Santa Claus is coming to town
Once upon a time there was a bishop called Nicholas. The legends about him say that he threw money in at a window to fill shoes of poor children. And the great myth was born.
Any country as dreich as Britain at this time of year needs a jolly winter festival. Ours is a very big affair – it obsesses almost everybody from the beginning of November until early January. For some people it has something to do with the baby of Bethlehem who grew up to save the world. But those who have rejected that as a myth have had to find another, and Santa is the mythical character of choice.
Myths are important, and they say things about a culture.
Now, filling and emptying stockings is and always will be a fun activity. And, to give him his due, Santa Claus has given us some good stuff, in literature and film. (Living out in Indian Territory in the 1870s, Laura and Mary of “Little House on the Prairie” worry that Santa won’t be able to reach them because a) he won’t know they’ve moved; b) there’s no snow for the reindeer; c) the river is too high for him to cross. I will not reveal the solution, except to say that lack of snow was no problem. “Santa Claus travelled with a pack-mule in the south-west.”)
There are several sweet stories about Santa, and JRR Tolkien (“The Father Christmas Letters”) and Raymond Briggs (“Father Christmas”) have done excellent work. I believe there’s a fun film called “Miracle on 34th St”, but I have skimped on my research, and haven’t watched it.
Those were in the days when shops weren’t full of signs saying “Stocking Fillers, 99p”, a dead giveaway to any child whose older sibling can read. It is worth pondering that any adult who still believes in Santa Claus… will have children who don’t.
But as a great symbolic figure whose picture goes up everywhere…as a Myth… Santa is not up to much. We take two months of our lives every year to remind ourselves that it’s nice to get stuff?? (It used to be that you get stuff if you earn it by being good, but myths change over time.) What kind of a meaning for a festival is that? If anything, he is a symbol of the paucity of consumerist culture.
“Emmanuel”, “God with us”, by comparison, is a true myth, in more senses than one. Gods and other supernatural beings “disguising” themselves as people and wandering on earth is a truly ancient theme with a genuine mystique. (It is true that some of these wanderings were about for purposes like testing and condemning people, or getting the girl.) But Jesus as God’s Son, sharing the lives of humanity, is a story with resonance that’s worth exploring, even if you don’t want to go the whole turkey, and believe in Easter.
Well, if Santa doesn’t provide an adequate mythology for the winter festival, and you don’t want Christianity, what is there left? Well, we all need light in the dark… Many festivals use this as a theme, from John 1 to Hanukkah and Divali, Festival of Lights. And…
At this point in planning this post, a terrible thought struck me. Of course there is a modern winter myth! It comes complete with light/dark imagery, a sacred day (18th December), a set of holy texts on DVD, with many books to expand and comment on them, and an optional religious element adopted by a terrifyingly large number of people. Of course! We can sack Santa, and replace him forthwith.
Sing the carol together:
You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry
You’d better not turn to the Dark Side, I’m telling you why,
Je-di Knights are com-ing to town.
The Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Blogger, aka Scrooge