“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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