I posted this piece originally seven years ago. Reading back through it I find that it is still as true to me now as it was then. However, to offer a new note of context I would like to add something from Steve Bell and give you a glimpse of understanding about the history of St. Nicolas from whom the figure of Santa Claus developed in our cultural traditions. The Feast of St. Nicolas of Myra is a thoughtful review of the basic facts of the historic figure of St. Nicolas and gives us some thoughts on how we might more truly carry out the intent of Christmas. (I highly commend to you Steve’s marvelous Pilgrim Year. It is an extraordinary multi-media journey through the Christian year and there is really nothing else like it.) While Steve’s piece about St. Nicolas is very different in focus and tone than my reflections here, we share a common value of loving the Triune God and a life-long desire to keep Christmas well.
Let me preface what I am about to share by saying that I devoutly believe that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, who gave up Heaven, became flesh and blood like us and came to live among us, one day to die for our sins so that we might be reconciled to God the Father. Augustine said it beautifully when he wrote “The Son of God became the Son of Man that the sons of men may become the sons of God.” Christmas is holy and sacred – wrapped always in mystery that we may sometimes experience but likely not comprehend fully in this world. All that I am hinges on this event in history. All that you are does, too. There is no other day of the year that carries deeper personal significance to me and I suspect that until The Day of His return it will remain so, whether I celebrate it with a house full of family or homeless and alone on a street corner.
A discussion has been raised of late in our house about how to discuss Santa Claus in context of Christmas. There are family questions about the virtue of not “lying” to children about Santa in order to avoid the inevitable disenchantment that comes with the discovery that he does not “exist” and the earnest desire not to confuse Santa’s identity with Jesus’. These are good questions to consider and important ones to ask as accountable Christian parents. I applaud all those careful-hearted, thoughtful ones who truly weigh what to teach their children. If only all parents were so inclined!
That being said, when this issue comes up I tremble a little in my heart because I know that I am being called to step on to sacred ground. I personally can never speak of Santa without a deep sense of holiness, and I do mean that. As a child who grew up fatherless and in desperate conditions, the only view I was afforded of men was limited to men who were distant and cold, those who were unfaithful to their wives and children, to those who were violent and practiced evil things. In the midst of those bleak years the great God of the universe intervened for me in the form of books, and one in particular – a beautiful children’s book titled Jolly Old Santa Claus. It was written by Mary Jane Tonn and illustrated by the remarkable artist George Hinke.
It is hard for me to describe the power and the life long influence that single, thin picture book had on me or how deeply it spoke about transcendent beauty and goodness to a child living in poverty and neglect. It is one of the great treasures of my childhood. The picture of Santa marveling at the glass ornaments still lingers with me as my introduction to visual wonder and when I see bubble lights on the Christmas tree I still associate the same sense of magic and wonder to them that I first experienced in this picture.
Those first visions of Jolly (happy and kind) Old Santa Claus were also the first forms I connected to God the Father.
As a child I was not blessed to be part of a church family or exposed to Christian influences. Those pictures were my first associations with a man who was happy and kind, powerful and good, full of wonder. And love. It was also my first vision of a happy marriage, something at my tiny age I knew absolutely nothing about.
Many books and paintings, poems and movies later I encountered something that gave a particularly piercing description of this same deep sense of holy wonder. That description is the famous editorial piece titled “Yes, Virginia – There is a Santa Claus“, written Sept. 21, 1897 by veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church then writing for New York’s Sun Newspaper. I have yet to read a more eloquent account of the mystery and wonder that are the essence of who we call Santa Claus. At the heart of this extraordinary piece is this passage:
“The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
Last year at my request my friend, Malcolm Guite, very kindly and graciously recorded his reading of “Yes, Virginia”. It is my delight I am able to share that with you here.
Few pieces in all of literature affect me so deeply as this. It says in finer, clearer, truer words than I have been able to master, what I feel and recognise as saving truth.
I met Jesus when I was a pagan child and pagan though I was, He was no less the Son of God nor His Father any less God the Father because He came to me wearing the kind face of Santa Claus.
We learn little truths that give way to greater truths. “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin….” Zechariah 4:10.
I reconcile beliefs that I hold sacred from childhood that stand resolute in the face of logic with the understanding that much of what we know and believe to be true is not in fact logical or “provable”. Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection each have elements to them that absolutely outstrip the boundaries of proof. Yet I do not need “proof” to believe that He lives, and believing it does not make me foolish or stunted. What is eternal and holy is so whether our minds can define it or not. Their very holiness and being outside of logic is what makes them the more true and real. C.S. Lewis describes being unshackled from the burden and limits of “adult” beliefs when he wrote “Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adults themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence…. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. (On Three Ways of Writing for Children, from On Stories)
Now some of what once gave me a sense of wonder has changed, but the hunger for wonder has remained. Certain things have lingered, deep stained with meaning, meaning so deep, so ancient my eyes sting with the recognition. I am not ashamed of believing still in Santa and I know perfectly well who puts the gifts under the tree and fills the stockings. I am not remotely ashamed that I believe in fairies and with all my heart I expect that the God who made me will bring me to where they live when I go home to Heaven. He is a God far great enough to wrap His great wide arms around such marvels. The magic of such creations is His rightful domain and His alone. He is no less holy or awesome because there is a twinkle in His eye. May you encounter that very twinkle this Christmas and your heart be indeed made glad!
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.
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