Who is Santa Claus?

(anonymous, in the public domain)

I always enjoyed Christmas as a child, and because of that personal habit and history, I have always enjoyed Christmas as an adult. I have thought about Christmas, and about Santa Claus, and about what we sometimes sense as the extreme "commercialism" of Christmas. I am aware that the feeling of Christmas, or the holiday season as we call it, would be different for me if I experienced a tragedy around this time of year, a death of a dear love, or a painful accident, or someone gone and this being the first Christmas without them present to hug and to laugh with. Anyway, we are supposed to be celebrating, be as happy as we possibly can be. I have asked myself what this means. I have concluded that it is good, all good, and that every Christmas gift is really two gifts, and that there is a good reason why Americans claim that Christmas is not only a Christian or sectarian religious holiday, but is in reality a universal and secular holiday. To explain these conclusions, all one has to do is ask oneself "Who is Santa Claus?" A person? A spirit? What spirit?

The story of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, is claimed by more than one nation. One might not be surprised to hear the story claimed by Austria or Switzerland, lands famous for skilled wood carvers who make the parts for mechanical wooden clocks and wooden toys. One might be surprised to hear the story of Santa Claus claimed by Turkey, but it is. Wherever one hears the story that there was once a real "Santa Claus" or a man who was canonized (by whom?) and became Saint Nicholas -- it could be Italy or Germany or Spain or a Viking country -- the story is essentially the same. An elderly man made toys for children all year and on Christmas Eve he secretly delivered these gifts for children, and gifts for the child's family -- such as food and fuel -- to their homes. He was just being thoughtful, caring, and generous, generous with his time and his wealth, whatever his level of wealth may have been. The story does not say that he was wealthy, or that he earned lots of money this way or that. We just know that somehow this man was able to attend to the needs and desires of others, able to be unselfish. The story sometimes insists that he delivered the gifts by climbing onto rooftops and dropping them down the chimney. We will see how that could be laden with meaning. We also may hear that the gifts are delivered only to children who are good, and bad children get nothing, or they may get an old sock filled with coal. We will see how that could be not a punishment, but in fact a highly valued gift. Let's take a closer look at this Christmas tradition, what it means, who this Santa Claus is.

Like most Americans, I have questioned the commercialism of Christmas. Most toys are not made by hand by local crafts persons today, but come to us on large trucks and across the seas where they are made in large factories. This is now true for most of what we purchase in a store. Clothing, books, educational toys, electronics, processed foods, every household need and tool is made in a factory, and we are acutely aware that much of these are manufactured in China or Japan or another country. The most expensive items, and most expensive gifts, hand made by an artisan, can be found in local shops for those who can afford them. We still treasure handmade gifts, whatever their origin, old or new. But most of what we buy to give away is manufactured. The gift giving tradition, however, started when most of what people purchased, in fact virtually all of what people purchased was produced locally. Every item bought, every gift bought for holiday giving, was purchased from a local producer. This is where I feel that I discovered that every Christmas gift is really two gifts. Through this season of giving we are giving a gift to the producer as well as to the person we are buying the gift for. We are saying "You have worked all year, and the year is almost over and you have inventory on your shelves. You have good things you have worked hard to produce and now, at the end of the year, you do not know whether you have succeeded or failed. You are not certain whether the community appreciates your work or not. You are not certain that you and your family will be rewarded during the dark and cold days of winter with abundance for your labor." And so, when we walk into the local store, the workplace of a "butcher or baker or candlestick maker" in our local community, we are affirming the value of their labor by selecting one of their products to be a gift. It is good enough to be that -- a gift for a loved one or friend. The crafts person or anyone who has produced something that is desired or needed in the local community receives this gift. When we hand our money over to buy the gift item, we are giving a gift to the producer and seller as well as to the person for whom it will be specially wrapped so that it can be a "surprise." This is how every Christmas gift is really two gifts. This is the positive side of holiday season "commercialism." Yes we are materialistic and commercial, because we decided a long time ago that being who we want to be, and being successful as people should not be just thoughts and words and ideas and concepts, but needs to be affirmed by concrete material things. We love the idea of virtue, but we don't eat virtue and we cannot wear it to keep us warm or heat our homes. We want to have what we need, and during the holiday season when we celebrate giving, when we celebrate generosity, and we even go so far as to think about what our loved one or a dear friend might really want or enjoy, we are making the idea of goodness real and concrete. Materialism is not all bad. Materialism -- the positive side of materialism -- is the philosophy that says it is not enough that I want you to have enough food, or that I think you should have enough food but you must have enough food in order for society to be just. It is that in order for the values of our society to be real, in order for freedom and equality to be real, and in order for fairness and justice to be real, we must have what we need: food, clothing, fuel, tools, toys, warmth, health. We want these things not just because we are selfish, because we want these things also for our neighbors, but rather we want these things because we want our worthiness to be real, not just a dream or an aspiration. So, the commercialism gets out of hand sometimes, and some people forget that it is not about having more or being selfish. That is the opposite of the generous and unselfish spirit of Christmas. It is about the fact that we want our ideals to be expressed in reality, in the real, physical world in which we must live, and not be just ideals. We want both the tree and the fruits, not just the tree or the idea of the tree.

