Christmas at the Bus Stop

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.

Popularity for Purchase

I only watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with one eye. Since my office is just two blocks from the store, it’s a little too much like work. Still, I can’t help but hear the music and announcements. Is it just me, or are most of these floats and balloons trying to sell me something? Okay, so it takes a while for the light to dawn—it is Macy’s parade, after all. This is the kickoff to the holiday shopping season. Santa Claus is the greatest shopper of them all. We are a nation that defines itself not by what it can produce, but what it can consume. Conspicuous wealth. Showing what you’ve got. I’m afraid I just don’t get it.

Those of us who grew up poor, so the thinking goes, should want to display our accomplishments like a peacock. We should want to show others that we’ve made it. That we can play the spending game just like everybody else. We’ll always have the poor with us, so why not demonstrate to them the vapidness to which they can aspire?

An old-fashioned guy, I check my email on a computer. Gmail divides my messages up into three tabs so that I can pay attention to people who actually want to contact me. The third tab is reserved for those seeking my money. Sitting in a waiting area, I decide to check my email on my phone. It says I have close to two-thousand messages. It’s that third tab. I tend to ignore it since I already know what everyone wants me to play. The messages in tab three build up to biblical proportions while I try to figure out how to handle all the other things I have to do.

Not only did I grow up poor, I was also a small guy. That meant when teams were being picked in gym class I was always among the last selected. I’m not aggressive. The indigent know their place. My religion taught me that this was about right. Seeking for one’s self instead of for others is wrong. Although I’ve been through advanced training since then, those early lessons remain with me. When those who have goods to offer discover my email address, they crowd it full, hoping that I’ll be one of many to spend the little I earn on them. Instead, I remember standing on the vacant lot while the neighborhood kids are dividing up into teams. The lines are getting small, and I’m awaiting someone to notice my potential. Of course, they’ll have to wait until I get through all of this email because, in reality, I’m obviously quite a popular guy.

The Devil, You Know

I’m the first to admit that I’m behind the times. Too much of my free time is spent reading weird news or going to used book sales to keep abreast of what’s happening in the adult world. If it weren’t for my wife sending me news stories via the internet, I would still be wondering why Gorbachev isn’t helping to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Since I’m captive to a religious worldview, I was interrupted in my calculations by the news that Ted Cruz is, allegedly, Lucifer. My research had me on the trail of Santa, since the simple transposition of two letters would give us the title of the Zoroastrian prosecuting attorney. And, I figured, it was fairly safe to out St. Nick when Christmas is still eight months away. Hopefully I’ll still find something in my stocking come December. I kind of figured that when we found the real devil he would be a Republican in any case. Even as I write this, Cruz is out of the race. I thought the Devil never gave up.

I wonder where else in the civilized world would politics be such a joke. Can you trust the opinion of a man named Boehner? It’s easy to change your name—just ask anyone who came through Ellis Island. They’re laughing at us, folks. Seriously, they are. I don’t get much email, but I’ve had two international missives asking me what’s going on over here. It’s a good thing I don’t know, otherwise I’d have to try to explain. You see, the Bible doesn’t say much about Satan at all. In the Hebrew Bible there is no devil. By scraping together the few references to “the Satan” and morning star, some have said the alleged Ted Cruz of ancient times was clearly in the Bible. Somewhere between the Testaments he showed up. By the time Jesus was old enough to climb temple towers, he was there. In the meantime the Zoroastrians had come down from the North Pole…

Then there’s the fact that when he’s not wearing a conservative suit and announcing a female running mate, the Devil is described as looking like Pan. Goat horns, goat feet, but always the torso of a man. And he’s red, just like the Coca-Cola red of Santa’s suit, and states like Texas. It’s a good thing I don’t read any more conspiracy theories than I already do. You’d probably find me tootling away on my pan-pipes waiting for a bus in the Port Authority. No, there’s a reason I stay away from the real news. It might interrupt my fantasy world. And, I’m afraid, it might actually be more entertaining. And don’t worry about my Christmas—I plan to have an eleventh-hour conversion, just in time to have a chimney installed in my apartment. If I can only be sure I get it done before February.

There's something political going on here...

