“Who do you want for Christmas?” – Outreach Media

Posted by on December 3, 2011 in Thoughts | 5 comments

The time has come yet again for Outreach Media to spread their message about Christmas, and have produced yet another billboard on just this subject.

Sitting atop Santa’s knee the little girl is in mid sentence, saying “For Christmas I want world peace, to end poverty, stop crime, heal the sick, and take away the sins of the world.” Apart from the last point, these are all things that humanity strives for, so the message is not totally misguided. Let’s delve into the message behind the message and see what they have in store for us.

As could be expected, the Outreach Media folks have focused on the “real reason for the season” message, and while I can’t fault this (after all, you can’t have Christmas without Christ, just like you can’t have Thursday without Thor, or Fundamentalist without Mental) there are a few things that stand out as troublesome.

The Outreach Media folk are distancing themselves from the Santa image, the imaginary friend who flies around the world, comes down our chimneys once a year and rewards the good and punishes the bad. Santa is a watered down version of Jesus, who watches our every move and tries to steer us in the right direction in life by offering reward for good deeds. But of course we all know Santa is not real, and we discount him because what it is said Santa can do are all utterly ridiculous. But how are the claims of Santa’s magic any different than the claims of Jesus’ magic? Well they aren’t really. Both of them are said to do the impossible, yet EVERY adult dismisses Santa’s reality. Why can’t we do the same with Jesus?

As if to add credence to their argument, Outreach tell the story of how the “modern image of Santa” was invented by Coca Cola to help sell their softdrink in 1931. On investigation, starting with Snopes, then Wikipedia and the like, we find that Santa is a conglomerate figure of hundreds of myths from many different backgrounds. Snopes says:

Among the pantheon of characters commonly associated with the Christmas season (both the religious holiday and the secular wintertime celebrations), the beloved persona of Santa Claus is somewhat distinctive in that his appearance is neither one that has been solidified through centuries of religious tradition nor one that sprang fully-formed from the imagination of a modern-day writer or artist. Santa Claus is instead a hybrid, a character descended from a religious figure (St. Nicholas) whose physical appearance and backstory were created and shaped by many different hands over the course of years until he finally coalesced into the now familiar (secular) character of a jolly, rotund, red-and-white garbed father figure who oversees a North Pole workshop manned by elves and travels in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer to deliver toys to children all around the world every Christmas Eve.

It goes on to tell how the Santa of today was already popularised as the red and white jolly fat man well before the Coca Cola campaign in 1931, and that the image of Santa had been evolving for some time before then. But the most compelling story of Santa comes from its origins as St Nicholas, the Greek saint of the 3rd and 4th centuries, who is said to, through the power of Christ, raised people from the dead (dismembered children), and to have given gifts of money and dowries to the poor. He is traditionally dressed in red and white, but lacks the jolly-fat-man image. The legend of Santa is nearly as old as the legend of Jesus himself. See also Krampus, who was no doubt invented by a parent who wanted to get their children to sleep at night under the threat of death.

Outreach Media are correct that there is a famous version of Santa we see every year which was created by the Coca Cola company, but this is only part of the story. What of the modern version of Jesus? (Italianate and slim, tall and handsome, good looking enough to be in a movie.)

My point here is an obvious one. How is the legend of Santa Claus any different from the legend of Jesus? I mean, no sane adult would ever claim that Santa is real, so why do people insist that the evolved persona of Jesus is any different? Well the truth comes down to the power of the church, the manipulation around humanity’s fear of death, and the threat of eternal punishment for disobedience. And eternity is a very very long time. The worst Santa can do is give us a lump of coal for being naughty, but Jesus and his dad can have us burning in a pot of our own feces if we’re not nice, pious and compliant, forever. Which of course makes perfect sense, right?

The thing is, we are told of Santas, Easter Bunnies, Tooth Faeries and the like as children because most parents can’t be bothered telling children the whole truth, or they find it difficult to explain the origins of the ideas surrounding Christianity or biology to their children. As the children grow, and their understanding of the world increases, they slowly slough off these myths in favour of a more rational explanation; “My parents put that dollar under my pillow”; “The chocolate eggs in the garden were placed there by my parents”; or “Santa is not real, my parents are the gift-givers.”

We also start to see the world as it is, no monsters under the bed, no vampires in the night, no aliens at the door. But grown men and women still claim that Jesus is real. Perfectly sane people claim that there is a spirit that looks over us, monitors us, craves our attention and obedience, and punishes us when we are bad. What is wrong with this picture?

The Jesus figure appeals to our deepest fears and questions, claiming knowledge of death, claiming to have the answer or cure for death, and most importantly claiming that there is no way you can prove or disprove this because the claims are so vague, and any straying from this belief is punishable.

So you’d better watch out,
You’d better not cry,
You’d better believe,
I’m telling you why.

Jesus will punish you for not believing in him.

