Posted by: Daryl & Wendy Ashby | December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

It’s official: there are more Americans (38 percent) who teach their children to believe in Santa Claus than there are those (28 percent) who tell the biblical story of the birth of Christ at this time of year. For those of us who delight in the real meaning of Christmas, it’s a dismal statistic, especially when considered in the larger context that nine in every 10 Americans celebrate the holy day.

As academic and philosopher Dallas Willard, of the University of Southern California, has observed of his culture, “We’re in a context where we have millions and millions of people who are professing Christians that do not believe what they profess, because they’ve been taught the important thing is to profess it whether you believe it or not, and God would like that. But it doesn’t seize their lives.”

Clearly. For now it seems the “professing” part is also losing ground.

No doubt Canadian polling data on the issue would reveal similar results. Ours is, after all, a nation that’s becoming increasingly hesitant to give voice to anything that smacks of Christian specificity. Earlier this week, Jack Layton wrote on his personal Twitter account of his delight at singing not Christmas carols but “holiday carols” (in Greek no less) at a Greek Orthodox church. And the province of Quebec has announced its intention to ban religious instruction in nursery schools, including the singing of Christmas carols, in such a way that little ones will be able to gaze upon a nativity scene, but not have its meaning explained.

Jesuit writer Father James Martin is right; Jesus may be the new Harry Potter character Voldemort, i.e., “He Who Must Not Be Named.” But Santa – well he’s ok, a safe, grandfatherly fellow in a red suit who trains up little ones in the way that all good consumers should grow, to worship at the altar of materialism. For the non-religiously inclined it may be impossible to avoid the Christian connection to the infant in the manger, but the bearded fellow who brings toys isn’t exactly a religious symbol.

Or is he? University of Manitoba history professor and author of Santa Claus: A Biography Dr. Gerry Bowler describes the current incarnation of the seasonal figure as “a direct descendant of Saint Nicholas,” who has morphed into today’s “half secular, half religious” magical gift-bringer.

Half religious? Think about it: today’s Santa is the perfect deity for our day; he’s a god-man who is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, who judges and rewards good and bad behaviour. He is a vehicle of undeserved love, forgiveness and grace. Children are taught to adore him and to please him with sacrificial offerings of milk and cookies. He dwells far off in another realm but promises to return regularly to the benefit of those who believe in him. The fact that he’s also one of the great underpinnings of the world industrial economy doesn’t hurt his appeal.

But the story of Jesus? Well that’s a far different matter and one that could never be described in half-measures. The sweet infant sleeping on the hay in the Christmas crèche grows up to be the man who angers local religious authorities, is betrayed, abandoned and handed over for torture by disappointed friends, and dies a traitor’s cruel death. In the days and weeks after his death, hundreds of people are convinced of the reality of his resurrection – including his scared and scattered friends who ultimately hear him victoriously proclaim, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

It’s hardly the standard soft-focus, feel-good story that resonates with our age or with the mood of the season. But it is a story that rings true in the hearts and minds of Christians the world over, who aren’t shy about professing it, proclaiming it in public places or teaching it to their children, at Christmas or at any other time of the year.

For they know, from personal experience, that it is a potent story that – once considered, accepted, internalized and acted upon – has the power to transform hearts and change lives.

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