One of my fondest memories: my eight- or nine-year-old self’s wandering with my mother into a convenience store on, I believe, a snowy Christmas Eve. My gauzy mental image is not of a fluorescent-lit, garish, 7-Eleven type operation, but a cramped little shop with a decidedly country-ish flavor to it.
Why we stopped there I don’t know. Milk? Coffee? A condiment or two? I do recall my eyes settling on some kind of Coca-Cola product — festooned with the colorful, luminous, and now wonderfully familiar depiction of the Santa Claus which has generally become the bluff, modern American standard: a big, heavy, beaming man; twinkling eyes, tousled white hair, a flowing and curling beard; a bright red suit, trimmed with white fur.
Over the years, I’ve often reflected on that moment, on that unforgettable rendering of the jolly, old, fat man. The recollection always floods me with an irresistible sense of warm nostalgia. And I’ve wondered exactly who painted those celebrated Coca-Cola/Santa Claus renderings.
The internet provided the quick answer: intensely gifted and now-deceased illustrator Haddon Sundblom. The Finnish-American artist was remarkably talented and is insufficiently heralded today. Sundblom’s work is masterful, with a buoyant, Norman-Rockwell vibe to it; perfect for capturing the ebullient spirit which is supposed to characterize this time of year.
This Christmas Season 2016, I’m passing along the background story of Sundblom’s involvement in the soft-drink company/Santa Claus collaboration. Check out this brief but informative and delightful article and video. The images featured are positively a holiday-themed feast for the eyes.
Yes, there’s surely something compelling about the “Santa Claus” motif; nearly magnetic — even for adults. I wonder why that is …
In him we have an apparently deathless character of perfect joy, incomparable generosity, inimitable goodness, utter other-mindedness; he particularly loves children and boasts a capacity for amazing, nature-defying stuff. Hey, Christians, does that sound at all familiar?
The figure of Santa Claus, of course, is already spun off the authentic fourth-century church leader and martyr Nicholas (“St. Nicholas”/”St. Nick”). Nicholas, for his part, worshiped and was aiming to emulate another historic figure who made an uncommon sacrifice for others: Jesus Christ.
When it comes to Christmas Eve’s North Pole visitor, I apply C.S. Lewis’ and J.R.R. Tolkien’s conviction that humankind’s visceral inclination toward fable, legend, fantasy, etc. is a potent echo of the desire the Creator implanted in each of us to ultimately know and serve Him. Myth, they argue, is intended to point people toward the “True Myth” of God in Christ. We are spirit beings, made in His image, fashioned to reach beyond mere survival, to accomplish significant, sometimes courageous, things in God’s service — and that sublime urge expresses itself in all kinds of ways which ought to reinforce our search for and experience in Him. Needless to say, the sin factor — mankind’s “fallenness” — throws sand into the gears of this human dynamic. It remains within, nonetheless, influencing us, driving us.
“[T]he story of Christ is simply a true myth … working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened,” writes Lewis.
[I]t is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things”.
Don Richardson developed a fascinating tweak on this theory in his powerful book Eternity in Their Hearts, postulating (and demonstrating) that recurring themes in many non-Christian religious practices similarly mimic redemptive truths embedded in the Judeo-Christian (i.e. Biblical) tradition.
The lethal mistake, of course, is when the proxy or shadow (or counterfeit) merely stalls or distracts needy men from discovering the Real Deal these others incompletely suggest.
Not surprisingly, for a while now some folks have drawn an instinctive link between Christmas’ roly-poly gift-giver and the Savior of the World. I admit it’s kind of corny, but I’ve always liked a meme that circulates this time of year: it depicts a reverent Santa on his knees, hands clasped in prayer, bowing before the Baby Jesus. It reminds me of the closing moments of 1970’s animated holiday staple “Santa Claus is Coming to Town“, when “Kris Kringle” (voiced by Mickey Rooney), gazes upon a dazzling star dominating the dark sky and decides “the holiest night of the year” (Christmas Eve) will become the annual date he’ll make his happy, secret deliveries to homes around the world.
The best of the imaginary Man-with-the-Toy-Sack reflects the virtuous ideal: the actual, historic Person Jesus Christ; the holy and loving God-Man who gave Himself for a floundering world. Santa honoring the newborn Lord? It can be a cute and effective conceit.
It can also conjure problems: I can hear the snorting of smart-aleck atheists/secularists even now: Ha! Santa and Jesus have something else in common: They’re both make-believe!
Let’s clarify unhesitatingly: the fictional fellow in the sleigh behind the reindeer and the Redeemer from Bethlehem Who occupied space and time on planet earth two-thousand years ago? In no way equivalent. A fun-but-concocted Santa in no wise implies a well-meaning-but-concocted Savior.
One could insist people’s yearning for water, their willingness to gulp foul-tasting, even polluted potations in a desperate pinch (see: Bear Grylls) is crass delusion. Of course, the dogmatists who adhere to that theory will dry up and perish — unpleasantly. Individuals, on the other hand, acknowledging thirst’s presence, recognizing a vital need, and on the lookout for its provision somewhere, somehow? They generally won’t be disappointed. They’ll find life.
It’s thus with the ineluctable ache for a Santa-type presence in our experience; a joy-bringer, a burst of light, one who cherishes us. The beloved Christmas-time character doesn’t refute that desire; he underscores it; and ought to nudge us toward Christ, the only One meet to quench it.
Unlike with Santa Claus, no serious historian impugns the fact that Jesus Christ actually existed. The New Testament additionally offers ample, persuasive eye-witness testimony to His words and works. The undeniable puissance of His teaching, leading to millennia of lives and nations transformed and bettered, prayers impossibly answered, a Church that simply cannot be destroyed — it all underscores the gospel accounts are more than fanciful stories.
Regarding Santa and Jesus as functionally interchangeable? That’s an eternally fatal error. (Which is why I don’t think parents ought to portray to their little ones Santa really exists.) That said, the charming Santa Claus legend, incontestably, does tickle a legitimate human craving. It was wired into us by our Creator to be satisfied solely by Him as we come to know the One Who lived as flesh-and-blood among us, died in our place and rose from death to reign forever.
Augustine prayed, “My heart is restless, until it finds its rest in Thee.” Someone else updated the lingo, expressing roughly the same sentiment: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which [can only be] filled by … God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” “The spirit of man is the candle of the LORD,” observed the writer of Proverbs, “searching all the inward parts of the belly.” (20:27)
Santa Claus? A diverting-but-fictional, holiday notion. Jesus Christ, the Son of God? I’ll appropriately
borrow from a popular slogan of Coca-Cola, whose resplendent Christmas advertising caught my little-boy eyes those many decades ago: He’s the “Real Thing”.
Image: Shutterstock; ID:153359255; Copyright: Milles Studio