My wife and I have something on the order of 40 or 50 Santa Clauses in our house, some just a couple of inches tall, several about two feet tall, most grinning, one dressed in green, the rest in red, all of them with beards, all of them pleasing to look at, and yet we may have to get rid of them. No one likes Santa anymore.
It’s a shame because it was no easy matter for us to collect these artifacts over the years or for different legends to coalesce into the jolly, big-bellied, sleigh-riding Santa of today.
From the 17th century on, it seems, the English told tales of Father Christmas, a character symbolizing the spirit of the day and made especially likable by the writer Charles Dickens some200 years later. Review various articles and you find he got imaginatively tangled with Sinterklaas, first known as Saint Nicholas, later known mostly as Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas was a 4th century bishop renowned for giving gifts to the poor. The Dutch made a big, celebratory deal of him, bringing their Sinterklaas legend with them to America. Washington Irving kept it alive with his writings, and then came Clement Clarke Moore. A professor of Oriental and Greek literature, he once wrote a Hebrew dictionary, but then also took time in 1816 to compose a poem to entertain his children.
"’Twas the night before Christmas," it began, and it got repeated over and over. Santa Claus was off and running in the United States.
It got to be that, in this season of the year, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing a Santa Claus song or go downtown without bumping into several of them. But it has now gotten to be that you can’t peruse the Internet in search of his name without bumping into all sorts of opinion pieces doing their best to bash the "ho, ho, ho" out of him.
To some, Santa is now a symbol, more than anything, of retail-avarice, a department-store ploy to get you to buy, buy, buy, helping shape Christmas into the most frenzied and materialistic of holidays. What gets lost, it’s said, is the birth of Jesus, the divine incarnation, the promise of peace and goodwill on earth, hope for humanity. Additionally, still others say, the Santa story is a lie. Your children will eventually catch on to such dishonesty, never trust you again and grow up with a confused sense of integrity.
My first response is memories.
I remember the unbelievable excitement my older sister and I used to feel as children when we listened for reindeer hooves on our roof, and I remember the happiness in the faces of my own children when they rushed on Christmas morning to see what was under the tree. In all of this, there was great warmth and goodness, and it did not seem to crowd out Jesus. Rather, it made you feel some special sense of wonder at what his coming meant. The Santa songs weren’t the only ones you heard. There were also the wonderful carols. And there were Sunday school lessons and creches and nativity plays.
Sure, people can overdo the giving and getting, and they shouldn’t, but giving gifts is, after all, an expression of love, and getting them causes you to feel the love others have for you. It’s a fact that charitable giving is also part of the season, just as it is a fact that the economic boost of the holiday helps assure the continued prosperity of many businesses paying wages that allow millions to avoid the hardship prevalent in so many parts of the world.
We can, of course, quit telling children stories that spark imaginative growth and convey to them instead that the stuff of this world is nothing but dry bones. I myself think that’s a way of cheating them out of something precious and vital to their childhood.
In the end, I am with Francis Pharcellus Church, the New York Sun writer who in 1897 composed the famous editorial, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," part of which said: "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy."
Maybe my wife and I won’t be getting rid of those Santas, after all.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)