it embodies this tension between knowing and believing. People know deep down that Christian dogma is a fantasy, but consider it a charming one, and necessary to good behavior. We would all sink into depravity if we stopped acting as if we believed it. Chaos would erupt. Society would collapse. So Christians conspire to suppress knowledge and promote earnest pretense. I see no other reason for the perennial popularity of "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," with its execrable message that deception of children is justified because it leads them into lives of self-deception.