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Saturday, December 23, 2006

SORRY, VIRGINIA

"Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus lane..."

In 1897, an Eight-year-old Virginia girl supposedly wrote a letter to the editor of New York's Sun asking if Santa Claus really existed.
DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

VIRGINIA O'HANLON.
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.
In response, the editor wrote a short column that has become more or less famous, the most reprinted newspaper editorial in history. Putting aside the unfortunate father's allegiance to a newspaper, this has always struck me as an odd episode. Even in an opinion piece, a newspaperman, especially an editor, is supposedly dedicated to the truth. At the very least, one would expect they are not inclined to knowingly and deliberately lying in their paper.

Santa Claus does not exist. We all know there is no magical elf riding a flying sleigh around the world drawn by 9 tiny reindeer, the lead of which has a glowing red nose. This is myth, a story we tell children but know is complete invention. To be sure, there is some fact behind the myth: there was a bishop named Nicholas who gave presents to the poor and had a festival near Christmas.

St NickHISTORY AND BACKGROUND
Nicholas lived in Asia Minor (Eastern Turkey today, the region known as Anatolia) and there are several stories about this man. He provided dowries for three prostitutes so they could marry (essentially buying them out of slavery) and is famous for giving gifts in secret (apparently not all that secret). Nicholas was part of the Council of Nicea, he supposedly struck the heretic Arius in the face and was removed from the council and jailed for the act. Also famous for defending the falsely accused, he was sainted for allegedly bringing back to life girls who had been hacked apart.

It is this Bishop Nicholas that many stories began to be built up around, and in the iconography for the man he was usually depicted with three golden orbs to represent the dowries for the three girls he rescued from prostitution which are at times mistaken for oranges. The feast of St Nicholas is December 6th, and was traditionally a children's festival, involving gift-giving and candy. From this developed slowly the corruption of Saint Nicholas until the Dutch version Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. Bishop Nicholas had a long white beard and white hair, but was not fat, he was rather skinny - iconography was very stylized but also was very strictly passed down as accurate depictions of the various saints.

One by one various elements of the myth built up over the years, such as the red and white suit from the Bishop's winter mitre and cape worn for holidays. The chimney and stockings came from legends such as this much-tamed variant on how the prostitute girls got their dowries:
A nobleman who lived with his three daughters had fallen on hard times. The daughters had no chance of marriage, since their father could not pay their dowries.

One night, St. Nicholas threw a sack of gold through a window of the nobleman's shabby castle, which was enough for one daughter's marriage. The next night, he tossed another sack of gold through the window for the second daughter.

But on the third night, the window was closed. So, St. Nicholas climbed onto the roof and dropped the sack down the chimney. The next morning, the daughters found the gold in the stockings they had hung to dry by the fireplace.

Hence leaving the stockings out for Santa Claus.
Clement MooreIt was in 1822 that the poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was written by Clement Moore for his children, which more or less formalized the myth of Santa Claus, who was gladly appropriated by stores for a more commercial-friendly hook than a humble, poor baby who came to save us from sins such as greed. Santa Claus also was an acceptable atheist replacement for Christian stories, it gave non Christian children a figure to celebrate and a reason for the holiday without needing that pesky Jesus in the picture.

Famous cartoonist Thomas Nash drew a picture of Santa Claus as a rotund man for Conde Nast magazine, and the image for some reason stuck - perhaps because a jolly fat guy is more approachable and less intimidating to children than a thin Bishop. In Europe however, Father Christmas is always portrayed as thin.

TODAY'S PARENTS
It is almost ubiquitous that parents in America and other nations tell their young children the myth of Santa Claus with all the usual trappings: stockings hung out (although we have electric driers to dry our clothes now), cookies set out for the elf, pictures of Santa all over, songs about him and the reindeer, and so on. The children are told that Santa is quite real, if anyone asks, like Virginia, the parents insist that the stories are true, that Santa Claus is a real elf who really uses magic to fly around the world on one night and give all kids their presents. That there are really 9 tiny reindeer who live on the north pole and can fly.

This is as opposed to stories like the tooth fairy and the Lion King, where children are amused and entertained by the wonder of fantasy and talking animals, where the joy of various tales such as Cinderella are presented as just that: stories. Parents don't insist that the Little Mermaid was real, or that My Little Pony really exists in a far away land of rainbows. But Santa Claus? Parents get mad when someone says he's not real. A school for small children recently came under fire in England for daring to issue a worksheet that said "many small children believe in Father Christmas" rather than teaching the orthodox doctrine that Santa really exists. My oldest brother was shown doctored pictures of Santa on his sleigh flying through the air by a teacher when he asked if Santa was real. See, pictures don't lie!

Why?

Why do parents tell their kids this myth is real when they won't with others - why cling to this myth with such fierce tenacity when others they shrug at. The Easter bunny, leprechauns and pots of gold, the comedic talent of Margaret Cho, these myths nobody feels compelled to defend but when you dare to question the reality of an elf the parents are very aware is fake, they get mad. The children, think of the children!

