Do you remember your childhood when you believed in Santa Claus? Do you remember that excitement you felt Christmas Eve in anticipation of what was to come the next day? I remember once Christmas Eve, when I was about six or seven sitting, in my bedroom with my brother and father when we heard what sounded like bells outside. Looking back who knows what really made that sound, but my dad took advantage of it and said that Santa is coming so hurry up and get to sleep or he may skip our house. We begged him to shut off the lights and get out of room at once!
I remembered that so strongly my wife and I did the same thing to our daughter. We would tell her Santa is close and she had better get to bed, or he’d skip our house. She would fly upstairs. Our ritual has been for my wife’s parents to come over after our respective church services and spend the night on Christmas Eve. Our deck is right under our daughter’s bedroom so while we were tucking her in and saying our prayers with her, my father in law would take this tambourine like toy of hers we still saved and go out on the deck and make the bell noise. Just like with my brother and I it worked, and she always hurried to sleep.
Well, those days are gone, and I must admit feeling a bit nostalgic and melancholy about their passing. It wasn’t an easy transition for me or my daughter into the reality of no Santa Claus. My daughter cried when she learned the elf on the shelf was not real. Yes, we did that too for years and I created a whole mythology around her elf – writing her letters signed by her elf. creating his whole family by name and writing about his adventures. It softened the blow though about the reality of no Santa when she finally learned that.
I know people have different thoughts about Santa ranging from playful to militant. I remember one visiting priest, a retired military man, came to our church and during a December sermon told the kids there was no Santa Claus and then gave us a sermon about the real St. Nicholas. There were a lot of tears that day and some angry parents too. It contradicted the spirit of our parish, which is playful when it comes to Santa, and we even have lunch with Santa for the kids every year. I don’t remember the day I stopped believing in Santa, but I do vividly remember the day my daughter did because of the conversation we had. We were driving to church and I turned and look at her and asked if she was mad that after these years of us telling here that there was a Santa Claus to find it was not true. She said no and that is just made her sad. You’re not mad that we lied to you I asked her. She said no she wasn’t mad at us at all. I said, “but mom and dad lied, and we have always told you to never lie.” I even reminded her of the Scriptures I often quoted to her where Jesus said He was the way, the light, and the truth and how He said the Devil is a liar and when he lies he speaks his native tongue. I have repeatedly told her this over the years to impress how important it is to always be truthful and never lie, not even in the smallest of things, because little lies become habitual if you are not careful and become bigger lies. I would tell her that when you are truthful you are like Jesus and when you’re not you’re like that other guy. I even reminded her about the 10 Commandments and the one about not bearing false witness, essentially not lying.
So, after I reminded her of all of this, I asked her again if she was mad and she said no so I then said to her, but how do reconcile in your mind all this stuff I taught you about truth, yet I perpetuated a lie these years. It confused her for sure and we went on to talk more and I will share with you what I shared with her. I asked her to consider the fact that millions of parents were once children who believed in Santa, had parents who did the same thing my wife and I did, learned the awful truth, yet when they had kids, perpetuated the same ruse. And by the way, most parents do teach their kids not to lie. I asked her why do we do this, what motivates us?
She lives with me, so she knows I am huge Tolkien and Lewis fan, so I explained to her C.S. Lewis’s famous argument of desire. He once wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Latin Catholic Professor and Philosopher Peter Kreeft, who has written extensively on Tolkien and Lewis summarizes it like this: “Premise 1: Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire. Premise 2: But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy. Conclusion: Therefore, there must exist something more than time, earth, and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.” I said to her clearly many of us have this desire for Santa to be real. Does that mean he is I asked her? The answer is yes and no. I reminded me of a chapter in book, Sacramental Living called “Myth and Truth” where I explained how myths are pointers to truth, not lies, and how stories are means to communicate deep spiritual truths such as the parables. I said to her think about what Santa is – a benevolent and joyful gift giver who wants nothing in return but simply want to bring joy to others. Sound familiar I asked her?
