What the Elf?

Oh, how I hate Christmas.
I came to this realization a little over a week ago at Costco. Amy and I had stopped in to stock up on a few things--which, of course, wound up being quite a few more things by the time we were done. Early in our shopping odyssey, I became aware of the Christmas decoration section. I was curious what might be there, so we directed our cart down that aisle. There I beheld garish tinsel-fringed and sparkle-encrusted stars, trees, reindeer, Santas; lights that would turn a UFO green with envy; inflatable snowmen (because we really don't get the chance to make the real ones here in the Northwest); and on and on until I turned to Amy and said these words: "I hate Christmas."
As I've observed before, I have not always had this attitude toward the holiday. As a child, I was quite taken with all the foofaraw: the brilliance and aroma of the tree, the letter to Santa, the smells coming from the kitchen, the sleeplessness of Christmas Eve, the uncontainable excitement of waking up before sunrise and wanting desperately to open presents that my parents had barely managed to finish wrapping before collapsing on their bed maybe an hour earlier. It all worked for me. I loved it.
I think the shift toward grinchiness began when I was in seminary. Dallas was the first place I encountered over-the-top outdoor decorations. I know there's nothing new about this--it's the theme of A Charlie Brown Christmas, after all--but I just hadn't seen anything like it before. SMU is located at the heart of the Park Cities, twin suburbs that hold more wealth than some states (Disclaimer: I do not have any statistics to back this up. It just feels that way.), and it showed in the way houses were decorated. There was plenty of fake snow scenery--Dallas gets even less of the real stuff than Portland--but what finally did me in was the life-size manger scene that included that famous New Testament character, Santa Claus.
I Googled the words "Santa in the manger" just now and was buried in images and links. Since I first saw this juxtaposition in 1986, it has become quite a thing. The tchotchke depicted above is just the most pertinent: there are paintings, greeting cards, posters, and, of course, tree ornaments, many of them bearing the expression "reason for the season." People seem to really groove on this image. And it drives me up the wall.
Look, I have issues with seeing the magi in the same manger scene with the shepherds. They're not even in the same version: the magi appear in Matthew, the shepherds in Luke, reflecting the contrasting themes of the two nativity stories (Matthew is about the extension of God's covenant to the gentiles, while Luke is concerned with justice for the poor). The church tries to have it both ways by giving the two stories separate holidays in the church year: Christmas for the shepherds, Epiphany for the magi. Either way, they don't belong together. Sticking Santa in there? That's like replacing the altar at St. Patrick's with a statue of Montgomery Burns rubbings his greedy hands over a profiteering conquest. 

What, you ask, have I got against Santa? Isn't Santa the embodiment of the spirit of generosity, a beloved figure adored by children of all ages?

There may have been a time when St. Nicholas, Sinter Klaas, Father Christmas, and whatever the hell else he's called deserved such adulation. But stop and think about Santa's role in Christmas: in the days leading up to the day, he's a tool for extorting better behavior from children fearful of having a disappointing haul under the tree. He's a mascot for every commercial interest turning the day of giving into a make-or-break profit machine, extracting more money from parents than they can afford, driving them deeper into debt in quest of the perfect toy. And really, parents, how many of you have ever actually made good on your threat to call Santa and have him withhold gifts from children who just can't get their acts together during the last crazed weeks before gimme day?

Santa is a carrot and stick motivator in a red furry suit and a white beard. If you believe in teaching children that good behavior should be tied to rewards and punishments, rather than growing out of the innate goodness of the child, then by all means, revel in the jolly old elf. But put him in the manger? Elevate him to membership in the Holy Family?

No, I'd really rather you didn't. 

And this is why, starting in 1985 and growing year by year, I have come to hate Christmas. 

Go back to my favorite secular Christmas text, and you find that the Grinch's complaint, like Charlie Brown's, is that Christmas is too commercial. Yes, he hates the outer and visible signs of Christmas, the decorations, the feasting, and most of all, the singing; but in his mind, they all symbolize the commercial orgy that culminates with the mountain of packages under the tree. Divorced from all the loot--because he stole it--the Whos continue to sing, and the beauty of their song, it turns out, is what he most needed to hear. 

And this is why, as much as I hate all the glitz, I'm not giving up on Christmas. Last night I was entertained by a holiday concert presented by the Portland Gay Men's Chorus, and left in good cheer. I genuinely enjoy playing and singing carols, so long as they don't push the buying of gifts. And I do find delight, even now, and selecting gifts for my loved ones. But here's why Santa has nothing to do with it: those presents are not in any way contingent on how naughty or nice the giftee has been. I give because I love these people so much I want them to have something that will bring them delight.

I hope you find delight I this season, and I do not begrudge you any of your sentimental attachment to all the cultural accretions that adhere to it--though I hope, with all my heart, that you'll keep Santa out of the manger. He just doesn't belong there. 


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