IS SANTA REAL?
A Look at the Myth, the Man, and the Meaning
Of Santa Claus in our society today
Santa Claus! Santa Claus! That magical name that means Christmas to every child! He, bedecked in red and reindeer, is the great and jolly bearer of toys and gifts, glad tidings and good cheer… He is the universal symbol of generosity and appreciation, of caring and love, as expressed by all those striving to be good to themselves and their families and friends across our culture.
Ah, Santa Claus… Bah, Humbug! He’s that overblown buffoon, a Coca-Cola inspired bloated triviality that is problematic at best!
He is a banal, obsequious, psychophant of drivel; the bearer of an awful, punishing theology, a darling of Madison Avenue’s hucksters and the epitome of crass commercialism in all of its excesses and squalid extremes that ruins the spirit of Christmas every year!
Unfortunately, both of these vivid images are with us, and they hold a paradoxical truth within them. However, the legend we love and the hustler, con-man we despise are no easily reconciled or understood. In the spirit of the holidays, in the mist of a convoluted twists and a knotted tangles of ideals and traditions, fantasy and fanfare, I have to ask…. Can we arrive at a more satisfactory, balanced, and objective appreciation of who and what is Santa Claus for us? Does the idea or the image hold or keep its meaning and value for us all today?
I think so, especially as we come to understand and further identify with the historical and spiritual aspects of the story, and when we allow the wisdom of Myths to guide us toward a wider and deeper sense of truth for the human heart. Such an understanding of Santa Claus, to me, will allow us to separate the gold from the tinsel concerning our ubiquitous holiday hero….
First, lets begin with a brief historical look at the origins of Santa, and then appraise how those original meanings can begin to assist us in separating out facts, from fiction or fantasy, and what they can still teach the children of all ages that is still valuable today.
Santa Claus was born in approximately 275 AD or ACD. …
At that time, he was rather a humble, unassuming, and devout person known as Nicholas of Patera and Lycria, a small cities in Asia Minor. Early in his own life, he was orphaned, and as was the custom of his day, he became a ward of the church, and as a ward, he entered the monastery as a novice monk.
One day, while he was still a young man, the reigning bishop died… The church elders held a council to choose a successor, but there was no one clearly in line. Then, one of the elders had, what he believed to be a prophetic dream. …
In that dream, God would decree and declare that the first one entering the church that next morning, would then be proclaimed as the new bishop!
Young Nicholas, diligently returning from an overnight chore, stepped into the church very early that next morning, and those steps lead to his immortality in religious history!
As Bishop of Myna, a large city on the coast of Turkey, he made a quick and dramatic impact on his culture. First, he became known as the silent or secret benefactor of poor maidens, providing them with some dowry so they could afford a serious mate, which he hid in their stockings that were hung there to dry by the fire at night…
Particularly poignant was his support of three orphaned girls…
if they were not soon rescued or provided a dowry, they were to be sold into the white slavery trade and prostitution. The next day, just before they were to be sent off, Nicholas secretly came by, and gave each girl three small bags of gold.
Later, when the villagers were able to trace who might have been secretly responsible for the girl’s release, and for their newly found funds, they eventually came down to the kind bishop, and the news of his generosity spread! Some say, this legend is the origin of the 3 gold balls that adorn the pawnbroker’s shop, as this was the first recorded ransom paid to redeem the girls from a life of indentured service, and profane vice.
Upon his death, many hundreds of people mourned his loss, and his many virtues were seen as a sign of sainthood. Visits to his tomb were considered to be healing experiences, and as a result in a relatively short time, sainthood was conferred on him. He became the symbol of selfless giving and heartfelt generosity.
In Europe, St. Nicholas does not appear on Christmas Eve, but on December 6th, the feast day of his sainthood. Originally, he did not come down any chimney… He simply waited until everyone had gone to bed, then he strolled through the front door!
