Tonight Santa Claus will be visiting many children and millions of people around the world will be attending churches commemorating the arrival of Baby Jesus, symbolically but with all the trapping of anticipating a real birth. I want to make the claim that Santa Claus and Jesus are actually involved in quite related rituals.
First, let's look at the issue of historical accuracy. Most will not argue that the Santa Claus story, as told most famously in The Night Before Christmas, has any real historical truth behind it, though perhaps the person himself is founded on a historical personage, such as the St. Nicholas who lived in Turkey around 300 CE. What about Jesus's birth? Again, that Jesus of Nazareth existed is not questioned. But the Nativity story is another matter. If one looks at the four gospels in the New Testament, both the oldest, Mark, and most recent, John, do not contain any mention of the birth of Jesus at all. They both begin with the mission of John the Baptist. In Matthew and Luke, the Jesus birth issues are covered in the first two chapters and then they too, in their respective chapter 3's, move on to the story of John the Baptist. Furthermore, there are major inconsistencies between them. It seems reasonable to conclude that the first two chapters in Matthew and Luke were added to give their respective target audiences a more complete birth to death to resurrection narrative for Jesus. And, like the amazing duration of the Santa Claus legend, these were very effective moves indeed.
But there is more here. Santa Claus brings presents and treats to children who are good and coal to those who are bad. Jesus promises salvation, especially to those who are charitable and compassionate in this world, as when he grants rewards (eternal life) to those who helped the hungry, the sick, the stranger, the prisoner, etc., in the story of separating the sheep and goats on Judgment Day (Matthew 25). But with both Jesus and Santa faith appears critical as well. My mother did all she could to keep my belief in Santa Claus alive and my wife and I as parents did all we could to keep the belief in Santa Claus alive in our children. Inevitably the moment of truth arrives. But you know what? It was not a terrible tragedy to have their faith, or mine, in Santa shaken. And, more importantly, their behavior did not change because they lost faith in Santa. Presents still came every Christmas and they continued as responsible caring children. I suspect that this is generally true. I know of no documentation that kids start on the road to delinquency after losing faith in Santa!
But what about Jesus? If the message of Jesus was, as I believe, essentially one targeting this world for improvement, then why cannot we view belief in him as a supernatural being performing, like Santa, miraculous events, a transitional process in developing a grounded spiritual and compassionate life, where good things are done for their own sake? Indeed, did not Paul write in First Corinthians (13:11) - When I was a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways (NRSV). The threats of heaven and hell, then, like those of presents and coal, are just stages in the development of a mature life. But, of course, many never outgrow childish ways or beliefs; in fact, all of us maintain some of them, even admitting freely that they are irrational. The evidence of the Gospels is clear; Jesus thought that most people would not understand his message and be able to progress beyond the need for a simplistic faith, a very premise of the parable tradition itself! Still, I think that the parallels between Santa and Jesus are not mere coincidence in Western culture. Rather than deplore the materialism of the former and the spirituality of the latter, it may be more helpful to view them as different incarnations of the same psychological process.