I took my daughter to visit some friends at a local mall the other day. They had some business to transact regarding speech and debate for the upcoming year. While they met, I did some work on my laptop, chatted with a person I didn't even know (He started it!) about my laptop, and watched people go by while I also enjoyed some rather good coffee (NOT the locally-owned and internationally recognized brand of course - it was good coffee).
This isn't one of the big mega-malls in the area. It's much smaller, all geared towards the neighborhood. When my son and daughter were younger, we visited there regularly to browse the library, the bookstore, and the bread-making company. In fact, we took both children there at separate times for a "behind-the-oven-door" tour of the breadbaker's business when they were in pre-school.
All in all, it's a neighborhood mall, one that sees itself as part of a community where people live, and not a destination where your money disappears easily.
As I entered and left the mall, I noticed the number of families coming in, with the children all nicely dressed, and most of the parents as well. "Ah, it's Christmas," I thought to myself, "and they are going to visit Santa." Fond memories wafted through my mind as I watched them stroll by.
Something seemed out of place, however. Here, in one of the least churched places in the US, I was watching a fair number of families come to visit a modern representation of an ancient believer of Jesus Christ. Nicholas, after all, was a prominent bishop in the Middle East prior to the elevation of Christianity to a formally recognized state religion. He gave away what he had to help the poor and needy; he bought slaves on the open market and gave them their freedom; he suffered imprisonment and torture for his trust in God and the life that trust caused him to live. It was his generosity of spirit and material wealth that earned him his reputation and ultimately led to his popularization as the entity we now call Santa Claus.
That entity today, of course, is known to check his list to see who was naughty and who was nice. He knows if you've been sleeping or if you're awake; he knows if you've been bad or good - so be good for goodness sake.
To me, that sounds an awful lot like the God Nicholas served wholeheartedly, minus His omnipresence, omnipotence, transcendence, immanence, and everything else that so poorly defines God for us. Like God, Santa has (presumably) the power to reward and punish.
In a region that (for the most part) at best ignores God, Santa is quite popular. I wonder, why do people come to visit once a year? Is it to seek absolution? To remind Santa (God) that they're not so bad after all? That they deserve his (His) grace and forgiveness? That they aren't that bad after all?
For the moment (and only for a moment), let's put aside the fact that God has already expressed His love to us at the cross, and He is not willing that any should perish, and that He extends mercy to those who acknowledge who they are, who He is, and that He accomplished all that is necessary to restore us to Himself.
What I can't ignore is the trust that parents put into a man who gave a resounding testimony to the grace of God, and whom they encourage their children to believe in, and write to, and visit, but then ignore the real power behind the symbol. It saddens me.
It seems that Christmas is at once stripped of it's power and majesty and mystery as seen in the Gift of God to us, but is still upheld as a part of our public religion.