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Santa Claus: the man and the myth

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The problem with the current media kerfuffle over Santa Claus comes out of this situation: Christmas today is mostly about "the man" and much, much less about the myth--any myth. Sometimes I think it is a vast conspiracy, but for whatever reason there has been a real push to remove the mythical, magical, mystical elements out of human life ever since World War II.

If you read the amazing book, The Risk of Love by W. H. Vanstone, you can get his perspective on the postwar atmosphere. Former soldiers returning from the horrific conflict in Europe and the Pacific were traumatized for life by what they had witnessed and/or done. The religious underpinnings of their lives had been seriously challenged by so much human suffering and evil. American society fragmented in many ways, exemplified by the fall of big-band jazz. Oddly enough, the coordinated, unified sound of the orchestras broke apart into musicians who began "doing their own thing" as early as the late Forties--this was a reflection of the American society that had lost its unity and equilibrium after the horrors of two World Wars. Both Western Europe and the United States turned to social-welfare organizations to solve the problems of society, and the people believed that the problems of inequality and poverty were about to be solved.

That is one element of the background that we still have today for our religious observances. Another is the loss of myth in our society. Yet another is the huge amount of time, just pure passage of time, since the founding of the Christmas season in the Middle Ages. Together, those elements have turned into a cynical despair about social problems, and a disillusionment with religion as the American Church stood aside from the pressing problems of the Sixties and later decades.

This past week or so there has been an ugly quarrel in the media between those who have absolutely no sense of what Santa Claus means, and those who want to nail him down to an identity that they can feel comfortable with. It also happens that these people do not feel comfortable with very much in today's Christmas setting. To me, it is useless to hark back to Santa Claus as if he were a single entity--it only brings on arguments about Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klaas and Father Christmas. It should not be that hard to understand that over many centuries, along with the homogenization of the Western culture in general, the distinct characteristics of different culture have all been fed into the grinder at one end, and come out the other end as an undifferentiated and oversimplified, lowest-common-denominator cast of Holiday characters.

There is Baby Jesus and the cast of the Christmas pageant that is given in church. You can buy nice, big lighted plastic statues of them for your front yard. Or you can go all North Pole and decorate your yard with an electric light show of reindeer (not really) made of wire frames. (They really look like forest deer, though, because reindeer are not quite as attractive as Bambi.)

You can jack up your electric bill astronomically and hang all kinds of lights on your house and all through your yard, something that is done every year in one of Tucson's neighborhoods. Then you can book a tour to drive through it and see all the houses, which is pleasant. I used to sing in some of our Holiday concerts as well.

But these festive affairs simply have lost the mythical element of Christmas. Santa Claus has now been codified into drawings, cartoons and expensively-costumed actors who must conform with today's portrait of Santa as an older white man, much more attractive than the unkempt thugs in the Duck Dynasty, but just as liable to conform to the dictates of our culture. No more would Santa be portrayed as a non-white man than a Louisiana pyromaniac would convert to Catholicism.

So this year some talking heads pounced on a commentator who asked why Santy Claws is always presented to us as a white man. She might as well have asked why he is always presented as male; I expect to see that controversy erupt any Christmas now. But if you realize that there has been a huge conflation of all the Christmas traditions over centuries, you will understand what happened. Santa is now available in a basic version--the subject of all the shop-shop commercials--and a more realistic version, embodied in San Nicolas and Tres Reyes and Father Christmas and the fathers all over America who have put on a Santa suit for their children. And the firemen, policemen and others who have lighted up their communities with volunteer work to brighten the season for their neighborhood children.

Where I grew up, out in Guam in the western Pacific island community, Santa Claus tours the villages every year. He is a Pacific Islander man, dressed in a red suit and carried from place to place on a fire truck. No one has an identity crisis over it. Little white children who live in the villages don't give it a thought; they just show up for a little Christmas party and maybe some candy canes. The same thing happens, or used to, in Guam's school systems.

In the years when my children were in elementary school there were still Christmas pageants, and all of them participated. The forces of political correctness have been relentless in stripping Christmas of most of its cheer nowadays, and that accounts of course for the shopping mania that infests the Holiday season now. Take away the heavenly, and you have nothing but the earthly to put in its place, and so the American culture has been steadily impoverished during the Christmas season—ironically, just as Christmas seems to be eating up Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and any other festival that happens to occur in mid-winter.

While the occasional teenager wonders what the white Anglo Santa Claus has to do with him or her, countless more people wonder why the goal of Christmas shopping seems to be bankruptcy. Well, if you reduce the birth of Christ to Baby Jesus and you don't dare sing "Silent Night" because it isn't applicable (supposedly) to everyone, that's what you have left. The so-called War on Christmas has been won; Christmas lost.

An army of flinty-eyed evangelicals has decided that they can force Christmas on America, and some determined Jews, atheists and liberals have cried, "Not so fast!" The inevitable result is Festivus, with its aluminum pole, unadorned and ugly. No beauty, no magic, no miracles, no mythology. Just try to find some Holiday spirit.

Ironically, you find it. At least I do, at church with people who truly care for each other. Jewish people find it at their dining tables with the blue candles and the knowledge that God has cared for them for all these centuries. That is to say, people of faith and good will can wrest some Christmas spirit from the grasp of those who are barricading it on the other side of their city gates--for what reason I don't really know. There seems to be a determination abroad in America, not to preserve Christmas (though that is what the talking heads say) but to destroy it; in that sense the term "war on Christmas" is accurate.

This doesn't take into account the Gentiles who attend the Hanukkah ceremonies of their Jewish friends (or the Seders that I attended for that matter): all those who want to share and understand. If it were permitted, I am sure that many non-Muslims would ask to make the pilgrimage to Mecca out of their desire to experience the Islamic version of adoration.

Put away the Nativity and trot out a portly gentleman with a white beard and a red suit; nothing but non-religious symbols. We'll have snowmen and penguins, not angels and shepherds...unless you go to church, where Christmas and Hanukkah have carried on. You can distort the Holiday season to be acceptable to everyone, and it ends up attractive to no one.

Personally, I think that we are going to get through this madness, but only after we run it into the ground. You overdo something, you go too far in imposing it on others, and then the year comes when you can't do it anymore. The American Church is going through this, faltering and defaulting on the urgent crisis that we face today in this country. But after we crash out early in 2014--it is going to happen--there will inevitably be a few believers in exile who will begin to pick up the pieces. They will not all be Christians; they will just be caring, understanding human beings who will not tolerate the degeneration of America's middle class and the appalling state of our politics. I also wonder why it is that no one, ever, sees the writing on the wall and moves to forestall disaster.

For more info: please continue to give to our local charities to lessen the impact on Arizona's families of winter, hardship and hunger. One good organization to direct your charity is Family Promise Arizona, a group that takes in not only families, but their family pets. Just search them on the Internet and they will come up.

This year I also made my donation of a desk to the children in Malawi's public schools. You go to the K. I. N. D. Fund, Kids in Need of Desks.

The Tucson Community Food Bank is about to be inundated with hungry people and they need donations more than ever. Please donate either non-perishable food or, better still, money. Children in Tucson are going to bed cold and hungry; Congress did not vote to extend food assistance or unemployment benefits. Merry Christmas to one but not all from the Teabaggers.

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