Ready or not, Santa’s coming to town

Christians struggle with Santa Clause. Seems that you are either not letting the fat-man into your house or he’s all over the house in decorations ad nauseum.  We love him or we hate him.  Surely the world looks at us and thinks that we’ve lost it, “what the big deal?”

Everybody is going to make up their own mind about Santa and the practice will follow.  Whatever.  Yet, it seems like the typical Christian responses of either swallow the thing hook, line and sinker or act like Santa’s evil won’t do.  We miss too many things either way.

There are reasons to be concerned about Santa, of course.  There are also reasons to rejoice because he’s around.  As a symbol, Santa gives us both.

Santa’s coming should be (certainly could be) a blessing and a boon to Christmas.  He is a symbol of some things that are wonderful.  What do we like about him?

He comes every year without fail!  He is consistent and dependable and even though he’s keeping lists (naughty and nice?), his big-heartedness always wins out and our stockings get filled.  Children love him because no matter how they act, he comes.  He gives them gifts they didn’t earn.  He’s mysterious and invisible and does amazing things but isn’t scary!  He’s like a superhero and a rock star all in one fat package!  He’s a man and that means he’s a tough guy (I mean, he’s out in the freezing cold in a flying sleigh for dog-dog!).  Kids like him, too, because they only have to be reminded to obey once a year!

Parents like him because he gives them an excuse to go into debt!  They also get to look down their noses at their children and remind them to be nice rather than naughty.  Santa reminds us of something that’s good and larger than life.  He lives at the North Pole and that means he’s above the fray of the day-to-day trouble we all live with.  He is relentless and ubiquitous.  He is who they hope God is – only they hope God is better.  He isn’t a judgmental character (or his judgments aren’t very weighty).  He makes no distinctions – he goes to all houses, after all.  Santa symbolizes hope, grace and God.  Giving and strong; relentless and kind; all-seeing but jolly.  He’s all we want God to be, no?

Let’s be honest.  Santa does miss some things.  Casting all our hopes on one who is like a Super Santa isn’t all its cracked up to be.  Santa looks past great evil and injustice; he just acts like its not there for a day.  He doesn’t punish evil.  He doesn’t fight our enemies.  He makes no specific promises that carry us through the immensely difficult patches of life.  He can’t kill the impulses in our hearts that drive us to sin and hate each other.  His gift giving is often shallow feeling and fleeting.  He doesn’t deal with what happens to us after we die.  He represents a departure from the first and intended meaning of the season: the birth of the Savior of the world.  He also represents what has become a troubling aspect of our culture: materialism.  Santa’s all about gifts.  We only like to think about the upside of gifts – the fun-receiving-opening-and-reveling part.  We try not to think about what we always inevitably think about with those gifts: the cost, the debt, the appetite for more it produces.  We all know this is true, but we ignore it.

Santa is a good symbol.  He brings all kinds of things that are good back to our wearied and fatigued minds.  He also reminds us (or should) that there is so much more to life and death.  Probably my favorite depiction of Santa comes from C.S. Lewis’ work, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  In the popular movie, Father Christmas catches up to the Pevensie children.  What he says is remarkable.  He reminds them that he was unable to break through the spell of the Witch (“always winter and never Christmas”) but now that Aslan has come, he is able to return.  After bestowing gifts upon the children, he bellows, “Long live Aslan!”  (The book’s account is slightly different, “Long live the True King”.)  Father Christmas depended upon Aslan.

Santa depends on God.  Without Christ’s coming, there would be no Santa.  Let’s not forget.

What about those Socks?!

We like to dress them up and call them “stockings” – oooooo – but they’re really just decorated socks large enough to stuff things in.

Reality check:

We hang them up (weird).

We hang them up over a fireplace off a mantle so everyone can see them (weird).

We do this with the expectation that they will be filled with something other than feet (weird).

Filled by a clean, fat man (despite having come down a very thin and nasty chimney) who will ascend back to a sleigh parked on a steep slope hitched to flying venison steaks (scary weird).

The other day, I was looking at our stockings.  My mom and grandmother made all of ours and they are exquisite and fun and festive.  But (as usual) I asked myself, “what are they doing up there?”  I thought about what my kids might expect to happen as a result of them being hung up over the fireplace.  Of course, they expect them to be filled!

Santa (the aforementioned fat man) keeps a list of who’s naughty and nice, right?

We still hang up the stockings.

Ask any kid around Christmastime whether he’s been nice or naughty and you know his first response would be “nice.”  Do an obvious double take and he’d likely make a modification, “not so nice” or “naughty.’

We still hang up the stockings.

Why do Christians hang up the stockings?  Well, we all want them filled with good stuff.  But what about the symbolism?  Any contemplative Christian when asked whether he’s been naughty (“sinful”) or nice (“holy”) would respond with the former.

We still hang up the stockings.

