Is Santa bigger than Jesus?

Every Christmas season, well-meaning Christians wonder about the outsized role of Santa Claus in December’s festivities.

Have we lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas? Have we buried the nativity beneath consumerist sentimentality—layer after layer of Christmas decorations, holiday songs, and children’s gifts? Do fairy tales (Rudolph, Frosty, Santa) distract from the truth of the incarnation?

Jesus is the reason for the season, we say, to remind others (and ourselves). If that’s true, then shouldn’t Christians be wary of these extrabiblical accretions attached to our church celebrations? Shouldn’t we do away with the sentimental songs, reject the commercialism of the season, and set aside Santa so we can put all our focus on the Messiah come to save us?

That’s one way of responding, and far be it from me to judge the Christian whose conscience leads in this direction. For me, however, the preoccupation with attention given to Santa as opposed to Jesus seems misguided.

Sweets and Meat

I confess, when it comes to Christmas, I love it all—the ugly Christmas sweaters, the special flavors of candy, the holiday movie classics, and the twinkling lights strung up inside and outside the house. I especially love Christmas music, even the songs that tell of sleigh rides, gingerbread houses, and chestnuts on an open fire. If it’s a Christmas song, I love it. (Well, maybe not “The Christmas Shoes.” We all must draw a line somewhere.)

So, when I hear about the danger of enjoying the extraneous elements of the Christmas season, it sounds a little like a grumpy grandmother telling you to cut out all the sweets in case you lose your appetite for the turkey and ham. Yes, it’s true that if you never get around to the meat and potatoes, a diet of sweets will nauseate you. But the whole point of a feast is that you have more than one helping of the meats, the casseroles, the side dishes, and the dinner rolls. And then you top it off with various kinds of sweets. The point of the feast is abundance, not stinginess.

And, in my mind at least, there’s always been something stingy lurking in the background of those warnings that steer Christians toward only what’s sacred this time of year, as if everything is zero sum, and the enjoyment of sweets means the rejection of meat, or vice versa.

An Explosion of Glorious Joy

Instead, it seems to me that the atmosphere of Christmas should be filled with the fallout from an explosion of glorious joy. Because the true meaning of the season is a message so serious, we are free to be lighthearted. Because the Bread of Life came down from heaven, we are free to enjoy the bounty that has multiplied for this feast. Because of Christ’s incarnation, joy has spread into all the world, rearranging everything in its path—transforming pagan winter celebrations, providing a soundtrack for society, leading people (even those who do not follow Jesus) to pause and celebrate something, if only for a day or two.

What’s more, the Christmas season, even in its commercial and secular forms, cannot shed its original connotations. Those cheerfully unrealistic Christmas movies bear witness, albeit imperfectly, to the true story of our world, a divine comedy if ever there was one. The songs that celebrate food, family, and friends point toward a day when homesickness will disappear. The gifts flow in the wake of a God who is the greatest Giver.

Beneath the Layers

Nothing I say here should be seen as justification for some of the stomach-turning ways Christmas has been commercialized. Surely there are times we need strip away all the accretions laid on top of the foundational truth of Christ’s coming—to silence the noise, watch Linus cast aside his blanket, and take center stage to recite Luke 2. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

But because we know what Christmas is all about, because we feast on the turkey and ham, we’re free to enjoy the desserts, with the sweet sounds of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” and Home Alone’s “Somewhere in My Memory” playing in the background. We thank God for all his blessings, even those that flow downstream from the source of the river, even Santa.

“Do you believe in Santa?” Of course. Saint Nicholas was a real man, with real gifts, for real children. It’s an urban legend that old St. Nick punched the heretic Arius in the face, but one can chuckle at the image, and then celebrate the way the joy of Christmas spilled out from this ancient man of faith.

The Reason for the Season

Even those who advocate a purely secular holiday season—shorn of religious overtones—cannot change the reality that our society bears the imprint of the birth of Jesus. He is the reason for the season, whether he is recognized or not, or even named. You can change AD (Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord”) to CE (common era), but the calendar still starts with the angel’s song, and still testifies to the God-man who came from backwater Galilee. His influence persists.

What better way to celebrate the abundance of God’s grace than to feast together on all we love about this season? So, enjoy the sentimental movies, string the lights on that evergreen tree, create your playlist of best Christmas songs, and look out the frosted windowpanes for a glimpse of elves or reindeer. God is with us. Deck the halls.

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