She made the connection. I reiterated to her that God is the ultimate benevolent and joyful gift giver. He gives us the gift of life, the gift of joy, the gift of peace, the gift of others, the gift of Himself in Christ. I pointed out to her the deeper meaning of gift giving too. Despite all this crass commercialism that surrounds the Christmas and holiday season, gift giving in a spirit of love, not in excess, not with a desire to be praised, but simply to bring joy to another, reflects God. The wise men brought gifts to Christ. Gift giving has an element of sacredness to it when we do it with the right spirit. I also reminded her the same truth about stories and their sacredness. Have you ever noticed how stories move us, especially those about love, sacrifice and goodness? These types of stories point to the truth that comes to us in the Gospels.
You would think it would be enough to have the Gospel and that we wouldn’t need anything more. But we clearly do. Maybe because we are flawed human beings the raw truth is too much for us and we need pointers from lessor stories to guide us to the greatest story. Or maybe God, who is the ultimate story teller and reveals himself to us in full in the Gospel stories, these true stories, encourages us to create our owns stories, and that our creating our own stories that reflect things such as goodness, truth, love and sacrifice, reflects Him. That was the argument Tolkien essentially made when he said we were subcreators that reflected our Creator when we create. In other words, when creating we are reflecting divine in us. So, in a strange way I told her, when you really think about it, the childish story of Santa Claus points something we all, kids and adults, desire to be true. The beauty of this is that as Christians, what we desire to be true, really is true, though we seem to need continual reminders such as Santa. I also reminded her that even though life is imperfect due to the pollution of sin in the world, we continually have many desires met daily. This is because our God longs to fulfills desires and does so, especially when we act and think in accordance with His good and perfect will.
J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote a wonderful little story called Leaf by Niggle. He said he woke up one morning with the story in his head. It’s about an artist whose name is simply Niggle, who lives in a little Village. The people in the village could care or less about art and don’t hold him in any real regard. Niggle is obsessed with a canvas painting he continually works on of this great giant tree with a large forest in the distance. He is detailed and meticulous and tried to make each leaf unique and beautiful. As time goes on, he either stops every other work he is doing or adds that work to this tree painting. It’s his heart’s desire to complete it. However, like a lot of people, he gets side tracked by life’s daily mundane chores. He has a neighbor named Parish, who keeps wanting help either for himself or for his wife who is sick all the time and who is also lame. Niggle is basically a good-hearted guy, though he resents not being able to work more on his painting, and helps Parish and Parish’s wife whenever Parish asks. The other part of his resentment comes from the fact he knows in the back of his mind he has a great trip he will be taking and needs to prepare and pack his bags. Because of this, his painting remains incomplete and is not fully realized.
Niggle does one particular errand for Parish when it is raining and gets a cold or a chill. He gets sick he ends up being forced to take this trip he knew he had to take but he is not ready. He has not prepared, and his painting is not done. He ends up in some sort of institution that requires him to perform menial labor every day. After a while, he is allowed to leave and is sent to a place in the country for what Tolkien writes is “for a little gentle treatment.” To his delight, he discovers this new country is in fact the country of the tree and forest of his painting. He knows that back home, a place he knew he could not return to, his painting was incomplete, but here, the tree and leaves are complete and is the true realization of his vision. He is reunited with Parish who is now a gardener, and together they continue to make the Tree and Forest even more beautiful.
There is a little more to this story which doesn’t end here and a lot of teachable material, but for this article I am simply going to point out, and what I pointed out to my daughter, was that this story is about God fulfilling our deepest desires. Niggle obviously dies and goes to Heaven where he finds his heart’s desire, now free from all the things that kept him from it in his former life, he is free to pursue it joyfully and perfectly. He realizes all the imperfections; interruptions and his neighbor Parish were actually a good thing that was moving him move and more toward the person he needed to be to be prepared to fully realize and experience his heart’s desire. Niggle was somewhat auto biographical for Tolkien and wouldn’t it be great if Tolkien, who died in 1973, experienced Heaven as if being inside his beloved Middle-earth. I wouldn’t mind waking up one day myself in the Shire, or Rivendell, or Lothlorien.