Look again at our tradition of Santa Claus? Who is this man? Who is also a jolly old woman. One could easily imagine Santa Claus as a woman. We all know how Christmas is made by women who cook and bake and make all the special foods -- and home decorations -- that we love during the holiday season. Santa is old, and jolly, cheerful, and wise. He does not waste any time lecturing anyone. He just gives. He gives to everyone. Yes, there is the legend that bad children get nothing, or get coal. But let's be realistic. How many children do you know who got nothing, really deliberately got nothing in a home where the holiday of giving was being observed? That would be considered an atrocity, similar to beating a child and causing bruises. We do not use the season of giving, the season of generosity to beat a child with criticism or punishment. Even the sock full of coal was a gift, a treasured gift, to a poor family who heated their living space with coal in a coal stove or brick fireplace. For much of the cultures that celebrate Christmas, homes were heated for centuries by wood or by burning coal. For a desperately poor household, a sock full of coal, a large sock or sack full of coal, would have been a treasured gift -- warmth for Christmas instead of shivering cold. So it was something we needed desperately, not something dear that we wanted or dreamed of, but it was still a gift and not a punishment. To this day children groan when they open a package and find something they need, such as boots or a winter hat or gloves and not the toy they lust after. We also give them clothing and lunch boxes with pictures of their favorite cartoon characters of super heroes -- combining something that is needed with something that is wanted.

Why does the myth say that Santa delivers the gifts down the chimney? Sounds like they will get dirty or burned up. Then again, we know that everything goes up in smoke up the chimney. What we have, even our bodies, becomes dust. Everything goes up in smoke or everything becomes nothing, dust. The opposite of commercialism. It is all mammon, all worthless material that is temporary and passing. What comes down the chimney is secret, silent, like the cold air that comes down if the damper is open and the fire is out. Good things coming down the chimney is a psychological denial of what is bad by what is very good - just like bringing an evergreen tree indoors and putting lights on it, during December, the darkest month of the year and when the cold penetrates deeply. We assert the greenness of nature and life in our homes. We light up our homes, inside and out, to "curse the darkness" or at least to deny the darkness and be cheerful to sustain ourselves, our longing for the warm spring, through the winter that we cannot escape but must endure. And so, mythically we assert that through the same chimney where everything goes up in smoke, the gifts of our community, the gifts that come from the generous heart of Santa Claus, come down the chimney, an irony and an impossibility. And so with our story of gifts coming from the hands of Santa Claus "down the chimney" we assert an impossibility. He cannot even fit down the chimney. But the gifts come from a spirit, a ghost, which is like smoke, the spirit of generosity. And so we claim in our story that we cannot explain this generosity, but we insist that it exists, and it comes to us, secretly, silently. We cannot hear it or see it, except possibly like a wisp of ghostly smoke -- but this time the good ghost of generosity is coming down the chimney into our homes, not up and away.