Had you ever considered that stockings are tokens of grace?  When you think about the Christmas tradition of Santa filling them whether we’ve been naughty or nice, our expectation in that case is, “C’mon, Santa, fill mine anyway!”  Don’t we always expect the same from our Heavenly Father?

What about them, anyway?

They are large! I’ve seen some enormous stockings.  I’ve seen some decent sized ones made of stretchy material (like Glad “Force Flex” trash bags that stretch so much you could fit a Volkswagen in them).  These huge stockings mean we want a lot of good stuff crammed into them.

They symbolize that we want a lot of God’s grace in our lives.  After all, He is the only One who only gives good gifts:

Luke 11:13,”If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

James 1:16-17, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

We hang the stockings knowing that we really don’t deserve for them to be filled or if filled, only with coal.  We have nothing to offer God except that we:

Lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord!

Hang ’em!

They are hung in prominent display.  For some reason, we don’t hang them in the bathroom or the garage.  Surely, if the fat man can do the impossible and come down a skinny, dirty chimney, he could more easily navigate a window or a garage door!

We hang them out in front of everyone’s eyes. It’s like we want people to see, “I want God to fill my life with grace.  I’m even making it plain and ‘easy’ for Him by making my desire obvious.”  We don’t want Santa to have to traipse all over the house looking for stockings.  We want to make sure he gets it!  That large stocking in the middle of the house symbolizes our urgent plea with God that He fill us with His grace.

Hang ’em!

They are festive and fun. The only time people hang ugly or plain stockings over the fireplace is when they’ve forgotten to get one!  I think about the ones my mom made for my family and I think the woman must’ve spent weeks on each one!  Glitter and quilting and stitching and colors and figures!

Grace is festive and fun.  Do we forget that grace isn’t just about giving us what we don’t deserve but that gift is excellent and fun and exciting?  Our playground is heaven!  All of what we know in our lives as good – places, relationships, food, activities – these are “good” because they are from God!  He doesn’t give boring gifts!  Have we forgotten?  Paul said it convincingly:

If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?

The question is rhetorical – of course He will!  He has!  Look at your life and for a moment don’t focus on the clouds in your life’s sky.  Look at the stockings you’ve hung: see what He has done?  When you awake on Christmas morning to a full (undeserved) stocking, see what He has done?

Those stretchy socks that you and I hang aren’t the greatest symbol: for a time, they hang empty.  In the life of one who loves Jesus Christ, the socks bursts – all the time – even when it looks empty.

Hang ’em!

What should Christians do with Christmas Symbols?

I recently read a portion of a book written by Noel Piper (John Piper’s wife; he’s pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN).  In it, she talks about their own personal practice of excluding Santa from their celebrations.

She explains why they did it – her reasons made sense to me.  Things like presenting confusing or mixed messages to the children: it’s about Santa!  + it’s about Christ!  Parents often expect their kids will be able to figure out what’s real and what’s not….

Rather than comment on Noel and John Piper’s practice (which is theirs to do as they please), how about Christmas Symbols?

I began our family Advent devotions this morning after I spent some time considering the stockings hanging from our mantle….What do we do with them?  What do they mean?  What do I want my little ones concluding about them and why they appear there yearly?  I think I owe my children a framework to understand all the symbols – they need to be able to sort out the wheat from the chaff, no?

Let’s begin where I began with them: what’s the deal with all the Christmas lights?  A buddy cornered me yesterday and said, “Dude, have you seen my house?”  Um, not recently.  “I’m telling you, you’ve got to see what I’ve done with the decorations!”  Keeping up with the Joneses?  “Crushing the Joneses, dude.  Seriously, take a look!”

So, fully loaded with 14 eager eyeballs, we drove by his place.  We found a resplendent display of white Christmas lights!  I think he might’ve even had some lights not on but the ones that were lit were beautiful.  This morning, then, I asked the kids about Christmas lights – what are they for?  What do they mean?

Once I got past the typical responses (which were correct but…you know me…) I asked them about symbols.  “What does a stop sign represent?” I   asked.  My middle one said, “safety” (Ah, music to my ears…).  RIGHT!  It symbolizes safety when it is obeyed; even potential death when it is not.  I pointed out that many, many things are symbols of other things.  “And Christmas symbols mean special things.”

I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life – John 8:12

“What does light represent?  It is a symbol of what?”  Jesus!

Have you ever noticed how we wrap lights all around the Christmas tree?  Now, I’m not sure why I’ve been doing that all my life, but my wife has as well – maybe you do, too.  One could conclude that it is this way so that there is never a place you could stand and fail to see light.  Since light symbolizes Christ, the implication is that He can never be obscured – He can always been seen by those who look for Him.

I concluded the devotion by telling my kids that it isn’t just Christmas lights that represent Christ.  It is light, period.  Street lights, bathroom lights, oven lights, flood lights, stadium lights, sunlight, car head lights – any and every light is a reminder of the One who is the Light of the world.

Think about it.

Tomorrow, maybe trees and stockings.