Santaism

There’s more than one way of looking at Santa. The simplest way, I guess, would be to accept him as a reality like any other. I’m not sure if my kids look at him this way (I don’t promote or discourage belief in him), but it is a peculiarly child-like consciousness. For my kids, Santa can be a reality like any other because all reality is new, odd, and little-experienced that I tehy have no sharp divisions between what is normal and what is fantastic, and they lack any clear standard to divide Santa’s factory from, say, Honeywell’s. As far as I can tell, my son’s consciousness allows the equal presence of monster trucks, hot dogs, the ’80’s cartoon Transformers and dragons; and my three-year-old daughter’s  metaphysics allows for Disney movie princesses to be real, though this seems to be tied up with the idea that she can dress up like them.  I wouldn’t call this consciousness ideal, but this doesn’t mean that such a consciousness doesn’t reveal a truth that is lost when such consciousness is lost.

The next simplest way to approach to Santa is through the binary of true-false or real-imaginary. Part of an American’s relation toSanta involves the recognition that he doesn’t exist. The recognition marks out a new sort of consciousness, one that not only has enough experience to divide what occurs in the normal course of nature from what is extraordinary, but which values the former above the latter. Knowing that there is no Santa is an important or at least common and signal part of maturity for Americans, and it is a testimony to what counts as a mature consciousness. We value not being duped by myth; by telling the difference between the extraordinary and what happens in the normal course of nature. Denying Santa is an important rite of passage to an urbane and scientific people.

Santa, stripped to the essentials, is a benevolent factory foreman and owner, and so anything given in his name  is given in a way that Americans can recognize as proceeding from the sort of benevolence we are very much attuned to. Santa unifies the consumption and distribution of consumer goods and makes them sacred, or at least he endows consumer goods with a magical quality that promotes and expresses our sense of peace on earth and goodwill towards men. We don’t believe that Santa exists, but we are entirely convinced of the value of the reality he sacralizes, and we can feel”his” effects within us. This reality has its upsides and downsides: no one can be proud of the gluttony of and extreme consumption, or the stupid jingles and appeals to the excesses of the mob – but at the same time we have the sense that we should be doing all this for others, and in this sense the Christmas celebration is also a critique of the me-centered consumerism. The the frazzle of the season suggests a sort of public penance – and a large part of the frazzle comes from our desire to put others before ourselves.  In this sense, there is something truly ideal about our civic Santa religion. One can add to this : who wouldn’t want a boss like Santa? Who doesn’t wish that Americans could produce goods like Santa again?

Most of all, it’s nice to be able to predictably enjoy an essential part of religion that has been largely suppressed from what we call “religion”. We would never call Santaism a religious expression, but this is simply because ever since the Reformation we’ve insisted that religion is entirely interior, non-public, and even dangerous to admit into public life. This was all nonsense, of course, and it only left us with the tacit agreement that we wouldn’t call our public religion “religion”, but it’s religion all the same. As I think over Christmas – the American secular holiday, not the mostly unrelated Christian feast day of the same name – I see in it an essential part of what religion is supposed to be. It is common, unifying, in touch with universal human realities, powerful enough to be exploited, subtle enough to be both an affirmation and a critique of its believers, etc. The religion is neither theist nor atheist (both categories are meaningless when applied to it), but if anything this shows us how to understand what we know already – that a religion as it actually occurs in the world does not always have a meaningful relation to either theism or atheism.

1 Comment

  1. Timotheos said,

    September 17, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Growing up in a conservative Christian home, I’ve come to realize I had a very different experience of Christmas (and Santa) than the average American.

    For me, Christmas was primarily a religious holiday that had also taken on a cultural significance, so I did not have any real notion of being able to separate the two; Christ seemed to me as much a part of Christmas as Santa.

    Santa to me was thus a holy man that God had given special powers to as a way to ensure that little boys and girls could receive special gifts as a fun part of a larger celebration.

    Given I had a fairly strong notion of how Santa could get things done, I remember believing in him well into the 7th grade; even while many of my classmates at the same time claimed that they knew he was fake and laughed at those who still believed in him.

    Looking back at this as an adult Catholic (I was raised Protestant) I think the main problem was that there was some equivocation between what each side meant by Santa. My Santa was not some magical being who was somehow immortal and physically dropped down each chimney in a night; my Santa was primarily as an overseer in ensuring that children got special gifts so that they could learn the joys of giving gifts by receiving them. In other words, I believed in St. Nicholas, not exactly “Santa”.

    This being such the case, I enjoy the fact that I now have, as a Catholic, a straightforward way of affirming the fact that I do believe in Santa, just not “Santa”.

    Sure there’s no North Pole or Elves, but I take that as just being part of how we have corrupted the holiday in our society; much as we have corrupted our notions of God to make him some sort deistic watchmaker.


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