There’s something political going on here…

Believe Eve

While NORAD has already begun to track Santa with DSP (Defense Support Program) satellites, and last-minute shoppers are being bombarded with Christmas carols to cinch out that extra dollar or two, it may be odd to consider the music Sine Nomine by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Better known as the music of the stirring hymn “For All the Saints,” Sine Nomine (“without name”) is some of the most inspiring music of the liturgical year. I remember a friend once leaning over after the hymn and whispering, “hard to believe it was written by an agnostic.” Vaughn Williams was an Anglican agnostic. At this time of year his piece “Hodie: A Christmas Cantana” may be heard in the households of anglophiles around the world. “Hodie” (“this day”) is an anthology of poems set to Vaughn Williams’ music. One of the poems, “The Oxen,” was written by Thomas Hardy. I really never paid much attention to it, until my wife pointed out the words and the liner notes by Alain Frogley on our CD of “Hodie.” Hardy’s poet recalls believing in his youth that oxen kneeling (as oxen do) was a reverential act on Christmas Eve. Now as an adult, the poet writes that if someone should invite him to see the kneeling beasts, “I should go with him in the gloom, hoping it might be so.” Frogley’s notes point out that Thomas Hardy, like Vaughn Williams, held a “complex agnosticism.” It is not the solid rejection of the divine that is all the rage these days, but a difficulty in believing something that is hard to let go. And Santa flies over Russia.

Faith can be a many faceted stone. We keep the myth of Santa Claus alive for our children, thinking it merely harmless fun. Then comes the moment of truth. Some prescient children at that point begin to extrapolate: what else have you been telling me that isn’t real? That the creator of an infinite, but expanding universe took time out of a busy schedule to be born in a cattle stall in Bethlehem two millennia ago? That a government might turn on its children and kill them rather than face a challenge to literal, kingly authority? That emissaries from the Middle East might come with rare and precious gifts? That Santa visits that homeless man I saw curled up on a corner of Seventh Avenue last night under a black umbrella as chilly rain pelted New York City? So much to believe!

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I once held a secure job in an anglophile seminary. The music of Vaughn Williams was often heard to echo through St Mary’s chapel, and many myths were propagated. Standing out under a frigid, clear Wisconsin night, it was almost possible to believe that Santa was up there somewhere, being tracked by North American Aerospace Defense Command. Yes, the oxen would be kneeling on such a night. This morning before dawn, I glanced at NORAD’s page. I saw the words “Secret Santa Files” and my mind flew to NSA. A government that keeps track of our personal emails and private phone calls even holds secret files on fictional characters whose motive nobody ever questions. Truth in advertising indeed. So, on this Christmas Eve, I imagine myself out among the free range cattle and sheep of first century Judea and there I happen upon two shivering artists in the dark, huddled around a campfire while others claim they hear angels singing. Vaughn Williams and Hardy exchange knowing glances, and Herod prepares to roar his decree from his one-percenter throne.

The Santa Myth

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, devotes its resources on Christmas Eve to track the path of Santa Claus across not only across the northern skies, but also around the world. The idea of what must be a devoted group of very serious defense professionals programming the flight track of a fictional character is strangely bemusing. I have an app on my iPhone called Star Walk—it is an astronomy program that I wish i had as a kid standing under the winter skies trying to identify constellations. On Christmas Eve my clumsy fingers slipped, accidentally turning on the program. Although I was indoors, and it was cloudy outside, I glanced around the virtual universe to see what was happening, when what to my wondering eyes should appear? Indeed, the self-same Santa Claus was flying through the night sky on my phone. Do doubt such lighthearted antics put smiles on faces of children and adults alike. They also show how deeply embedded the myth of Santa has become.

Santa Claus is a relatively new deity in the pantheon of cultural gods. Many children earnestly believe in him and some parents use him as a source of moral guidance: you’d better be good for goodness sake. Santa’s watching. Even in a pluralistic world, Santa visits Mecca and Jerusalem and Djibouti, no matter the religion of the people—and my source on this is no less than NORAD, guys who scan the skies for nuclear missiles. If they can’t be believed, who can?

Now as we wade through the discarded wrapping paper and face the inevitability of returning to work, it seems as though something really did come on Christmas. It may not have been a man in a fuzzy red suit, tracked through the atmosphere by fictional computer programs, but we can hope that it was at least a fleeting moment of peace. After all, NORAD’s Santa crossed international borders with impunity, neglecting trade sanctions and sometimes open hostility. Unlike other major figures of the Christian pantheon, Santa does not spawn wars and hatred. He encompasses no strict, dogmatic belief. Maybe it’s because we admit he’s a work of fiction, and nobody really ever lives up to the standard of always being nice. Yet, at least according to NORAD, Santa visited every person on the globe with a sense of peace, a gift that fits no matter what your size.