The important thing I was trying to show my daughter is that we do have a God who longs to give us our heart’s desire or guide us to our true heart’s desire that we sometimes miss when we are so caught up in stuff. It’s easy to forget our heart’s desire, which is Christ whether we know it or not, and the unique fulfillment we find in Christ based on the gifts and talents he gives us. It’s easy to dismiss and see stories like Santa’s Claus as kid stuff, or label it pagan or secular nonsense and become so rigid in our religiosity that we miss what stories and rituals like this can point us to which is the sacramental wonder and seeing and experiencing life as the great and joyful mystery of our loving God.
I am reminded of what I shared in the first chapter of my book which is every aspect of life is sacred/sacramental. The Orthodox Study Bible notes that “The world and everything in it, the universe and created order if you will, is a means for pointing us to the reality of God, gaining more and more of an awareness and appreciation of Him, and, most importantly, having communion with Him.” I will quote again the German mystic Meister Eckhart who writes that “To live sacramentally we must become somebody who seeks and finds God in all things and at all times, in all places, in all company and in all ways. Then we shall always be able to grow and increase unceasingly and without end.” Our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew reminds us “Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God. The whole world is a sacrament. The entire created cosmos is a burning bush of God’s uncreated energies. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation, as microcosm and mediator… All things are sacramental when seen in the light of God. Such is the true nature of things; or, as an Orthodox hymn describes it, “the truth of things,” if only we have the eyes of faith to see it.”
There is a nice illustration of this in the context of Christmas at the end the Polar Express, which has become a beloved Christmas story, both in book and movie, and in this example, I am referring to the movie. The main character is a boy who takes the train the polar express to the North Pole on Christmas Eve, and meets Santa who gives him a bell from his sleigh. The bell is very important to the boy, but he loses it due to a hole in pocket. He returns home. The next day, Christmas morning, his sister wakes him up to open presents. One of them for him contains the bell he lost and with it is a note from Santa saying that he found it on the seat of his sleigh, and should fix the hole in his pocket. He shakes the bell, but his parents hear nothing, and the boy leaves the bell on the table. The movie ends with the narrator, the grown-up boy, saying the bell only rings for those who truly believe and that it still rings for him because he never stopped believing his time on the magical Polar Express and what he saw and experienced. I used this story to illustrate for my daughter that even though she no longer believes in Santa literally, the bell doesn’t have to ever stop ringing. We never have to lose our sense of wonder. Sure, we can come to realize that certain stories are not true in the sense that they are not factual or literal, but we can learn to look deeper and see to what they may be pointing towards, which can be the great and awesome mystery of God that fills us with joy and wonder.
Deep down we all have this same longing. One writer who calls himself Deacon and Fellow Pilgrim phrases it “There is a longing for God in each of us, though we may not recognize or be conscious of it. However, in our lives as we search for joy, for peace, happiness and above all for love, we experience that longing." When we are living and growing sacramentally we can see with our hearts and see God in places that may not be so readily apparent. I concluded the conversation with my daughter telling her I hope that going to church, receiving Communion and everything else about the church life never becomes so mundane and seems like it’s all about rules and regulations that she misses what is right in front of her, what is available to her.
I told her I hope she never loses her child like sense of wonder and that our faith is all about this awe and wonder and love and appreciation for mystery. Mystery is another term for sacrament. Mystery can’t be known with our logical mind, but it can be experienced by the revelation of God in our hearts, especially when we pray, fast, read scripture and live the sacramental life with a heart’s desire to draw closer to God. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware reminds us that “....it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers for every question, but to progressively make us aware of mystery.” And I would to add that is also the task of Christianity to draw into this mystery which is God himself.
My hope for my for daughter, myself, and everyone is that all of us never stop hearing the bell.