aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Who is Santa Claus for?

Deanne was cleaning out an old chest of drawers this afternoon and found a letter to Santa written by our son when he was a little boy. It was a touching missive, but it shows that even as a child Zach understood that Santa was about imagination, not faith. When I was young, I knew that the presents marked "from Santa" under the tree were really from my parents; after all, it was their handwriting on the tag. And that was fine.

Thus, I have never understood the passionate conviction on the part of some parents (and older youth) that the illusion of Santa's reality must be fostered in children for as long as possible, even to the point of purveying bald-faced lies. Some part of me worries that children so lied to re: Santa might find it hard later to believe in Jesus on their parents' say-so. After all, their parents have already shown that they can't be trusted as supernatural guides; and besides, they evangelized for Santa with far more fervor than they've ever shown for Jesus.

Now, I can't say that I've ever actually seen youth who refused to trust in Jesus because they were lied to about Santa when they were children. Still, I've always wondered why it matters so much to some folks to maintain the Santa myth, and why they get so angry when anybody lets slip that the whole thing is as made up as the Rhinelander Hodag. Stephen Nissenbaum helped me understand some of it.

Nissenbaum is the author of The Battle for Christmas. He is a historian interested in the origins of folk tales and holidays. He observes that the modern Christmas centered on gift-giving (especially to children) was invented almost out of whole cloth in early 19th Century America and England. Santa Claus was invented in the 1820s. Christmas trees were introduced in the 1830s. By the 1840s, people were griping about the commercialization of Christmas; in other words, they were appealing to an invented memory of a time when Christmas was "pure," not tainted by the mass production and marketing of gifts to be bought and presented as if they were unique emblems of unique relationships. Yet, the true "old-fashioned Christmas" that the modern Christmas was invented to replace was something else again; mostly, it had become a drunken revel in which aggressive beggars asked for food and money. People felt unsafe in their homes, so they developed a holiday to be celebrated at home.

Santa Claus was the symbol that made the new kind of holiday work. He symbolized the domestic gift exchange. And even as he was used (within a decade of his invention) to sell goods that were mass-produced in advance of Christmas, he made it possible to believe that one was giving (and receiving) something that spoke uniquely of the relationship between giver and recipient. His descent from the real St. Nicholas, who had had a minor role in Christmas tradition as a friendly bishop who watched over children's behavior (assisted by various punishing agents such as the Belsniggle or the Krampus), was pretty tenuous. All that survived was the magic he lent to the gift exchange.

Nissenbaum suggests that Santa became necessary for the givers, not the recipients, of gifts. The parent giving to children or the lover giving to spouse or sweetheart was using ordinary money to purchase (not make) a mass-produced (not unique) item for the recipient. Santafication turned that gift into the special item the giver wanted it to be. In other words, believing in Santa (or, rather, producing belief in Santa) has always been more important to parents than to children. That is why the true believers are so adamant about fooling their children. They say it's for the kids, but it's really for them. This is also why they become so angry if you inadvertently speak the truth in their children's hearing: you are assaulting their most precious illusion.

Santa makes spending on mass-produced luxury goods an act of unique caring. In the parents' eyes, anyway; the kids don't really care, and Jesus or Mommy and Daddy would be just as good a source of gifts as Santa. But Mommy and Daddy, who are in charge of the whole gift exchange ritual, feel responsible for maintaining the illusion that it's not about buying stuff to satisfy their children's greed.

Me, I like St. Nicholas. My last name is a form of his. And he was a great and good man, who loved Jesus with all his heart, who assisted the poor, and who helped define and maintain the Christian faith for all time. And I'm not hostile to Santa Claus, really I'm not. But neither do I feel any great reverence for him, and what folks do with his image is all fair game. Santa the Barbarian (see below) is just as much fun as the jolly tradesman Santa of Clement Clark Moore's poem.

St. Nicholas the Wonderworker St. Nicholas the Wonderworker


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