What makes me unhappy is that these are otherwise good parents, at least most of them, who try to raise their children with basic ethics. They will teach their children it is wrong to lie, that telling the truth is good. They will try to show an example to their children by how they live, by avoiding things in their presence, at least. Then they look that child straight in the eye, with deliberate calculation, and tell him or her an outright, intentional and outrageous set of total lies. Yes, Virginia, that fat magic elf really exists, really, really.

What could compel a parent to do this? It's one thing to tell your child wondrous stories - you should! It's one thing to try to make Christmas a wonderful, special time of year - you should! It's another to do so in a way that demonstrates that not only is lying fine, but that adults should lie to children when it makes them happy. What exactly are you trying to teach your kids, again?

Away in a MangerThe most disturbing to me is that many Christian parents do this too, they are part of the process and myth and lies. They'll go along with every step of the process, the reindeer decorations outside, the stockings, telling kids Santa will soon be here, the cookies and milk. One of the names for Santa Claus is Kris Kringle. This title comes from the German word Christkindl, as in Christ child. Just something to consider when you tell your children all about merry Chris Kringle. Children taught about Santa Claus and his gifts are far more focused on goodies coming and magic flying reindeer than the actual reason Christmas exists: to celebrate the (likely springtime) birth of Jesus Christ. A baby in a manger with shepherds visiting doesn't excite much interest in a little boy or girl but a magic elf bringing him presents and constant exposure to him does.

For Christians, the myth and fierce defense of the lie that Santa exists is a fierce defense of something taking the place of Jesus Christ on Christmas. This is somewhat like having your kid's birthday, then diverting all the attention to a magic gnome that will show up and give everyone candy. Yes, kids this is Jimmy's birthday, but you all get candy from the mystic gnome! Sorry Jimmy, go in a corner and open your presents.

YOU GRINCHY SCROOGE!
Why, I can hear you cry, what a miserable bastard, how could you be so mean to children! I hope you don't have any kids! When you have children, your story will change, what a stingy jerk! I know at least some of you are saying this because I've heard it before. I know the arguments: its fun for children, its harmless, it teaches them the joy and importance of giving.

The problem is, none of these arguments requires that you tell the children a lie. Sesame Street teaches children important lessons, but nobody feels compelled to tell their children Oscar and Big Bird are real, or would get mad at someone for saying otherwise. Joy can be spread without telling your children an intentional lie about a magic fat elf, and there's no lesson of giving involved, unless it's "give to me."

The reason presents were given around Christmas to begin with was to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, because you couldn't give anything to God - who owns and has everything, literally, already. You can give gifts to each other, and do so to demonstrate the teachings and purpose of Christ: that we are generous, merciful, and loving.

For the atheist - if you don't believe in God, why is the story of a child born to the heraldry of angels who healed the sick and died for salvation of others any more offensive than the tales of Santa? You don't believe either, why pick Santa to laud rather than Jesus, who is the entire purpose of the holiday?

For the Christian - why on earth are you telling your children a deliberate lie about this myth, let alone having some figure eclipse Jesus Christ, whom you profess and confess to be the king of kings and the central figure of all reality and history? The birth of Christ was so important in the Bible that heaven exploded with praises and glory, and our response is to teach our children about a secular myth?

Corporate SantaCONCLUSION
For those of you who still are reading, not to mention those who will actually return here, I just wanted to do my part to point out a problem with our modern Christmas: this holiday is about baby Jesus in a manger, there wouldn't be a Christmas without this event. Believe what you will about this Jesus, the entire point of the season is for Him and His incarnation. This was a historical event, it really did happen.

Sure, it didn't happen on the 24th of December, sure the Roman Catholic Church took this day to give converts and pagans a holiday that replaced winter solstice celebrations and other holidays. We celebrate every President's Birthday on the same day in February, even though only one was actually born that day. The purpose is not to claim this was the exact day, but to give a specific day to celebrate the event. After over a thousand years of history, this is a traditional day to have the celebration.

Trying to replace Jesus Christ with a magical elf is just bizarre, even if you aren't a Christian. Pushing Jesus aside for the tale of a gift giving fat man is useful for stores, but it makes no sense and is further a destruction of centuries of tradition and culture. Is that really what you want to do? Christian and atheist a like have good reason to continue the stories of Jesus and not replace him with Santa, and other faiths have reason to avoid Santa as well. Just something to consider, before you throw a rotten orange at me.

The city of Demre today is built on the ruins of Myra, where Bishop Nicholas lived and worked. They have a bronze statue of him that used to be on a prominent pillar in the town, but in 2005 the statue was removed and a fat red-suited Santa Claus was put in its place to make the image more familiar to visitors. The bronze statue of Nicholas was moved to a local church. If Nicholas was such a pious man he punched Arius in the snoot for denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, I doubt he'd be much amused by this development, or venerating him in any capacity.
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7 Comments:

Blogger Anna Venger said...

