My Dad enjoys telling the tale of an Advent long ago, when I was 4 or 5. I had sort of been craning my neck in a weird way, and when Mom asked me why, I said I was refusing to look in the direction of the church.
Mom was appalled, of course, and asked me what the deal was. I told her I was tired of having God and Santa Claus both watching me.
The Endless Similarities
In my defense, when you’re 4 years old, the distinctions between God and Santa can be awfully subtle and confusing. Santa lives at the North Pole, and when you look at a map, north is always up. God lives in Heaven, which is also “up.”
The North Pole is all white with snow and polar bears and stuff, and Heaven is all white and fleecy with clouds and white light and everything. In all the best, most high-fidelity models made by the big kids, both Heaven and the North Pole were usually simulated with cotton balls.
Santa has elves, which are little people with pointy ears and red cheeks. God has angels, who are little people with wings and red cheeks. Well, technically, those are cherubs, but that’s way more detail than you can be expected to deal with in kindergarten.
To get in contact with Santa, you wrote a letter. To get in contact with God, you had to say a prayer. Really, the similarities seemed endless.
But the main thing God and Santa had in common — and the thing that caused my bad feelings toward the two of them — was they were both expecting you to be good all the time, and they were always checking up on you.
Santa had a big elaborate thing sort of like NORAD or the Bat-cave with lots of radar screens and computers and teletypes and stuff.
God didn’t need any of that fancy stuff — He had x-ray vision like Superman, and He could see what you were up to just by looking. Maybe even just by thinking.
And your parents would tell you bad kids got switches and coal in their stockings, or at best they didn’t get what they asked for. But it got worse.
When they got to talking about God, they got to talking about going to the bad place, where the devil was, and you’d have to stay there for all of forever. And to make it all the more confusing, I always got the bad place mixed up with military school.
God Is Too Darned Big
Anyway, all of that stuff worked just fine until you got into the middle ranges of elementary school, when there was always some wiseguy who had an older brother who told him there wasn’t any Santa Claus.
All too quickly, it becomes easy to say no to Santa. What’s the fat man done for me lately? People start to lose faith in Santa. The jolly man in the red suit fades from their lives, and they go on to other beliefs and other rituals to build around Christmas. They say Christmas is for kids, it’s just a time to get together with family, it’s the thought that counts, it’s just another day, blah blah blah.
All of that is bad enough, but what really gets us into trouble is when the same thing happens with our belief in God.
Even now for a lot of grown-ups, God is just too big for us to handle. Good and evil, right and wrong, questions like, “Why do the wicked prosper?” and “Why do the innocent suffer?” and, let’s not forget, the creation of the universe.
These ideas are just too darned big for a lot of folks to deal with. So instead of pursuing the truth — which would provide much different results from pursuing the truth of Santa Claus — people decide to share their opinions on how there is no such thing as God.
The World Is Insane
God, who was once so real, hovering above our beds as we prayed, starts to become just another idea. God is no longer anybody or even anything real. God ceases to be a living part of our lives.
What’s the man with the beard done for me lately?
Too many of us never grow out of the attitude we adopted in grade school, where all the cool kids said there was no Santa Claus or made up tacky, slanderous, silly things to say about him. So it becomes cute to come up with a corporate Christmas wish list with things like computers and drill-presses on it. And it’s sort of cute to tell everybody you’re praying for a raise, even though you know you’re not really praying.
An actor and one-time member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Cleese, was asked why he quit doing satire. He said, in order to do satire, you have to believe the world is basically a sane place, and that there are pockets of insanity that have to be found and exposed and rooted out so that cooler heads can prevail and make things sane again.
But as he got older, Mr. Cleese realized the world is insane. And no matter how cleverly you root out and display the insanity, people really don’t have much interest in fixing things and making them sane. And when he realized that, satire became sort of pointless and sad. After all, once you start uncovering insanity of the world, where do you stop?
Maybe it doesn’t matter where you stop, as long as you just stop. That’s what God’s peace is for. It’s for the moment when you stop and realize the world is insane, but God — in His infinite wisdom and plan that will always be too darned big for us to grasp — sent His Son here anyway.
So, stop making fun of Santa Claus. And that goes for angels, too. And the next time it’s tempting to believe that God is only an idea or just something people dreamed up to explain thunder and earthquakes and scare people into behaving themselves, cut that stuff out.
God is real. Jesus is real. Christmas is real. This stuff matters.
What we look forward to on this blessed eve is Emmanuel — God With Us.
The lights, the noise, the bustle, the very imperfection of our celebration remind us: The Son of God could have spent eternity in the distant splendor of the heavenly host. Instead, he came to spend Christmas with us.