Early drawings and church tradition state that he was tall and thin, and rode a scrawny horse. While he did carry a bag over his shoulder, the gifts were far more modest- fruit, cheese, and sweets… Before he gave these gifts out, he questioned the children on their past behavior, and more importantly, on their future intentions.
Once the Dutch adopted him, as Saint Calusen, and then, by cultural image, his popularity and girth expanded so that he became the rolly poly Father Christmas in England, pare Noel in France, and Kris Kringle in Germany.
Over the years, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia, The city state of Venice, and the countries of Hungary, and Denmark. He was also designated as the patron saint of bakers and sailors, and has been considered to be a benefactor to the poor, and the orphaned children everywhere. In a weird or bizarre assignment, Nicholas was also deemed to be the patron of young boys who were in danger of being dismembered, salted in brine, and kept to be eaten by evil Innkeepers! ( Something like being the patron saint of victims of Hannibal Lector or maybe villain in the play, Sweeny Todd! )
Back to the story… When the settlers of New Amsterdam reached the New World, they naturally brought Sainten Clausen along with them. As time went on, and as new waves of European people
came to America, the legend grew… By the year 1900, Jolly Old St. Nick or out modern Santa Claus, was known and celebrated in over 100 countries.
So that is a brief account of how a young monk became a saint, who then became Santa Claus. In the years of tradition and through many cultural embellishments that followed, we have additions such as the magical reindeer, The North pole, helper elves, and all the wonderfully sentimental images conjured up by the beloved Victorian Clement Moore’s poem, Twas the Night before Christmas.
Later, we are given the classic answer to does Santa exist in the article from the Baltimore Sun, Yes, Virginia…. Later, during the 1940’s, Coca Cola rendered an ad for their drink using a jolly old man in a red suit, and then the modern image of Santa Claus was born! (Cocaine!) So we can say that what started out to be a humble life of anonymous caring saint became the repository of a cross-cultural legacy of myth, charm, and childlike wonder… .
Why do I say that the story is a Myth? Or for some, a fairy tale? Because the story of Santa Claus fits them all. As a bit of review, Myths in this context are not falsehoods, lies, or untruths. Myths are timeless stories that appeal to the depth of our humanity- they are soul shaping stories- ones that can lead us to deeper meaning and insight about ourselves and our world.
Myths, as meaning makers, convey the lessons that are larger than life, broader than culture, deeper than ordinary thought, feeling, or general life experience. A myth’s story line, when understood on its various metaphorical levels, leads us to a comprehension of transcendental truths. Myths and their legends bring we humans to the spiritual inroads and to the supersensible qualities of our humanity; Myths invite us into the intuitive, the imaginal, and the inspirational parts of our lives.
A classic or a religious myth usually revolves around a hero or heroine who has or displays special qualities of self and soul that makes them a shining example of strength, courage, morality, ethics, or some ideal that acts as a role model for we mere mortals. But myths are not focussed on people per se, for we humans can and do have “clay feet,” and we are to use mythological stories as guides, not as idols. This is the great and serious mistake our popular culture makes when we indulge in the adoration and the uncritical worship of sports figures, rock musicians, or Hollywood stars! Flawed humans, when placed on such a pedestal, will certainly fall or they will fail us!
Refocusing on story, the legends that have sprung up around St. Nicholas or Santa Claus give us an authentic access to our own personal magic; a doorway to our own inner child, which includes all of our creative impulses, and our personal capacity for altruism and idealism: Myths leads us through the doorway to the mystical, magical, even to the holy child that lives in each of us.
According to the famous psychoanalyst Bruno Bettleheim, the exploration of myths and legends are an essential step in a child’s cognitive and moral development. Dr. Bettleheim studied many of the classical children’s stories from Europe, and made his conclusions known in his famous book, The Uses of Enchantment.
