In the first half of the fourth century, St. Nicholas of Myra punched the Trinity-denying Arius in the face. At least, that’s what the memes on my newsfeed say. Regardless of the historicity, the motivation behind its retelling is clear: the true meaning of Christmas has been watered down because a secular, make-believe figure has been elevated to the same level as Jesus.
The King of Kings now shares the spotlight with Kris Kringle.
St. Nick Solution
St. Nicholas appears to offer some help. On the one hand, he offers a certain “Christian” flavor to the Santa myth. In the war on Christmas, Christians have a secret weapon. We have a man behind enemy lines, hiding in plain, red-coated sight. Likewise, St. Nick grounds Santa in history. The complaint of Christian parents vis-à-vis Santa has long been: how can we say Jesus and Santa are real without expecting our kids to doubt the former once they stop believing in the latter?
You can see the appeal of the St. Nick option. Historically, Jesus and St. Nick are both “real” in the same way King Edward IV and Teddy Roosevelt both occupied time and space. Spiritually, Jesus and St. Nick are both “faithful” in the same way Thomas Aquinas and John Bunyan were both Christian. Once Santa is established as historical, so goes the logic, we needn’t worry about our kids believing in Christ today but becoming scorned atheists tomorrow. Similarly, if Santa is a thorough, trinitarian Christian, we needn’t worry about hanging our sleigh ornament on a branch under the Bethlehem Star. Both point to Immanuel in their own way.
I just don’t think this reindeer will fly.
Exalting God Over Santa
Sure, I’m sympathetic to the St. Nick option, and I certainly want to give a brother in Christ his due for going fisticuffs with a heretic. But Santa can’t be helped, I believe, because the problem isn’t with our faulty view of him. That’s not why he overshadows Jesus. Santa overshadows Jesus because we have a faulty view of God.
Even a cursory scan of evangelicalism reveals that many view angels as little more than elves and God as a cosmic Santa Claus: seasonal, jolly, and meritocratic. The St. Nick option assumes Jesus will take his rightful place at Christmas once Santa is brought down to the level of a historical saint. But the real solution isn’t lowering Santa to his rightful place; it’s exalting God to his. In order to have “more Christ in Christmas” we need less sentimentality in theology—that is, we must see God as the sovereign, holy, and merciful God he is.
Sovereign Over Seasons
Besides an aisle in Hobby Lobby, we restrict Santa’s influence to a specific time and place. We tend to do the same thing with God. The Scriptures tell a different story, though: it’s incumbent on the rulers of the earth (whether they rule a nation, a business, a family, or an apartment) to serve the Lord in all they do—to “kiss the Son” in allegience (Ps. 2:12).
The first step in putting Christ back into Christmas is realizing God, unlike Santa, has “creator rights” over everything. He will not be relegated to a “season.” The sun never sets on his kingdom, and his reign has no end. Heaven is not the great North Pole in the sky, a distant land to which we occasionally send gift requests; heaven is where God reigns. And one day his reign will so thoroughly invade earth that there will be no need for the sun, for the Son will be its light (Rev. 21:23).
We don’t simply go to heaven with our requests; heaven comes to us with an invitation to embrace Christ and a commission to proclaim him.
Holy Over Holly and Jolly
Santa isn’t stern or abrasive; he’s rosy, fluffy, and jolly. Of course, this is no accident. A committee of the New-York Historical Society designed his image to be warm, approachable, and inviting. This is how we often talk about God. From what he does, to what he loves, to how he responds to sin—our thoughts about God are often based more on what we’d like to be true than on what actually is.
Despite our most earnest wishes, God will not be remade in our image. He is holy and wholly different from his creation. He wasn’t committee-designed; he is eternally existent in three persons. If you’re waiting to approach his throne until he changes his disposition to suit your sensibilities, you’re waiting in vain. God doesn’t exist to make us comfortable, and his gospel isn’t a marketing pitch—it’s a divine summons to repentant faith.
Mercy Over Merit
The logic of Santa is clear. If you’ve been a good boy or girl, you get a treat; if you’ve been naughty, you get coal. You get what you deserve. How often do we use God in the same way, as a mere deterrent to doing wrong?
But God’s justice system is entirely different than Santa’s. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus unites his church to himself, making every reward that’s rightfully his available to his bride. Divine mercy isn’t simply the turning of a blind eye to naughtiness. No, Christ shares his Father’s lavish gifts by absorbing our punishment in our place. God sent his Son into the mineshaft only to collapse it. Jesus took all the coal there was to give. God only has presents for his children now.
Only Real Solution
Santa Tebowing at a manger in the front yard isn’t the solution. We must recognize that the real problem is a folksy religiosity that pulls God the Father down to level of Father Christmas. Until we’re able to banish such sappy thinking from our theology and see our Maker as sovereign, holy, and merciful, St. Nicholas is nothing more than a band-aid. In fact, our baptism of Santa may only serve to codify and sanction the real problem.
The “war on Christmas” isn’t being waged by those who’ve forgotten Santa’s true identity; it’s being waged by those who’ve forgotten God’s.