20: how Santa draws us to Christ

One of the joys of this blog is being able to share stuff with you which is far, far better than what I’m writing, so it’s a privilege today to point you all in the direction of The Life-Changing Magic of an Untidy Christmas, which was published yesterday over on Desiring God. It has little to do with what I’m going to write about, but was too damned good not to pass on. Have a read, see what you think.

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A friend asked me yesterday whether I had any advice on speaking to small children about Santa, and since our day was also punctuated in other ways by Santa (Monkey and Meerkat had a visit from the Big Man at their preschool Christmas party – and were constantly talking about hanging up stockings on Christmas Eve), he seems a good topic for today’s reflection.

There is so much which is fun about Santa. He’s a novelty – someone who turns up just once a year, but is friendly and kind, and delivers exactly the presents you’ve asked for, all wrapped up in a stocking. How fun is that? And he doesn’t just do this for you, but – somehow, miraculously – for all the children around the world.

The real ‘Santa’, St Nicholas, was also a kind, friendly, generous man – he loved God, and from that relationship came a heart for the poor and vulnerable around him. The legend of him dropping three bags of gold into the slippers of three young women in his village whose father was too poor to afford their dowries – even if it may have been embellished down the years – shows a heart which was sacrifically generous.

During Advent, we have always taught our children that Santa was a real person, St Nicholas, and we tell them this story about his generosity. We use this book, but one which has been recommended to me by a lot of Christian parents is Just Nicholas (we don’t yet have it ourselves). Doing this, our kids have always known that Santa – as we celebrate him today – is not alive today, but that he was based on a real person. (We’ve also told them not to tell their classmates!)

This has not killed the magic for our family – on the contrary, I believe it has added a rich significance which merely believing in ‘Santa’ does not. Because Santa also has his failings. He only rewards you if you’re good. He watches what you do through the year, and keeps a list of your wrongdoings. He’s not interested in a relationship with you.

In short – Santa is only human. To base our Christmas around him would end in huge disappointment.

But celebrating ‘Santa’ as St Nicholas each Christmas is a way of pointing to Jesus in our celebrations. St Nicholas gave freely and sacrificially because he’d received freely and sacrificially from Jesus’ death and resurrection. The baby Jesus who we celebrate at Christmas grew up to be our Rescuer – the One who would put us right with God forever. He would not keep a record of our wrongdoings, but forgive us freely – and His gift would be available to all, regardless of how ‘good’ we were. As we remember St Nicholas, the gracious man who gave of his money, time and energy, we are more able to look up to the God who inspired him.

I genuinely feel that celebrating Santa can be a hugely significant part of our festivities. But elevating him to a position above Jesus is so easy to do – and, although we may not realise it, over-indulging in Santa at Christmas really muddies the waters for our young children. They don’t realise who or what they’re celebrating – nor why. Or else, the sacred and the secular celebrations (Jesus and Santa being celebrated equally, but separately) represent two parallel, but unrelated, Christmas traditions.

In Zechariah’s day, God’s people felt disappointed by their return to Israel. It wasn’t all they had expected, so they started to grumble, and turned to idols. But, through Zechariah, God made it very clear that these idols had no power whatsoever – His people needed to return to Him, who was able to do all things:

Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime;
    it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms.
He gives showers of rain to all people,
    and plants of the field to everyone.
The idols speak deceitfully,
    diviners see visions that lie;
they tell dreams that are false,
    they give comfort in vain.
Therefore the people wander like sheep
    oppressed for lack of a shepherd. (Zechariah 10:1-2)

In today’s terms, an ‘idol’ is anything which diverts our attention from God. Perhaps this sounds a little dramatic for something as innocent as Santa. Or perhaps it’s the innocuous parts of our culture which have the most potential to draw us away from Jesus.

* If you have children, think back over the last few weeks. How many of your activities/celebrations have been about Santa? How many about Jesus? Or do you combine the two?

* As an adult, what are the secular Christmas traditions (like Santa) which threaten to draw your attention from Jesus?

Lord God, you’ve commanded me not to make idols – and yet I do it unthinkingly in so many ways, not least at Christmas when so many festivities claim my attention and focus. Please re-orientate my gaze onto You, trusting in You for the satisfaction I can’t find elsewhere. Amen.

random advent

I am the Queen of unrealistic ambitions.

Approximately every five days I have a new business idea, or personal goal, or family-related plan which I will never – I repeat, NEVER – be able to see into action.

And so, it’s fully understandable that I began this year with the aim of writing an Advent devotional ready for this Advent.

I mean – what was I thinking??? I have four kids who each present their own set of challenges. A husband who presents more. I’m a school governor and chair of the PTA. I lead a house group, help run a toddler group, am on the Sunday kids work rota and occasionally lead worship. If I’m in bed before midnight, I count it as a minor miracle – and that’s with a pile of dirty laundry dumped by the machine, pots sitting unwashed, emails unreplied to and our bedroom still resembling the aftermath of a hurricane. (Still. After I’ve spent the whole year trying to get round to tidying it.)

So no. The Advent devotional didn’t happen. But then I realised something. I always begin Advent full of good intentions about sticking to a devotional, focusing my mind in the busy lead-up to Christmas. And it lasts for two weeks, max, before I lose the habit and drift off. Just like my over-ambitious life plans, even trying to read something for 10 minutes a day for 25 days is an unachievable goal.

Now it struck me that if I’m like this, maybe others are too. And doesn’t this, in itself, bring us back to the Christmas story? Our good intentions, our ambitions, our desire to get things right – we can’t possibly keep this up. And when it inevitably falls flat on its face – in life, or in the stresses peculiar to December – we are left with a small baby in an animal feeding trough, born as a refugee into a political unstable country. His vulnerability, at birth and at death, would become our strength.

So here’s what I’m planning to do: write a little thought here on the blog every day this Advent. I’ll share anecdotes from my day, or things I’ve been thinking about – and I’ll try and include a short Bible passage too. You’ll bump along with the Desert household as we carry out our Christmas traditions and enjoy the season – but, inevitably, you’ll be the first to know when things don’t go to plan.

If you’re looking for exegesis or coherent thought, then this probably won’t be for you. If you like the idea of ‘doing Advent’ alongside another desert wanderer, then please join me. I’m going to call it ‘Random Advent’ – I did think of joining the words together in some overly fashionable way, but #randvent just sounds like the wrong kind of hashtag. This is not that kind of blog.

I’ll be updating on Facebook and Twitter, obvs, so please like/follow me on those media if you don’t already, but the easiest, surefire way of receiving each Advent thought is to sign up to email alerts. You can do that on the right-hand column of this blog – just type your email address and click on ‘follow’.

I’m not promising it’ll be anything profound, but perhaps as we offer God our mundane and simple, He will do something extraordinary. It worked for Mary and Joseph.