Naughty or Nice?

I have little kids, which means this time of year I watch Christmas programs with them and being the relatively strange person I am I cannot help thinking about what these shows are teaching my kids. To many analyzing the philosophy behind kids shows is a laughable,  but there are times, and Christmas is often one of those, where such an effort can be important. Celebrating holidays is culturally important because they help link our communities and what we teach kids about these holidays impacts how they approach the celebration. In other words, the story we create and teach to kids about Christmas shows what we believe the holiday is about. And I have noticed a shift in what kids are taught about Santa Claus. The classic story of Santa is that “good children” receive presents, while naughty children receive either coal or nothing. Children were classified as good or bad based on their actions during the year. However, Christmas programs today tend toward the theme of Santa bringing presents to all children (though there sometimes are references to a “nice list”). I think this new characterization of Santa actually brings with it a Christian understating of the world: but it is not without difficulties.

First the positive. Though I thoroughly disagree with any theology that makes God into a divine gift giver, this newer outlook is on of grace. It seems as though, at least in the collective televised conscience, gone are the days when kids must earn presence through good behavior. The character of Santa brings presents to all kids based in his character not their own. Such a concept closely mirrors the Christian understanding of grace, that God provides us with love, salvation based on the Divine character not on our own deservedness. In a way this brings Santa Claus into closer connection with the historical Saint Nicholas and the ideals of Christianity. He becomes a person who takes care of everyone regardless of their station in life. Though I have never taught my kids to believe in Santa (they understand their parents give them presents), I do appreciate this version of Santa Claus. A Santa who gives gifts to all can be a role model of compassion for children. We are thus able to build bridges between the Christian worldview and a more secular understanding of Christmas, and such overlaps should always be welcome as we interact with the culture at large.

Certainly there is some overlap between the cultural understanding of Santa Claus and the Christian perspective of the God of grace, yet there are also serious differences. The underlying motivations often presented for Santa Claus are not at all “Grace”,  rather it seems Santa Claus is compelled to bring presents to kids because they are all basically good. Any behavior that in bygone generations would have put a child on the naughty list is today seen as an aberration from the child’s true character. We have a fundamental framework that sees a person as “good” with only occasional stumbles. Modern culture is perpetuating the understanding that people are basically good through a character who brings good things to everyone. But we must ask are people basically good? If this is the case how has society gotten so far off the rails? How is it that a society full of basically good people build a society that is fundamentally warped? This falsehood is furthered by the fact that a gift giving Santa Claus aligns nicely with commercialism of our modern society. It works well for sponsors of TV shows to have a Santa Claus who gives gifts to everyone because that means more people will buy more things. Businesses like to hear that Santa is bringing presents to everyone because more people must spend more money, which means more profit. Lastly, I think there is a psychological benefit to this kind Santa the way there is from a prosperity gospel Jesus. It is pleasurable to have a Santa who does not judge us “naughty” because we have acted selfishly over the last year (even if we do not receive anything from Santa). I see adults taking pleasure in a Santa who judges all kids nice, and I think, at least in part, it is because they release their own guilt in the process.

This is the difficulty of our cultural portrayal of Santa Claus, he is a gift giver, but not always for the best reasons. He models the behavior of Saint Nicholas but from starkly different motivations. Christian perception of humanity begins with the concept that humanity is not inherently good and therefore gifts like those given by Saint Nicholas or God come from generosity and are not merited. The cultural portrayal of Santa Claus as someone who gives to those who are good remains intact, it still remains only in his character to give to those who deserve gifts; we have simply classified everyone as deserving. But this classification of humanity as generally good rests on the concept that we do not do harm to one another as a general rule. Few people wake up in the morning intending to harm another person, and so in the minds of most people humanity is generally good and moral. Christians take a different stand, for Christians humanity is not good precisely because people are not by nature generous and giving. We recognize the reality that as humans we are inherently selfish, hoarding resources with little concern for those around us in our daily lives. The Christian definition of “good” includes self-sacrifice and generosity. The Christian Saint Nicholas gave to children not because they were good but because he was doing what was good, they did not deserve the gift rather he desired to make their lives better through the gift. This difference in motivation cannot be overlooked and indeed it should be emphasized as we can consider the differences between the secular holiday of Christmas and the Christian ideal celebrated at Christmas. While I think we can applaud the shift to a more inherently generous Santa Claus precisely because he is closer to the grace of God than the works based form of previous myths, we must recognize the continued shortcomings in our cultural mindset. The overlap is a good thing but must lead to conversations which demonstrate where this concept is still inferior to the Christian ideal.

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