Maybe you’ve heard: Santa’s been under siege this year. Both a TV news anchor in Chicago to a New York elementary school teacher recently suggested that Santa’s not real, landing them on a lot of people’s “Naughty” lists.
I think the jolly old elf himself will go easier on them. After all, he’s been fighting these rumors of his unreality for some time.
When I was in second grade or so, I conducted my own epistemological investigation into Santa’s existence. Determined to prove some contrarian classmates wrong, I asked Santa to leave his autograph behind along with the presents. He was happy to oblige. On Christmas morning, there was his John Hancock, elegantly executed in red ink and looking not one bit like my mother or father’s handwriting, so there! (It did turn out to bear a striking resemblance to my aunt’s…)
Artist and author Gertrud Mueller Nelson writes,
I don’t want to get rid of Santa Claus… A figure who can endure with such tenacity ever since the fourth century, and with a stunning continuity of legends and similarity of iconographic representations in so many countries, has got to be real. He may well be the most popular saint the world has ever known, whether he was ever real in history or not… Santa Claus is the father figure we all dream about and share in our collective unconscious. He is a type of God the Father, primal and powerful and, yes, real. (An Advent Sourcebook, Liturgy Training Publications, 1988; pp. 47-48).
Among Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, as well as some Anglicans and Lutherans, today is the feast day of Nicholas, fourth-century Bishop of Myra in what is today southern Turkey. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, “there is scarcely anything historically certain about him,” from his purported participation in the Council of Nicaea to the many miracles he is said to have wrought, “both before and after his death.” (You can read about many of those miracles at the St. Nicholas Center.) Even so, Nicholas has been honored as a saint since at least the sixth century, and, in keeping with the memory of his own extraordinary generosity, his feast day continues to be a gift-giving occasion in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. In the Orthodox Church, Saint Nicholas Day is one of two occasions during the forty-day fast preceding the Feast of the Nativity (the other is Saint Andrew’s Day, November 30) on which, according to Thomas Hopko, “songs are sung to announce the coming birthday of the Lord” (An Advent Sourcebook, p. 44).
UPDATE: This just in: a movie about the life of Bishop Nicholas is apparently in the works!
In her lovely little children’s book Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend (Concordia Publishing House, 2003), Julie Stiegemeyer concludes: “Nicholas was filled with Jesus’ love–so much that love poured out through everything he said and did.” Would that the same could be said of all of us! Nicholas might be surprised could he, through some twist of the time-space continuum, learn that he has inspired the modern Santa Claus; but whenever and wherever Santa manages to rise above the crass, commercial purposes for which he is usually conscripted in order to represent loving generosity and selfless giving, I hope the good bishop would not disapprove. As the apostle James teaches, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect give, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1.17).
And, in any event, science fiction and fantasy fans know Santa is real, for we see him time and again in our favorite books, movies, and TV shows! Here are five of my favorite “Santa sightings” in genre fiction; please share yours to help celebrate Saint Nicholas Day!
5. Claus in Oz (The Road to Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1909)
Readers of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books know that that fairyland “over the rainbow” is every bit as real as Narnia or Middle-earth. Dorothy makes three more trips to the Emerald City (in Ozma of Oz, 1907; Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, 1908; and The Road to Oz) before returning to stay for good (The Emerald City of Oz, 1910)–she even brings Aunt Em and Uncle Henry with her!
Oz is bigger and more populous than MGM would have had audiences believe. Santa Claus is not quite one of its residents, but he is at least one of its very important friends. In The Road to Oz, Santa attends Princess Ozma’s birthday celebration. Accompanying Santa are, not elves, but “Ryls and Knooks”–nymph-like immortal creatures who (it is revealed in Baum’s non-Oz but loosely related fantasy, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, 1902) befriended “Neclaus,” as he is known, before he began his annual Christmas Eve excursions. At Ozma’s party, the “merry old gentleman had a basket of small toys with him, and he tossed the toys one by one to the children as he passed by.” In Oz no less than in our world, generosity is Santa’s trademark.
4. Robot Santa (Futurama, “Xmas Story”)
In contrast, the terrifying–and hysterical–Santa who stalks Futurama‘s 31st century could only be described as “generous” in his doling out of self-righteous judgment! Programmed with exceedingly harsh standards of “naughty” and “nice,” Robot Santa is definitely not someone you’d want coming down your chimney. (You can watch the Planet Express gang outwit Robot Santa here, but be aware that, due to mild language and animated violence, is cartoon isn’t suitable for little kids. You probably already knew that, but I don’t want to be responsible for ruining the visions of sugar plums in any budding sci-fi Christians’ heads!)
