WASHINGTON -- An earnest academic, writing on the website Patheos, recently made the case against Santa Claus. Saint Nick is a multicultural nightmare: "A person shouldn't have to pander to a white man -- sit on his lap and beg, even! -- to enjoy the good life. ... If Santa were a refugee, or a woman of color, or even a plant or animal, I could probably get on board."
But Saint Nick's offense is also religious. He is "in direct competition with God, and it seems Santa may have the upper hand." "They're both invisible characters that appear from time to time," Jenell Paris continues, "so how does a Christian parent convince a child that God is really real (especially if you once told the child that Santa was also real)?"
This was never much of a problem in my home. My eldest son from an early age was a Santa skeptic -- the Christopher Hitchens of his elementary school set. Having spied out our Christmas preparations, he delighted in dashing the illusions of other children, including our youngest.
Still, I rise to Santa's defense. It is true that the Thomas Nast version of Santa Claus is the same pale shade as Bull Connor. Yet perhaps even mythical figures should be judged, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character -- which, in this case, seems pretty admirable. And, though outwardly resembling Haley Barbour, Santa is unlikely to commit racially charged gaffes in the future.
The second critique is more substantial. Christmas (BEG ITAL)has(END ITAL) become a kind of alternative religion, offering watered-down versions of profound theological doctrines. Its miracles are found on 34th Street, not in Bethlehem. The visitation of Gabriel has become the visitation of Clarence, assuring us that it is a wonderful life. The modern cult of Christmas offers a domesticated form of transcendence. Naughty or nice instead of good or evil. A jolly old elf rather than an illegitimate child, destined for an early death.
One's reaction to the modern cult of Christmas depends on one's view of comparative religion. Believers often assert that other religious traditions are simply wrong and inherently dangerous, worthy of attention only to condemn or debunk.