Jolly Saint Nicholas


Each December the Princeton University Chapel Choir performs a free holiday concert in the impressive university cathedral (actually, it is a chapel, but given its size I’ll stick with cathedral). This year’s concert was Benjamin Britten’s “Saint Nicholas.” The association of Saint Nicholas with Christmas, not really a major holiday until relatively recent times, was an aspect that developed long after his death in the fourth century. The date of his death, December 6, and his association with the giving of gifts, made him an obvious model for Santa Claus (who still bears his name). Most of the gifts I’ve received from bishops involved losing a livelihood and personal dignity, so it is little wonder that Nicholas is venerated. Few bishops of his generosity exist today.

The stories of Nicholas of Myra, however, are full of mythical accounts that bear less resemblance to history than to legends of old. Eric Crozer’s lyric for Britten’s piece invokes several of these miraculous tales. Saint Nick, it seems, stilled a storm at sea, multiplied food and walked on water like Jesus. The lyric also tells the legend of how he raised three pickled boys from the dead, although I have to admit I couldn’t get my mind off zombies after that. This story seems to owe something to the myth of Tantalus, who, like Nicholas, was from Anatolia. In real life we do know that at the Council of Nicaea Nicholas punched Bishop Arius in the ear for his heresy. Theological discussions are like that sometimes. And I wonder if that might not be the origin of another curiosity of which a friend recently reminded me—Saint Nicholas doesn’t travel alone.

Our modern version of Santa Claus takes its roots mostly from germanic traditions. In that culture the saint is accompanied by a more sinister character who doles out punishment to the naughty. He is known by many names: Krampus, Ruprecht, Schmutzli, Zwarte Piet, or simply the Devil. Instead of using their diabolical fists, they generally carry rods to smack the not-so-nice, kind of the Republican side to the liberal Santa. This dark figure does not appear in Britten’s “Saint Nicholas” where a (mostly) kinder, gentler saint appears. A saint who raised briny boys from the beef barrel also belted another theologian upside the head. Life, even for saints, is full of contradictions.

‘Tis the Season

A news story last week related how a traditional park area in Santa Monica, California had been “taken over” by atheists who wanted equal time with traditional Christmas displays. The park, which houses 21 display areas generally populated by nativity scenes of one sort or another, had so many requests for space this year that a lottery was instituted—a lottery that the atheist groups won. Claiming 18 of the spaces, the atheists groups have vastly reduced the visibility of traditional Bethlehem mythology. Does anybody else feel a culture war coming on?

The whole “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign that has been fermenting over the past decade or so has made many Christians paranoid. Society has forgotten, they claim, whose birthday we’re celebrating. A plain view of the facts, however, calls this assertion into question. No one bothered to record the date of Jesus’ birth. The stories about it, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, were written after a lifetime of reflection by people who were not eyewitnesses to any of the events. Historians of the era mention no celestial anomalies and there are no records of crazy old Herod killing babies among his own people. (His domestic affairs, however, may be quite another story.) What is absolutely clear is that the stories have grown with the telling. Many a child can tell you the names of the three wise men. Luke doesn’t even place them at the first Christmas, does not name them, and does not say there were three. No records of Zoroastrian migrations to Israel verify this story either.

The true loss is the loss of story. We live in a society that abuses the words “just” and “only.” That’s just a myth. That’s only a story. Ancient people—from the time of Jesus—appreciated the truths a story conveys. Consider the parables of Jesus. They cite not sources neither do they seek verification. They are only stories. They are also cited as the basis of many church teachings. Even atheists can be taught to appreciate the value of stories. Who could object to a myth advocating peace, harmony, and goodwill? Even if it’s just a myth.

Santa Claus might come to Santa Monica’s rescue. Yes, diehard fans of historical veracity will say there was a saint called Nicholas. We all agree that he didn’t wear red velvet trimmed in white and that he didn’t possess magical, northern latitude cervid stock. Even before the days of forced air heat he didn’t slither down every chimney in the world in one night. Few would dispute, however, the value of giving gifts of good will. Just ask any member of the Salvation Army who appear at this season every year. Instead of arguing about whom to exclude, why don’t we invite everyone to our celebration? Jesus, angels, Santa, Jack Frost, Heat Miser, and Christopher Hitchens—what a party this could turn out to be!

Is there no room in the manger?