Santa, That Old Legalist

Two samples of the kind of letters children send to Santa Claus each year, c/o The North Pole:

Dear Santa:

You did not bring me anything good last year.
You did not bring me anything good the year before that.
This is your last chance

Alfred

*******

Dear Santa:

There are three little boys who live at our house. There is Jeffrey, he is 2. There is David, he is 4. And there is Norman, he is 7. Jeffrey is good some of the time. David is good some of the time. But Norman is good all of the time.
I am Norman.

The legend of Santa is rooted in the life of a real person, Saint Nicholas, the 4th Century Byzantine Bishop of Myra. He was renowned for his generosity, which had a distinct element of justice to it: one of his more famous and lavish acts of giving was to provide large dowries to three impoverished daughters of a pauper to spare the girls a life in prostitution.

The St. Nick legend morphed along the way, especially in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, but the Santa of modern imagination – the Santa of sleighs and reindeers and irrepressible jollity and chimney-invasions and an insatiable appetite for sugar cookies, the Ho Ho Hoing Santa who dandles little children on his knees while they whisper their consumerist fantasies in his ear – is shaped largely by Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 Poem “The Night Before Christmas” (originally published anonymously as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”).

That really started the snowball rolling.

Something got lost along the way.

I’m not trying to spoil the fun – some of my favorite memories of my children when they were young was their annual visit with Santa down at the mall. But Santa has been co-opted by a consumerist conspiracy to subvert the Christian virtue of giving and replace it with the capitalist fetish for spending. That should give us all pause. The modern Santa has no continuity with the 4th Century Saint: he has become almost his nemesis. Modern Santa-hood eclipses ancient sainthood. It is hard to imagine, for instance, the modern Santa breaking the bank to rescue poor girls from the brothels.
But that’s not the worst of it.

This is: The Santa myth preaches a toxic form of legalism. Legalism is, in essence, the belief that everything I receive is owed to me because I earned it. In religion, legalism says that God owes me a good life here and now and salvation eternally because I earned it by my upright living. In economics, legalism is the idea that only the productive are deserving. In nature, it’s that only the fittest survive. In relationships, it’s that only the beautiful are happy.
And so on. Legalism reduces everything to a transaction: I’m owed something because I earned it.

The myth of Santa is incurably and irreducibly legalistic. At its heart it says he owes us gifts because we earned them by our good behavior: he’s making a list, he’s checking it twice….
That old legalist.

Don’t you see? A gift stops being a gift to the extent you’ve earned it. It’s just a reward. It’s remuneration. It’s compensation. It’s what you have coming to you. You did not bring me anything good last year. You did not bring me anything the year before that. This is your last chance.

Such thinking only makes sense in a world in the death grip of legalism.

But we live in a world that’s grace-soaked. In a stunning irony, it’s a lament in the book of Ecclesiastes that actually turns legalism on its head

The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all (Ecc. 9:11).

This is a lament sung in the key of despair. It is a complaint against some cosmic unfairness. But hear it through the filter of the gospel, and it becomes great good news. It means we live in a world where it’s possible to win races and battles and eat meals and receive money and favor that you never earned. The gospel would add that we get all this, not merely because time and chance happen to all, but because grace reigns. Grace soaks this sin-dark world, and breaks the grip of legalism. And no longer does the law of return have the last word.

Listen, I’m not saying go tell your wide-eyed 4-year-old that Santa is a fraud in the service of capitalistic greed.

But I am saying, tell them first, most, often and always the real Christmas story. Tell them about the real gift-giver, Jesus. Tell them about his grace – the gift we didn’t earn. Tell them about his best gift – himself, given at ultimate cost to himself but free to us. Tell them that, and make that the center of everything.

Merry Christmas indeed.

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