Dispatches: Deconstructing Santa Claus

This exvangelical deconstruction of Santa Claus comes courtesy of Baptist Accountabilty co-founder Megan South Benninger (read her story here). This fascinating exploration reminds me of the “deconstruction” essays I wrote for grad school in which I searched for the historical roots of Dracula and Frankenstein. Really fascinating stuff, to find the kernel of truth in folklore — especially when we explore possible reasons for the folklore evolving the way that they did.

I personally think we collectively and subconsciously deify our role models and demonize our villains to keep them at an arm’s length; that way, we don’t have to hold ourselves accountable to truth about our own nature: under the right circumstances and depending on the choices each of us make, we can become like them. But whether that theory has weight, here is what’s absolutely true about our nature: we are a species of storytellers, and every story worth considering evolves as it is told and retold. Whether or not it is “factual” does not negate a story’s truth — and that’s a distinction we must always keep in mind.

Thanks for reading. I love you; remember to be kind to yourselves and to each other.

* * * *

Deconstructing Santa — Santa Claus has been a good friend to me, leading the way by example during my deconstruction journey. Cozy up, and I’ll tell you a story…

Once upon a time, there was a beloved jolly old man named Santa Claus. Children everywhere adored him and eagerly awaited his invisible visits every Christmas. No one ever really saw him, but they were certain he was there, blessing them with gifts and toys and happiness. (Yet some children—especially the poorest and most in need—missed the blessings and were left to wonder how they had disappointed him.)

Dear generous Santa was most likely based on a real historical figure. This figure named St. Nicholas of Myra was a Christian bishop in a small Roman town during the 4th century known for his good deeds.

As was still typical of well-loved leaders in the early centuries after Jesus, Saint Nicholas was quickly mythologized. “According to one story, Nicholas restored to life through prayer three children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put into pickling barrels. Another story describes how a young Nicholas secretly provided marriage dowries by dropping gold down the chimneys of three girls whom poverty would otherwise have forced into prostitution and that the gold landed in a stocking left to dry on the fireplace.” (Source)

Was there any truth to these earliest myths? Perhaps some. But there are no historical documents to prove they are anything other than myths. (And the one about the diced up kids is hard to take literally.) Nonetheless, a man named St. Nicholas did live and die on this earth.

After Nicholas’s death, the myths continued to grow, until he became a white-haired, bearded fat man (many centuries old, although depicted as maybe in his 60s or 70s) who runs a toy factory in the North Pole assisted by elves, rides in a sleigh pulled through the sky by 9 reindeer, magically descends down chimneys, delivers gifts to all the world’s children in one night, kisses mommy under the Christmas tree, and flies back home to start the process for the next year.

I was devastated when I found out Santa wasn’t real! Like I seriously felt betrayed, lied to. And then later in life, when I found out he might have been an actual historical figure, he was nothing even close to the man I had been taught about and waited for expectantly every year.

This isn’t too different from what it’s been like to deconstruct Jesus. Jesus was almost definitely a historical figure. Yet the historical proof of his life events is very lacking. He appears to have been mythologized and deified early on, which again was typical in those times. Emperors in Rome and in that era were all considered gods, so it’s not a stretch that Jesus who claimed to be king of the Jews would be considered a God. (Oh yeah, interesting tidbit—many of the other kings were reportedly born of virgins too.)

Are any of the accounts of Jesus’s life and miracles true? Probably some, but they were very likely exaggerated from the beginning. Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman points out that if you read the books of the New Testament in order of when they were chronologically written, you can see a clear progression in the mythology. For instance, Mark, the first gospel written, doesn’t say anything about a virgin birth and contains the least spectacular account of Jesus’s life. John however, the last gospel written, portrays Jesus as the mystical Son of God. Yes, the very concept that Jesus is God is something that appears to have developed chronologically throughout the New Testament. Like Santa, the story just kept growing.
(For further learning, click here).

Another example of a progression of mythology is obvious in Paul’s writings. In Paul’s earliest writings, he encourages people not to get married, and to sell their earthly possessions to share with the poor. He is clearly expecting Jesus to return any day, so there is no need to take on commitments or save up money. But the thing is, Jesus doesn’t return, as he supposedly promised to do within “this generation.” People start dying, and there’s still no Jesus. Suddenly. Paul decides to start supporting marriage and giving advice about it and starts giving hierarchies and rules for churches. He starts making long-term plans for the church.

Anyway, as I process the scripture that I must process because it is hidden in my heart, part of my DNA , I realize more and more that I’ve been duped again. Much like Santa, Jesus that I had loved and worshipped for 45 years doesn’t actually exist. Sure, a person named Jesus lived and died. And he was probably pretty spectacular to have sparked such a revolution and such fantastical stories. But I don’t any longer believe he was actually God—and I don’t think he probably believed himself to be God either.

We love our stories, and it can be devastating to find out they weren’t true, at least in the way we thought they were. But it’s part of growing up, finding our way.

Is it bad to believe in Santa or Jesus if you really want to, even after discovering the facts? Not necessarily. But when the beliefs are used as weapons to control, it can be. Consider how Santa is used to threaten children into obedience. “You better watch out, better not pout, better not cry, I’m telling you why … He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice… he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.” And consider the newest development in the mythology—Elf on a Shelf. Cute, but not so much when you’re telling your kids it’s Santa’s spy so he knows if you’re being good or not. Better be good so you get presents. (I may or may not have done this a year or two, sigh).

Jesus can be used the same way. He’s watching you. He’s always with you, nothing is hidden from him. And hell is a very real place that you need to fear. And God chastens those he loves. So behave right. And believe right. Do what Paul… er, I mean Jesus says, or else.

I personally think it’s not worth believing the stories once you’ve peeked behind the curtain. Why not live in the light? Perhaps hold on to the principles that help you to love your neighbor or do good in the world, in the way you might glean some insight from Aesop’s fables or any other work of ancient fiction. It doesn’t have to be factually true to still appreciate the universal truths that might be found there amongst the legends. But acknowledging that it’s more historical fiction than fact frees us to leave behind the parts that are problematic, that no longer serve humanity. It’s scary, but letting go and jumping out of the nest is freeing and an important part of growth. Fly, my friends! Fly like the reindeer! Fly!

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