Thursday, December 20, 2007

Why I Like Santa Better Than Jesus

This is a repost from last Christmas and my "Jolly Santa" op-ed. But I thought new readers of Red State Impressions might enjoy it.

I like Santa Claus a whole lot better than Jesus. I know that the figure of Santa Claus is too commercialized in the United States, but I also believe that the deification of Santa is one of the really good things about American society. At a time when our workaholism gives us all a lean, hungry, and cynical look, it's a wonderful relief to contemplate Santa's boundless generosity, bottomless well of happiness, and most pleasing plumpness. Santa's become even better over the last few decades as naughty/nice lists and the specter of coal have faded into cultural memory.

Santa Claus is also one of the few white European figures who translates easily into other cultures. In our pale-faced household, we have a black "Rocking Santa" figure who sings “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in Peggy Lee's voice. Multi-racial, transgendered--Santa makes is an extremely flexible symbol of a giving spirit who demands nothing in return. We also have a "Saxophone Santa" and the Christmas season doesn't really get under way until he belts out a couple versions of "Jingle Bells."

To the contrary, I really don't understand the appeal of Jesus. Although I had a half-hearted Christian upbringing, the Jesus story is becoming increasingly less attractive and plausible as the years go by. Where Santa is a carnivalesque figure of fun, merriment, consumption, and over-consumption, Jesus strikes me as an essentially Lenten God of suffering, self-denial, and other-worldliness. How many gods condemn human happiness with the finality that Jesus condemns laughter in Luke. “Woe unto you that laugh now! For ye shall mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:25). How many would tell their followers to hate their fathers, mothers, wives, children, or brothers, “yeah and his own life also?” (Luke 14:26) In many ways, Jesus is the pre-eminent Western god of violence against self.

Of course, it is not hard to understand why we identify so much with Jesus in the United States. Given the unhappy, over-extended character of so much of our lives in the United States, most of us chronically feel like we're bearing our own cross. However, just like I often hope for a better society, I also hope for a better god--a god who represents a joy that is not contingent on walking through the valley of the shadow of death.The other extremely unattractive element in the Jesus story is the weird narcissism of the Christian God. Where most gods are adjuncts to family, clan, and nation, the Christian god needs men and women to love him more than they love anything else in the world. Doesn't Jesus call on people to put him before their families and everything in their earthly lives? Why? Why have a god who needs so much? Why have a God who cooks up the unlikely plan of tearing his substance apart in order to create a "son" who is man, god, and spirit all in one. Why make the gruesome sacrifice of that son into the key evidence of the God's "love" for humanity and human kind's only hope for escaping an eternity of suffering? I'm not sure there's much difference between the Christian God's killing of his son to demonstrate his love for humanity and John Hinckley's shooting Reagan to demonstrate his love for Jody Foster.

Moreover, isn't there a big element of petulance in throwing into the flames of hell anybody who doesn't believe the whole implausible story? I know that lots of people like a little sadomasochism with their narcissism and neediness. After all, Mel Gibson isn't the only action hero who is a macho version of Jesus.To the contrary, Santa Claus does not demand that we love him in return. Santa gives and gives and gives without expecting anything in return.

I’ve seen conservative columnists refer to people as worshipping Santa. But that’s precisely wrong. Worship is an exchange relationship in which people pray to, praise, and reverence the god in exchange for the god’s favors. Santa Claus is one of the few divinities who give to us without demanding anything in return. It’s this spirit of generous freedom that carries the most promise of “peace on earth, good will among men.”


Anonymous said...

I guess you really think you've struck on something original here. You must be very proud of yourself.

Ric Caric said...

I'm not sure what you're talking about. Given that the right insisted on making Jesus central to Christmas celebrations once again, I think it's pertinent to subject Jesus to some critical examination. I've really re-connected to the Santa mythology now that I have kids and I thought the comparison was pertinent. I'm sure I'm not the only person who would think this way if there were broader knowledge of what Jesus actually said in the New Testaments. There's lots of people who are Christians in the United States who have very little idea of Jesus and might not be so enthusiastic about him if they knew.

Anonymous said...

I think your real purpose in rehashing this tired drivel is to get the barefoot yokels in an uproar again, right? After all, it worked so well last year, and it brought you the attention you so desperately crave. Why not trot it out again and see if it still works?

Sad, really.

Ric Caric said...

"Barefoot yokels?"--I strive to avoid those kinds of Appalachian stereotypes. They're just as false as racial stereotypes and very harmful to my students.

I don't know what you mean by "uproar" either. I got three or four e-mails of the proselytizing kind. They were all either respectful or "concerned" and there wasn't anything vicious or threatening about them at all. The same was the case with the letters to the editor of the Herald-Leader and the local paper. People who want righteous outrage will have to read Greenwald.

I reposted my Santa post because I thought new readers might be interested. I also have an idea for a "Twelve Days of Christmas" series of 12 posts that I could publish every Christmas.