Monday, December 17, 2012
I save the Christmas cards I get in the mail from the many charities that send me solicitations for donations. They begin to dribble in a little at a time during the fall—diabetes Christmas cards, Alzheimer’s Christmas cards, cystic fibrosis Christmas cards, you name it. If there’s a disease or a cause, and they send me cards, I keep them. Then when it’s time to send them out I grab the wad of them I’ve been saving and pick out the least religious and kitschy of them, try to find matching envelopes, and voila, I’ve got my cards. I try to choose my cards carefully from among this collection. I get lots of cards because I give to a lot of causes. They want me to give more, so they send me stuff relentlessly, which I really don’t think is the best use of their money. I don’t want them to spend it on Christmas cards and return address labels and wrapping paper, all of which I could get at the dollar store. I want them to use the money to cure the damned diseases. And make it snappy on the Alzheimer’s, if you know what I mean. The whole point of giving to a cause is undercut if you expect some little token of appreciation in return. But they’ve probably done cost benefit analyses and determined that this is the way to go in order to maximize their return. Induce a sense of obligation in advance and you’ll get a better response. At least I hope they’ve done that, even though it’s wasted on me.
Speaking of Christmas cards, the other day I noticed one sitting on the table—not one I got from a charity, but one that came in the mail from someone. It wasn’t for me, and I glanced at it quickly and it looked religious, sort of Silent Nightish, and that’s about all that registered in my mind at that moment. Then a day or two later I was walking by the card, and I took a closer look and did a double take. On the front in a manger was the baby Jesus, a pale halo over his little head. Kneeling at the foot of the manger, over on the right side of the picture, was Santa Claus, his wispy white hair sort of tousled, his nose and cheeks red, looking for all the world like a repentant wino. He was holding his silly red elf hat between his mittened hands. No other humans in the picture—no Mary, no Joseph, no shepherds or wise men, just a couple of sheep, a donkey, and a lop-eared goat, all minding their own business and oblivious to the breathtaking sacredness of it all. Up in the sky in the center of the picture was the bright star that must have led old Saint Nick to the place where the holy child was holed up. Inside the card it said “Knowing the true meaning of Christmas blesses us all.”
Still it took some time to register. Then it hit me. Santa Claus and the baby Jesus, appearing on the same stage? What the hell is going on here? This wasn't something out of South Park, this was meant as a serious card from, I think, a seriously religious person. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been of the school that believes in keeping the “O Little Town of Bethlehem” stuff separate from the “Ho Ho Ho” stuff. Call me a segregationist, a strict constructionist, or a believer in the separation of silliness from nonsense. Oh, I know St. Nicholas is a saint of the Catholic Church. At least he was until he got demoted a few popes ago, along with St. Christopher and St. George the dragon slayer. He was the patron saint of thieves, sailors, children, and hookers, to name a few. A versatile guy. So there’s at least a tenuous connection between the jolly old elf and the Christ child.
There are layers of meaning here. You could look at the picture and conclude that Santa and the baby Jesus are engaged in a sort of private audience, like when the pope meets with a world leader. The parents and the shepherds and wise men were asked to leave the room for a moment while these two ultimate icons of Christmas communed with one another. Maybe the animals were asked to leave too, but they refused, since it was, after all, their house. It’s a wonderful nod from the crass and sentimental side of the holiday in the direction of the sacred side. The real question is which side is which?
When I was a kid I did not believe in Santa Claus, as far as I can remember. Not for a minute. First off, we had no fireplace. Our chimney came straight out of the oil-burning furnace in the basement and up through the middle of the house, so that part of the story didn’t resonate. Secondly, and more importantly, my mother really couldn’t let me believe in Santa, not that I probably would have anyway. This old guy playing Santa would come to our front door on Christmas Eve, but she was always careful to tell me it was really only Mr. Aderholt from down on
Dixie Highway dressed as Santa. His motive of
course was kindly and good—to bring joy to little children. But let’s examine my mother’s motive for a
moment. The reason she told me the true identity of the guy wearing the Santa Claus outfit was not in case I might accidentally recognize Mr. Aderholt and then
became disillusioned about the existence of Santa. Oh no.
She told me so it would be clear, without her ever having to say it in
so many words, that there wasn’t a real Santa Claus, only people who dressed as Santa, the way one might
dress as Superman for Halloween or as a big stupid rabbit for Easter. Sooner or later I would have figured this out
on my own, but she was taking no chances. Still, I had to clean up my toys to get ready,
or Santa, a/k/a Mr. Aderholt, wouldn’t come. And I did want him to come, in spite of it all.
My mother was not a killjoy. (Well, yes she sort of was, in general, but she didn't mean to be.) The point she was at pains to make was that Christmas was not about Santa Claus, but rather about the birth of Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, who descended into Hell and on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead, etc.
But mom was too clever by half, and it backfired on her, or on me, depending on how you want to look at it. I mean, you tell me—how realistic is it that you can tell a little kid there’s no such thing as Santa Claus but succeed in getting him to believe that the story of the Virgin birth and all the rest of the song and dance that goes along with that is a more probable version of reality? The well was well and truly poisoned, and I never believed in any of it. I was presented with a choice between two equally absurd ideas, both of which required the suspension of belief in all the observable rules of physical reality, and was told that one of them was wrong. Was I supposed to then opt for the second one, or instead to adopt the logic that had led me to reject the first one? At least I was spared the pain of disillusionment on both fronts. It am still amazed when I hear from adults about the moment they first realized there was no Santa Claus, because I can’t imagine anyone having believed in the first place.
What my mom did wasn’t so bad, of course. The majority of people all over the world choose one kind of mumbo jumbo over another. Maybe I would have been a skeptic and nonbeliever no matter what, always looking for life’s little logical inconsistencies. Like why they never sell the same number of hot dog buns in a package as the number of hot dogs in a package. Or how it is that if Johnny Cash shot a man in
Reno just to watch him die, he’s now doing
time in Folsom Prison in California, instead
of in some correctional facility in Nevada. Where’s the sense in that? Even if he fled across the state line, you'd think they would have extradited him. California has more than enough inmates already.
So, I shouldn’t give a damn one way or the other, but the mixing of Santa Claus and Jesus in one picture still seems to me like a sort of unholy mismatch. What makes it unholy, I’m not sure. Who sullies whose image? The kneeling Santa appears to be worshiping the infant Savior, but maybe Kris Kringle’s the one in charge, offering yet another nifty gift to the world, something he pulled out of his bulging sack. The anachronism of it suggests the ability of Santa to go back in time, in addition to his other super powers, like being able to ride a sleigh through the air and visit every good boy and girl all in one night. Meanwhile the baby Jesus is just lying there with a halo on his head, stuck in his time and place, in the middle of a bunch of smelly animals, doomed to a dusty Middle Eastern life and an ignominious tortured death. Who has the upper hand here? Santa, you figure, after paying the proper obeisance or whatever, will be able to hop into his sleigh and have Rudolph guide him back to the 21st century in time to do his thing on Christmas Eve. When or if Jesus will come again is anybody’s guess, but Santa Claus can be counted on to deliver the goods each and every year.Now you tell me. Who should be worshiping whom?