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5 Comments

  1. “You can’t have Christmas without Christ, just like you can’t have Thursday without Thor, or Fundamentalist without Mental”

    This is a great line, and I will be shamelessly stealing it on numerous occasions during Decembers now and future. Great post, too. Thank you!

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  2. But how are the claims of Santa’s magic any different than the claims of Jesus’ magic? Well they aren’t really. Both of them are said to do the impossible, yet EVERY adult dismisses Santa’s reality. Why can’t we do the same with Jesus?

    Your logic is impeccable.

    Premise: A story contains impossible claims.
    Conclusion: The story is false.

    We don’t even need a minor premise to qualify the major premise: all we need to know is that the impossible can not happen, so any claim to the contrary is false.

    The only way to challenge this logic is to question the premise. The story must contain some claim, X, which is impossible. The question then arises, how do you know that X is impossible? “Impossible” is a pretty strong claim, after all. We can tone it down a little, though: we can say that we have no reason to believe that X is possible — we’ve never seen it happen, have good theoretical grounds to believe that it couldn’t happen, etc — and thus no reason to believe that the corresponding story could be true. That’s a weaker conclusion, but it will do.

    This is where we start to see the difference between the two stories, and thus an answer to your question.

    In the case of Santa Claus, we have a melange of ideas (just as Easter bunnies and eggs are a melange of fertility symbols), but Saint Nicholas is a substantial ingredient in that melange. What seems to have happened in the case of Saint Nick is that there was an original story which contained miraculous (thus “impossible” in the loose sense) elements. Whether or not the miraculous elements were true, the story was a good story, and so it got repeated as a story, and further embellished as a story over time, until we have the melange of ideas that is Santa Claus.

    That’s about all you need to know about Santa Claus in order to dismiss him as fiction: the “impossible” elements in his story (e.g. flying reindeer) just underscore what we already knew. As for Saint Nick, there remains an unanswered question as to whether the alleged miracles actually occurred, but the reason that Saint Nick evolved into Santa Claus through a process of embellished story-telling is that not enough people actually care whether the Saint Nick miracles are true or not: they’d just rather treat it as a story, and “truth” is only of so much relevance to a story. We have some history, but it’s a little hard to pick good testimony from fabrication or embellishment, and hardly anyone cares whether it’s true or not anyhow.

    In the case of Jesus, we have a remarkably different state of affairs. There were many miracles, culminating in the resurrection miracle, but a notably different attitude towards the person of Jesus and the significance of the miracles. In particular, there exists a significant list of martyrs, many of whom were direct eyewitnesses to the miracles, who accepted brutal deaths rather than renounce what they had testified about Jesus, or even just shut up about him. While there are those who have treated Jesus as a story to be embellished and altered at whim (e.g. the Gnostics), Jesus is most noteworthy for the number of people who were deadly serious about the historical truth of the miracles and his extraordinary claim to be the Son of God — the “impossible” elements of the story.

    This doesn’t prove anything, of course, and you’re welcome to dismiss the martyrdom of the disciples as the acts of a bunch of insane religious fanatics, or similar, but it is intended to show why one might actually accept the extraordinary testimony of these miraculous events, rather than simply declare them impossible and dismiss the whole thing as a fabrication. On the one hand, any claim of a miracle seems likely to be false; on the other hand we have multiple testimonies that these things did occur — testimonies which were sustained even in the face of brutal execution. Such testimony can not be dismissed lightly.

    That is one reason why people might take Jesus seriously, while treating Santa as an amusing but ultimately insubstantial fabrication. I hope it clarifies matters for you.

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  3. TFBW.

    Logic really is not a strong suite with you is it?

    Firstly, there is no evidence of Jesus’ existence, other than tales told by people that lived many years AFTER the supposed existence of a man that coul apparently walk on water and turn water into wine (which, as any rational person can attest to – is impossible.)

    The only testimonies one has of Jesus’ amazing miracle abilities are from people from an age that had no inkling of how the universe functioned, how the laws of physics determine how every single piece of matter interacts with everything else.

    In essence, what you wrote was a long diatribe of christian apologetics without an ounce of rational thought, without a stitch of evidence. It does not matter if one person was “deadly serious” about Jesus’ miracles, many people are deadly serious about reptile aliens and bigfoot – that doesn’t make either of those any more real or justified.

    It is now 2011. We live in the 21st century, one would have thought that mankind put away silly fairy tale and superstitions, and accepted the fact science has pushed the relevancy of god/s (take your pick) into the darkest recesses of mankinds collective minds.

    If you want to believe in a great beardy man in the sky – all power to you. If, however you want to prove to people such as Martin and millions of other atheists, you need to cough up hard evidence – which is something that not one single person in the entire history of mankind has ever done.

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    • Thank you, Skeptical Skotty ! It’s so refreshing to have rational, logical, non-fairy tale believing folk like yourself commenting on mankind’s stupidity and total gullibility. Thank goodness science is beginning to explain why the so called “magic” of the universe exists.

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  4. Awesome :D

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