When I was a child I always looked forward to singing “O, Santa in the highest” on Sunday mornings. It was a highlight of my week. Standing between my parents, seeing the sun streaming in from the windows, and holding the hymnal – I thought it quite natural to be singing to a gift-giver my five-year old self loved, Santa Claus. Though I look back at this child’s error in embarrassment, I’m also aware at how freeing it was to sing without abandon at church. Somehow God and Santa were connected. Though not theologically correct, I was pointing in the right direction imaging a loving being as the focus of these words. It wasn’t that big of a change when I started to sing “Hosanna in the highest” in later years.
Was this a form of heresy? An idea that if my parents would have been aware should have fervently cut out of my imagination? Or, was it something else?
Recently after I shared this story in a group, one of the participants said that she had just had the talk about Santa Claus with her daughter who now felt that she had been lied to for ten years. I can understand where this mother and daughter are coming from. The attempt to live out a lie in our lives can lead us away from reality and cause us to feel a sense of diminished trust – whether that lie is Santa Claus or of being a concert pianist when you’ve never practiced a day in your life (or published author when you don’t sit and write). When fantasy overtakes reality, it can lead to demolished relationships, bad career choices, and great stress. In the case of Santa Claus, one may even argue that this fantasy is turning people away from actual stories – Jesus’ birth and the life of St. Nicolas – and to the life claiming calls of marketers.
But, could such fantasies also be a gift in our lives? Something we should desire to share with our children, and even encourage. The error I inserted into the church liturgy didn’t take me away from God’s reality, but drove me to it. The picture I had of Santa Claus was of a gift giver, of love. It pointed in the direction of the ultimate gift giver.
C. S. Lewis even includes him in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. As Narnia begins to thaw from winter, hope arises when the children and beavers are met by Father Christmas – “Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world – the world on this side of the wardrobe door.” Now because everyone knew and were positively drawn to him they were open to what he had to say “Aslan is on the move. . . . Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” Such fantasies can truly direct us to greater stories.
Furthermore, the gifts Father Christmas gives Peter, Susan, and Lucy prepare them for the battles and challenges to come – sword, shield, bow and arrows, horn, dagger, and healing cordial. At the time they didn’t know what to do with them, but they trusted they would use them because they trusted the giver. He was preparing them to meet Aslan.
Things not factually true within the material world do not need to be termed lies. Then all of the great literature would have to be viewed as lies as well. Well, maybe not if we’re not enacting them in our lives. But this desire to bring Santa Claus and other fantasy figures into this world is not necessarily a lie. It depends on how the story is presented – as with any story. Bringing him into this world may be a way of longing for the ultimate insertion of fantasy into the world – that of God’s incarnation.
In his essay On Fairy Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien writes:
But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’
Tolkien was not a fan of Lewis including Father Christmas in Narnia. For him it wasn’t well conceived fantasy writing. But I would like to imagine the he supported the reasoning behind including Santa – that this figure well known to the children would be a means of pointing to the unknown goodness they would meet in Aslan.
Everyone doesn’t have to redeem the fantasy of Santa Claus in their and their children’s lives. There are many other stories that people can bring into the world and I would encourage us all to be careful about disregarding fantasy and imagination too quickly. I’m for bringing Santa and elves, mischievous rabbits and small orange bears stuffed with fluff into our lives to give us a wider view of the world – and perhaps even a better view into God.