I have been a social worker for many years, working with foster parents and adoptive parents. What better expression of generosity could there be beyond that of taking in a child without a home, an orphan in the old language, and giving them a real home where they are loved and nurtured. No one is more generous with their time and privacy and loving and caring than a foster or adoptive parent. Through this experience I came to the conclusion that I feel very deeply that there is no greater character that I can attribute to another person than to say that they "have a generous heart." Generosity is the origin of fairness, love, acceptance, friendship, virtually every good thing that a human being can do. We are not generous only when we give things to our neighbors, but also when we give them our faith and fair assessment. Though we may see behaviors we don't like, we are being generous -- of a generous heart -- when we remind ourselves that we do not know the whole story. We never know the whole story. And instead of being cynical and judgmental and critical we say to ourselves that they must have suffered, or they probably have had a bad experience, or a loss, some burden that is difficult for them to carry. That too is a generous heart. Forgiveness and understanding is a generous heart. This is bringing us to an understanding of who Santa Claus is.

He is called "Santa" Claus which tells us he is a saint, a saintly person, or a holy person. We do not usually imagine him sitting in the yoga position with legs folded, or standing still with a shepherd's staff. But he is a saint, but not a solemn saint. He is jolly, he is happy, and he is happiest when he is giving. He and his elf helpers, little people, work all year, and that means work, but all that work is worth the reward of the giving holiday season when he has the pleasure of giving gifts to everyone and making children happy. And why are the children who receive gifts happy? Because each gift is a message, the message that all children and all adults long to hear -- you are worthy. You are worthy of this gift and you are good enough to have something that you want and you are loved. Someone cares enough about you, and someone believes you deserve to be happy. It is as though that is the real gift, not the object received but the feeling conveyed by the gift, the best wishes, the statement embodied in the gift that you are deserving -- you deserve to be happy. There is no greater gift than the genuine belief that our neighbors want us to be happy, which is to say that they are observing the Golden Rule just as we strive to observe the Golden Rule: "I want all the same good things for my neighbors that I want for myself." Just in case that does not sound quite right to you, this is the Islamic version of the Golden Rule, and I think it has more economic clarity than "Do onto others as you would have others do onto you."

And so we can see better now, I hope, why people say that the Christmas season, or the holiday season, is not strictly a sectarian holiday but is a secular or universal holiday. It is universal. It is at the core of the teaching of the Buddha and the message of Allah whispered by the angel into the ear of Mohammed. It is found in the teachings of the ancient Hindu Vedas and in the Talmud and in virtually every tribal or animist religion one can name. It is the way of the Tao and an honorable Shinto Samurai. Confucius would have recognized it immediately as the root of good human behavior - a generous heart. It is visible in the ancient religious beliefs of the Vikings, Celts, Romans and Greeks. Even those called barbarians and heathens fully understood the meaning of a generous heart. A person with a generous heart is a person who can be trusted, trusted to not take everything unfairly for themselves, a person who will see your side of the story because the generous heart is the open heart with an open mind. And so yes we dislike the claim that this is a Christian only holiday. What could be more universal than the belief in ourselves, the belief that we are not just selfish animals who hunger and thirst and scratch with our claws to have more than our neighbors, or to take so much that there is nothing left for others. Is that who we are? No. Even on "Black Friday" we expect people to be civil and wait in line. We proclaim that we are good during the holiday season. We claim that we are like Santa Claus, cheerful during the darkness and cold, sustaining human hope during the difficult times that we must endure in order to see and feel the spring again. The holiday of giving is therefore the holiday of generosity, and all people and all religions celebrate the human capacity for generosity, sharing, good will. This is who Santa Claus is. The spirit of generosity and all that comes from the generous heart: fairness, forgiveness, the Golden Rule, laughter in spite of all the pain that we must endure and reluctantly witness our neighbors endure. The generous heart feels the pain of others and seeks to relieve it, with the generous spirit. And although this holiday is universal, we do not and cannot detach it completely from its Christian history. Who was more generous than Jesus whom we called the Christ? He loved everyone, refused to be the cause of suffering for others or to be used to start a civil war is his homeland. He gave to everyone, male and female, child and adult, all that he had. He delivered to us the core Christian message that we are capable of being good. He did not reject the sinner or anyone who made regretful mistakes. He is many things to many people but he was most certainly a person like Santa Claus, a person of a generous heart. This is who Santa Claus is, the spirit as serious as the spirit of the Christian religion, but also the universal spirit of the generous heart, the saintly holy spirit of giving and sharing, asserting that after all I want you to be happy too, really. This is who Santa Claus is.


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