My dear Christopher, I was to be upset with you...why?

I did Santa with my children to some extent in that my husband wanted Santa. But I always told them that we had fun pretending that Santa came down the chimney. Gifts were given with a wink and a smile.

I'll never forget when the dentist asked them what Santa was bringing them for Christmas one year and they just looked at him. Finally, I interjected that they didn't believe in Santa and that was why they were confused by the question. He looked at me like I had two heads! But I thought, historically, we celebrated Christmas in this country many years without Santa until immigrants brought the practice and it caught on. I figured I had history on my side. I just couldn't bring myself to saying something that wasn't true. I wanted my children to always be able to believe me and to know that Mom would always shoot straight with them.

You know what? They're actually very well adjusted.

Merry Christmas to you, CT. And remember pics!

10:47 AM, December 23, 2006  
Anonymous President Friedman said...

C_T,

I have some friends who feel similar to you about this. Their reasoning is that is a danger to their children's faith for them to learn about these benevolent deity-like characters (Santa & tooth fairy) only to later learn to associate maturity with giving up those beliefs. While I think that is probably overstating the impact of the Santa Experience for most children, I do see their point, and were I a Christian I'd probably spend a lot more time considering it.

As it is, I have no problem with lying to little kids. It is one of the great joys of fatherhood. The Grimm Brothers would be proud of the assortment of myths we have assembled around our home. From a giant who lives in the creek behind our house, to pixies who disguise themelves as bees and make the flowers bloom in springtime, to a phantom cow who will leave dried up chow-chips in your dresser drawer if you don't do all your chores. As she does with Santa Claus, my daughter half-believes all of these myths. She has fun playing along, but she is skeptical, she questions, and someday she will have the logical werewithall to figure out we are pulling her leg. 30 years from now we will laugh about it, and hopefully she'll pass on some of the same mythologies to her kids (I invented Gus The Giant myself, but The Phantom Cow story goes all the way back to my grandfather).

People have been telling kids stories like these since the first time a parent tried to figure out how to keep their 3-year-old from wandering into the creek. I happen to believe they are harmless (or at the very least, they are more helpful than they are harmful). You are free to disagree... but just please don't tell my daughter about Santa Claus yet. I'm looking forward to eating the cookies tomorrow night.

6:03 PM, December 23, 2006  
Anonymous Presidnet Friedman said...

I'd also add that I don't think Santa Clause completely eclipses Christ at this time of year. I asked my daughter what she did at recess the other day, and she told me that her and one of her friends pretended to make Jesus a birthday cake. Consider this. We are not a Christian family, don't talk about Jesus a lot, have a fairly secular Christmas around our home, but our daughter and her friend were focusing on Jesus's birthday, not on the pending gifts from Santa. I would think that kids in Christian homes would be even more conscious of the 'reason for the season'.

6:14 PM, December 23, 2006  
Blogger Christopher Taylor said...

So when you tell them the Grimm's fairy tales, do you tell them they are all true, or tales? Because not only is it odd to brush aside Jesus Christ on the commemoration of His birth, but to lie deliberately to kids while you are trying to teach them to tell the truth.

Ain't it?

11:03 PM, December 23, 2006  
Anonymous President Friedman said...

C_T,

Dishonesty and deception are certainly problems in society, but not in the way you are making it out here. I am much more concerned that my daughter be aware of malicious deceits, both in her own heart and in the hearts of others. I see nothing wrong with deceiving somebody when, say, you are going to throw a surprise birthday party for them. There is a qualitative difference between that type of deception and the type that occurs when you lie just to keep yourself out of trouble. Otherwise, we'd have to teach our kids that magicians, authors, filmmakers, and anybody else who attempts to deceive you in any way, are evil. I believe as a parent, part of my job is to teach my kid to tell the difference. In my opinion, it shows a more developed sense of morality to choose not to lie because one understands the malicious intent behind the lie they were going to tell (as opposed to just not lying bcause 'lying is wrong'). Hopefully, over the long run, the "mythologies" we create in our home will serve as guidelines for our daughter in the future when she is struggling with such decisions.

Other than that, I'd just hate to think of a world where little girls don't believe in fairies and angels.

11:52 AM, December 24, 2006  
Anonymous President Friedman said...

Also, C_T, Merry Christmas to you. You come accross as a thoughtful and principaled Christian, and as such you are a positive testament to your faith. I know this is an especially important holiday for you, and I hope it finds you in good health, good spirits, and good company.

With that, I'm off to eat my grandma's turkey and stuffing.

12:04 PM, December 24, 2006  
Blogger Christopher Taylor said...

"Other than that, I'd just hate to think of a world where little girls don't believe in fairies and angels."

Me too, I just don't think parents should lie to little girls about anything, even if it makes them happy.

11:13 AM, December 05, 2011  

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