Myths are the best way we have of conveying truths that are otherwise inexpressible. Santa is a myth, but Santa is a myth that images the True Myth of Christ—the myth that exists in the realm of fact as well as in the realm of truth…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Calah Alexander as she explores the truth within the myth of Santa Claus. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
In years past, I have written a lot about Santa. Last year I just did not want to get into it, because it seems like one of those conversations where no mutual ground is gained nor understanding reached. Basically, Santa is a convenient excuse for bloggers to tell people they are either lying to their children or destroying the wonder of childhood.
This year, though, the stupid Santa crusades have invaded my own private corner of internet tranquility. Alas, once again, no one is making the most crucial distinction of all. So I guess I will do it, since I am basically a martyr for the Santa cause.
Everyone keeps talking about how telling your children about Santa is a lie because Santa is not real. But who cares if Santa is real or not? That is not the point. The point is, Santa is true.
We have so totally lost the ability to distinguish between the real and the true that we act like they are the same thing, when they are not—at least, not always.
Take the story of St. Christopher, for example. It is widely acknowledged that the story of St. Christopher carrying the Christ-Child across a swollen river—bearing not only the Child Christ but the whole weight of the world along with him—is a myth that drew heavily from various stories in Greek mythology. Even though the Church, unfortunately, removed his feast day from the calendar (probably because they read too many posts about “the great Santa lie”), they did not suppress the veneration of him. Nor should they, because the myth of St. Christopher might not have been real, but it’s still true.
‘But,’ said Lewis, ‘myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.’
‘No,’ said Tolkien, ‘they are not.
‘…just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.
‘We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.’
‘You mean,’ asked Lewis, ‘that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.’
― Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography
Myths are not lies. They are not lies. They are not lies. Myths are the best way we have of conveying truths that are otherwise inexpressible. Santa is a myth, but Santa is a myth that images the True Myth of Christ—the myth that exists in the realm of fact as well as in the realm of truth. Sure, a jolly, fat, old elf dropping presents down chimneys of every child in the world has neither the depth nor beauty nor factual reality of the story of the Nativity. But little children cannot comprehend a baby, who is really God, being born to a virgin (what is a virgin, Mommy?) as a gift to all humankind, to die for our sins and save us from eternal separation from God. Can you blame them? I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it.
Here is what children do understand—they understand the joy and wonder of something magical happening that they cannot see but can feel. They understand the delight of laying out cookies for Santa on Christmas evening in a way they cannot understand the delight of waiting in hope for the forty days of Advent. They understand the joy and wonder of Christmas morning, with presents from Santa for each of them, even the naughty ones. To me, that is the crux of the myth—all children know that although Santa makes a list of who is naughty and who is nice, everyone gets a present on Christmas morning. Even the naughty ones. Even the ones who do not believe in him.
In our house, we talk a lot about Christ being God’s gift to the world, and Santa bringing everyone gifts to remind us of the greatest gift of all, Jesus. Little children cannot understand the wonder and joy of walking out of a confessional with a skip in your step, having been washed clean of all the sin weighing you down. They cannot understand the deep communion of adoration, nor the spiritual sustenance of the Eucharist. They can understand waking up one morning to a world transformed by joy. They can understand the wonder and gratitude of opening a gift they did not earn. They can place the little wooden baby in the empty cradle, but it will be years before they can fully comprehend the joy and wonder of the baby. Presents from Santa puts all the building blocks in place to make it true for them when they can.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough the fact that Santa is a myth, not a story or a tradition—and certainly not a lie. I would be the first one to admit that as myths go, Santa is kind of a weak one. He is no Orpheus descending into the underworld, no Hercules slaying the lion. He is a fat guy who eats cookies and milk and brings presents to everyone—exactly the kind of comfortable, squashy myth Americans would invent. Nevertheless, the myth is true, and in this time and place it might be the only way many children ever hear these truths. The truth that someone is watching over them, seeing when they are naughty and when they are nice. Maybe he makes a list, but on Christmas Eve he tears the list up, leaves his kingdom, and travels through time and space to bring gifts to all the children. Not because they were nice, but because they are children and he loves them.
It is not a story about commercialism or American greed. It is not a lie parents make up because we “privilege our own pleasure at lording over our own little humans over their interests and autonomy.” It is a myth about God’s love, and the Gift He gave to all mankind. Like all myths,
It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth.’ It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are re-opened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.
– C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald: An Anthology
One thing I will never do is tell my children that Santa is a lie—the same way I would never tell them that the myth of St. Christopher is a lie, or Athena springing out of Zeus’s forehead is a lie, or Demeter wandering the barren earth, weeping for her lost child, is a lie. They are not lies—they are truths. I could tell you a Christmas story about the time the Ogre and I fought all day on Christmas and our children went to bed weeping, but why would I? It might be real, but it conveys no truth, except the banal and universal truth that human beings can be cruel. If “the real” is the only measure by which we determine the truth of a thing, then our minds will be fettered and our world impoverished.
You can accuse me of lying to emotionally manipulate my children, or treating my children as toys for my own entertainment. You can tell me that Santa is a lie, and your children can taunt my children on the playground for still believing in Santa. Your children can even call us liars, right to our faces, in front of our kids. You can kill the hell out of Santa if you really want, but I will not. I will let my kids have Santa, and with him all the joy and wonder and mystery that prepares their hearts for what they will one day experience in the fullness of the Truth.
Because what you cannot do is take away truth. Whether it is the truth of the Santa myth, or the True Myth of the Child Christ, you cannot make it untrue with all the accusations in the world.
But go ahead and keep trying. I will just be over here, reading my kids stories about a red-nosed flying reindeer and a clown who juggled for Jesus.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in December 2014. Republished with gracious permission from Patheos (2014). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.