Briefly, in his psychoanalytic experience, Bettleheim states that we should always seek to feed or stimulate a child’s imagination; her or his curiosity, and each child’s willingness to be creative and inspired in their approach to life. All too often, he states, we try to make our children too logical, too early! If a child is rushed into reason, they can become deprived of fantasy, creativity, imagination, and the result will be the child’s impaired ability to understand religious ideals, symbols, or metaphors- making them too easily prone to reductionism, too easily frustrated, too limited to see that religious truths, as a whole, are paradoxes, and they function as trans-logical assertions that require a sense of wonder, not analysis, to be best understood. (Further research in this field has been done by authors of the “Hurried Child” and by Goldman’s research on the nine kinds of intelligence…)
While some systems of education and parenting state that your child will benefit from a scientific and more pragmatic approach to life, or that they might advance academically much faster if you emphasize logical reasoning and “getting ahead” social skills, the consequence or the balance point for such an emphasis is while they can also become whiz kids, they will also lack any sense of idealism.
They can easily become crass, demanding, and materialistic. Bettleheim and others, notably the Waldorf schools, actively and enthusiastically use fairy tales to teach moral and ethical lessons, stories that teach them about human motives, and how to display empathy, compassion, and kindness.
For example, if Santa Claus is dismissed as a silly, irrational idea, then you can quickly invite skepticism, disillusionment, and distrust into a child’s life. We can risk robbing them of their developmental need to explore the possibilities of creative and imaginative solutions to life’s questions.
Santa, then, is the timeless symbol of generosity, and caring. Few things are more sad than a cynical child who wants or worse, needs, lots of things around them to feel happy or satisfied. If we use the myth of Santa in a constructive way, we can expand a child’s unselfish motives, and encourage giving and sharing with others.
In that way, we begin to educate a child’s heart, and awaken our children to their higher selves, and to their spiritual identities.
So what about Santa? I can appreciate the parental dilemma of what to say and when… The only option not open to you in this culture is not to say anything- you just cannot ignore an ever-present, insistent holiday symbol! So, it comes down to this, “Is Santa Real?”
First, we have to realize that your child already has prepared an answer for you- at their own developmental speed, in their own particular way. There can be no set time to come clean, or tell the whole story to them. That time has to be sensitively chosen, or at
least prepared according to his or her ability to comprehend or understand. Rarely is this before the age of 5, or after the age of 10… Personally, I feel you should wait until your child has reached a more appropriate age, say 32!
Understanding that a child requires the adults around her or him to approach this answer with caring and compassion, sometimes it is best to ask them first how they think or feel. That will relieve you of the task of giving the burdensome answer they might not need or comprehend. (Story- Where Did I Come From? If there is time…)
Let empathy, not anxiety, lead you towards your answers… Try not to succumb to our culture’s premature, rushed, and sometimes cruel realism. Think about for a moment, do you remember how you were told, or how you first found out? How did you feel?
The ideal message we can convey about Santa is that he is the symbol of those qualities and values that transcend the marketplace or the shopping mall. His spirit soars above callous consumerism, and malicious materialism. He is not merely a religious parody.
Santa lives, and is real for us only as we persist in going beyond our harsh cultural attitudes and the desire for instant gratification.
He takes us on a magical journey to the land of ideals, hope, unselfishness, and generosity. His story can be used to demonstrate a loving regard for one another- all of which can serve to enrich our hearts, and preserve our souls.
Finally, we know that Santa lives in and through us. … He lives in and beyond us as the highest example of the willingness to love by giving unselfishly and sharing unconditionally with others.
This supernal mythical figure, stuffed and padded into a red suit, carried by reindeer and accompanied by elves, calls us annually to relive our own timeless sense of childhood and to remember what Emerson said to us, that “the best gift we can give to anyone is the gift of ourselves.”
So whether you want to keep him as St. Nick or jolly Santa, it remains true that we all have need of his presence in our lives. His model and meaning is one that spreads joy and benevolence. Santa lives in us this season, and Santa is real as long as there are gifts of peace, love, cooperation, and assurance that we want to give to people in our lives, and that at Christmas, we can reach out to share this gift of heartfelt caring with everyone, everywhere.