3. “Night of the Meek” (The Twilight Zone, originally aired December 23, 1960)
Consistently regarded as one of the Zone‘s most memorable and heart-warming episodes, Rod Serling’s second-season Yuletide offering shows how the power of giving can change a life. Art Carney plays Henry Corwin, a drunken department store Santa who, after being fired, finds “a most unusual bag” that magically produces any gift requested. Corwin spends Christmas Eve using the bag to bring comfort and joy to those who desperately need it–but the bag reserves its greatest gift for him.
“There’s a wondrous magic to Christmas,” Serling reflects in his closing narration, “and there’s a special power reserved for little people.” One can only assume that Bishop Nicholas, servant of the Savior who proclaimed the meek blessed by God, would agree (Matt. 5.5).
2. “The Man in Red” (DC Universe Holiday Special 2008; writers: Matt Cherniss and Peter Johnson; artists: Ivan Reis and Joe Prado; color: Rod Reis; letters: Rob Leigh)
“Everyone knows that I came from elsewhere before finding my new home here… So what’s different from the way people think it happened? The way they’ve been taught since they were kids? Sometimes it’s in the details.”
This lovely short story posits an “origin story” for Santa Claus that closely tracks that of Superman, especially as envisioned in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978). Cherniss and Johnson’s script rings clever change after clever change on the familiar tale of a young hero making his way from doomed planet to American heartland to North Pole. The beautifully drawn and colored art works with readers’ own knowledge of both the Superman and Santa myths to produce a magical whole (the page on which our protagonist tosses a candy cane-colored crystal into the Arctic ice deserves special attention).
“The Man in Red” is not, perhaps, as “meaty” as some of this issue’s other stories. Joe Kelly’s Gotham City-centric “A Day without Sirens,” for example, is that rarest of treasures, a feel-good Batman story (with a delightful surprise ending); and Paul Dini (script) and Dustin Nguyen (art) render, in word and image, “Good King Wenceslas” as a bona fide butt-kicking, beast-slaying superhero without changing one word of his traditional carol. But “The Man in Red” charms readers into the holiday spirit. By the time its over, you’ll believe a man can fly (a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer).
1. Father Christmas comes to Narnia (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, 1950)
I do empathize with J.R.R. Tolkien’s objection to his friend Lewis’ inclusion of Father Christmas (the British equivalent, of course, of Santa Claus) in Narnia. The presence of such an iconic figure from our world in a supposed “sub-creation” does, momentarily, break the story’s spell; strictly speaking, it doesn’t support readers’ sense of Narnia as a contained, self-consistent imaginary world. Part of me cheers the purist Tolkien on in that debate.
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to resist the contagious joy that Father Christmas expresses as he realizes what his ability to enter Narnia, at long last, really means:
“I’ve come at last… She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening… A Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” (Chapter X, “The Spell Begins to Break”)
By bringing Father Christmas into Narnia–or, more accurately, by showing us Father Christmas himself; for while pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him appear “only funny and jolly,” the children now see him as “so big, and so glad, and so real”–Lewis links Christmas to Easter in a deeply satisfying and profoundly true way. Any authentic celebration of the birth in Bethlehem also points toward the death on Golgotha and the Resurrection in a garden tomb. While Narnia shivered under the White Witch’s thumb, it was, in Mr. Tumnus’ words, “always winter and never Christmas.” But now that Aslan is on the move–now that the Emperor Beyond-the-Sea is sending his majestic Son to accomplish Narnia’s salvation, even through the Lion’s death on the Stone Table–now, Father Christmas can no longer be held at bay. He is the harbinger, not only of Christmas, but of a far greater celebration to come. The Witch’s days are numbered. The winter of evil and sin begins to lose its grip. The true King has come–to die, and to live again.
The Byzantine vigil of Christmas exults:
On this day the age-old bonds of Adam’s condemnation were broken, paradise was opened for us, the serpent was crushed, and the woman, whom he once deceived, lives now as mother of the creator… Let all creation dance and thrill with joy, for Christ has come to call it home and to save our souls (A Christmas Sourcebook, Liturgy Training Publications, 1984; p. 7).
Father Christmas can enter Narnia because that world’s thrilling, joyful, creation-wide dance is about to begin. His arrival in Narnia as a herald of Aslan can remind us, back “on this side of the wardrobe door,” that Christmas and Easter belong together.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2.11-13).
All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.