I had to make one of my periodic treks into New York City this week. Unlike most years when a warm spell comes after the onset of winter, we’ve kind of fallen straight to the heart of the season this year and those of us standing in line for the bus were experiencing it via wind chill. The cold got some regulars to talking about Christmas. Although I’m not the oldest one who makes this long trip, the majority of the commuters this far out have yet to attain my years. Those chatting at the stop had kids at home that still believe in Santa Claus. It made me recall how we trick our kids with all kinds of quasi-religious folkloric figures, but also how seriously some adults participate in the mythology as well.
Among those chatting, the leaving out of cookies and carrots was almost canonical. The cookies are for Santa, of course, and the carrots for the reindeer. The more I pondered this, the more it became clear that this is a form of thank offering. The story of Bel and the Dragon, in the Apocrypha additions to Daniel, tell of how priests leave out food for an idol. The offering is gone in the morning and the credulous worshippers assume the statue has eaten it. Religious offerings, except those entirely burnt up, were often used to support priesthoods. Santa has his elfly acolytes, of course, but the priesthood for his cult is that of parents eager to make Christmas a special time for their children. Capitalism’s big pay-off.
Then one of the commuters mentioned how she had her husband leave a footprint in the fireplace ash to add verisimilitude to the ruse. We never had a fireplace when I was growing up, and I often wondered how Santa got in when we had no chimney to come down. In any case, my hazy morning mind thought once again of Daniel and Bel. The way that wily Daniel exposed the fraudulent priests was by sprinkling—you guessed it—a fine layer of ash around the offering after the priests had “left” for the night. In the morning he showed the people the footprints of the deceptive heathens to the people. The statue hadn’t eaten the food after all! Serious consequences followed. Christmas, despite its commercialization, brings fond childhood memories to many of us, and we’re reluctant to let that go. The one man in on the discussion (it wasn’t me) said that when he was growing up they had a somewhat different offering. “My dad,” he said, “told us to leave Santa a beer and a sandwich.” This guy’s name might’ve been Daniel.