The Great Mother

reflecting on life: stories, wisdom, inspiration, aggravation

Why the Santa Struggle? December 19, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — emlott @ 10:42 pm

With an almost three year-old in the house, the conversation continues as to how we will or will not introduce the big fat man.  Actually, we don’t have to introduce him at all because the dominant culture has taken care of that already.  And frankly, I enjoy lots of fun Christmas music for a full month, and there are plenty of S-A-N-T-A songs in the mix.  So I’m not fighting too hard against it but also not feeding it and not pushing the story.  Other friends are asking similar questions and hearing mixed advice.  Rather than examining how we will teach or manage the cultural tradition of Santa Claus and his global gift distribution system, I want to look at a different question: Why fight it?

Why challenge the dominant culture?  Why question the norms?  Why deprive your child of magic or mystery?  It didn’t harm me, how could it harm them, right?  Some friends have snidely said, “Just wait till they’re older and then tell me how it goes,” while others think it’s a silly thing to worry about in the first place.  But part of my journey of faith over the past decade has been about self-examination and examination of how the Church in the United States is overly wed to the dominant culture.  By that I mean, what parts of my life don’t reflect a gospel that proclaims the last will be first, what parts of my life support a cultural gospel of fierce autonomy, accumulation, and consumption, and how has the Church (in my experience of Church) supported those teachings and practices?  And then how can I live and teach differently?  

Some of these questions do come out of my early experiences of growing up surrounded by privilege and wealth, but I think the most recent years of personal growth are much more about asking questions of evangelicalism.  What is the gospel?  What’s good about any news that Jesus proclaimed?  What part do I want to play in that?  Or can I participate in it at all?  Evangelical has become a filthy word in this country (just try saying anything positive about Rick Warren this week!), but its roots are so simple.  Aren’t evangelicals those who believe that a good word needs to be shared?  Now what that word is…we might disagree about that word.  But that’s been my struggle these past 10-12 years.

What does that have to do with Santa?  It’s harmless and innocent and fun.  But I’m looking at how my son is already in a FIT over getting toys and presents next week, and it makes my stomach turn.  The question about how or why or to what extent we will let Santa into our home is really a bigger question about what relationship we will have to a consumptive dominant culture.  How will we practice generosity in our home?  How will we live a true hospitality here?  When the child across the street from me plays with his one truck in his dirt yard, how can I look at my child and say, “Here, take whatever you want, as much as you want, as long as you want.”  

These are really questions about the juxtaposition of our me-first culture against the last-first Jesus who, as our legend tells it, was born around animals and dirty shepherds.  The two cannot live together.  The two are incompatible.  I am struggling with the tension.  I have not figured this out.  My questions are being refined but are far from answered.  If I am to continue to believe in this gospel story, it has to shape every aspect of my life because I believe what is being told of God from beginning to end impacts the way we encounter ourselves, each other, and the physical world around us.  Anything less is just a fat man in a sweaty red suit sitting in a dumpy mall all day.  It’s silly and fake and stinky and kind of creepy.  I don’t want that story.

So why the Santa struggle?  Whew.  Why do you have to ask?


2 Responses to “Why the Santa Struggle?”

  1. wmmangham Says:


    I think you hit the bottom line with the tension between me-first and last-first: “The two cannot live together. The two are incompatible.” Like you, I am struggling with this tension, to put it mildly, and have not figured it out at all.

    Our social orthodoxy has come to mean belief in science, progress, and, yes, consumerism. Reconciliation between that orthodoxy with the gospel message seems impossible. I recall that sermon at the Presbyterian church in Annapolis (I believe you were there…or maybe not) when the preacher talked about how church-goers compartmentalize their lives into “Christian” and “non-Christian” blocks: Christian on Sundays at 11 am; non-Christian at work, parties, etc. Jesus, shepherds, and manger while at church during Advent; Santa and shopping demands at all other times during the season.

    You raise an important point about how the “Church in the United States is overly wed to the dominant culture,” this orthodox belief in consumerism. I see it to a great extent as well. Shouldn’t the church be a force pushing against secular culture and not one in line with it? Is it? It seems to me that it is not. Not even the fundamentalist evangelical Protestants or the conservative Catholics seem to take a hard stance against consumerism. They take hard stances against many other things, but they don’t touch this singleness of American vision.

    How does the church swim upstream without alienating those whom it is trying to reach? I really have no idea. To reference a BTSR guy, I’ve been re-reading that E. Glenn Hinson book A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle, and he discusses some radical theology. Bonhoeffer’s idea that humankind has “come of age” and no longer needs a “God hypothesis” extends to the idea that Christians should abandon “Christ” language in order to reach others. That seems like too much! Teilhard de Chardin suggests that humankind is inexorably evolving into one-ness with God, as we progress and become more complex—from atoms, to cells, to simple organisms, to human beings with consciousness of their consciousness. If his theory is true, then we must be at a very early stage in the process of evolution, because as far as I can tell, things have only gotten worse since humans came into the picture. If we are supposed to be reaching some sort of world unification of spirit en route to the “Omega point,” why do we have more powerful weapons than ever, including ones that are capable of wiping out our entire species? Should we embrace the secular city, as these two ideas imply, because it will all work out in the end toward God’s master plan? I think that’s a lazy answer that’s blind to the truth.

    I fall more in line with Walker Percy’s thinking, like in Lost in the Cosmos or The Moviegoer. As our worldly reality has become more secular and more pervasive at the same time, God has been edged out more and more, and we are left with an emptiness inside—Who am I, why am I here, what is the point of my life? The philosophy of Miguel de Unamuno asks similar questions, and posits that while we are making “progress” in so many realms, the human spirit seems to have been left behind.

    If truth can be gleaned from any part of our consumer culture this Christmas, I have to look to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Maybe what it takes is to be reminded with a simple message like the one contained in Linus’s speech to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas. There is at least some hope in that.

  2. emlott Says:

    Thanks for that insightful, thoughtful response. Wish we could talk more in person this Christmas, but I’m glad you’re able to connect online.

    A pastor friend shared this quote from Monsignor Oscar Romero with me last week:

    No one can celebrate
    a genuine Christmas
    without being truly poor.
    The self-sufficient, the proud,
    those who, because they have
    everything, look down on others,
    those who have no need
    even of God – for them there
    will be no Christmas.
    Only the poor, the hungry,
    those who need someone
    to come on their behalf,
    will have that someone
    That someone is God.
    Emmanuel. God-with-us.
    Without poverty of spirit
    there can be no abundance of God.

    Isn’t that something? I certainly can’t pretend to begin to know real physical poverty. I get what is being said about those who do not need someone to come on their behalf, though. When we can buy it all (or charge it all!) for ourselves, wrap it up to match our well-wrapped houses and well-wrapped lives, then we want that baby Jesus to stay tightly bound in his swaddling clothes. He can’t inflict any will on us that way. (Have you read the FBC devotional for 12/21? This actually fits nicely together. Maybe I need a new rant!)

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