Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Santa the Antichrist?

To listen to some psychologists today (and some Catholics), Santa Claus is something that must be done away with. It seems to be taken for granted by those who take this line of reasoning that talking about Santa Claus is a lie and that it causes inevitable psychological damage when children find out that Santa Claus is not, in fact, a real person. Santa also receives the lion's share of the blame for the consumerism that has crept into Christmas. Recently, Santa suffered another serious PR hit from an Archbishop in South America who said Santa should be eradicated from our consciousness and that he has nothing to do with the actual celebration of the birth of Christ.

A Catholic who would disagree with all of this is none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Hobbit. One of Tolkien's lesser known works is called Letters from Father Christmas. It is a collection of letters that Tolkien wrote through the years to his children. Tolkien invented a special font that he used for all of his letters originating from the North Pole, and many of the letters feature Tolkien's beautiful hand-drawn images of Santa, his elves, the reindeer, etc. Tolkien didn't just leave a note on Christmas morning either, there is a month or so of correspondence with his children each year in the lead up to the big day.

Some Catholics would probably argue here that Tolkien is not infallible, and indeed he is not. However, I think it is good to look at another writing by Tolkien, an essay he wrote titled "On Fairy Stories" (click here to read the essay). The essay, in my opinion, is Tolkien's most important work. It is an amazing discussion about the genre that he so expertly worked in, and he weaves in his Catholicism and a profound discussion about modernism and imagination as well. Tolkien does the best job I've ever seen of laying out what exactly the elusive but important phrase "the Catholic imagination" means with his essay.

Some highlights include the following excerpts
"Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured."

"the expression “real life” in this context seems to fall short of academic standards. The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically

"The Evangelium [the Gospel]has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them."

What Catholics need to ask themselves is whether or not the fairy story of Santa teaches a deeper truth or not. Clearly Tolkien (a faithful Catholic who disdained the poisons of modernity) believed that fairy stories, myths, and things which feed the imagination are not signs of depravity or disease but are important in passing on the Truth. Maybe we should ask ourselves exactly how modern we're being when we think that a child's mind will be in some way poisoned by being allowed to think about reindeer, polar bears, elves, and a man who brings undeserved and ummerited gifts every year to celebrate the birth of Christ. As Jean Shephard, author of the famous movie "A Christmas Story" once wrote - "I was well into my twenties before I finally gave up on the Easter bunny, and I am not convinced that I am the richer for it." Along with Tolkien, I'm not convinced that Christmas (or life in general) must possess the scientific accuracy of Newtonian Physics, and in fact, I hold that life suffers and languishes precisely when we try to make all aspects of our lives and our feasts conform to that same slavish mathematically "real" accuracy.


  1. Why would high level Catholic appointees want to eliminate Santa Claus? Is his "being" not based on the Catholic Saint, St. Nicholas? I thought the historical origination of Santa Claus was a derivative of good old St. Nick? So if St. Nick is a true Catholic Saint, and Santa Claus is perhaps another representation of St. Nick, then it would seem reasonable to not try to eradicate the story of Santa Claus? Of course over the years the separation between the Santa Claus Character and St. Nick are perhaps greater than the similarities anymore. Whoever thought such a philosophical debate could be had on Santa? Maybe I am way off base here, but just going from childhood memories of getting an orange or candy or other gift in a shoe left outside the door on the feast day of St. Nick.

    Merry Christmas regardless! :)

  2. Tim,
    Good question but there are a lot of Catholics who really get fired up about Santa and feel that it is a big issue. This blog post has received a lot more reaction on Facebook (my blog posts also automatically post to Facebook) so, not that you were doubting it, but people really do get fired up about it.

    I also saw this as an opportunity to elaborate a little bit on one of my own personal favorite topics - Tolkien and the Catholic imagination, Catholic literature and the like.