I didn’t grow with Santa Claus.
Both my parents were raised with a fundamentalist suspicion of Santa. He was a distraction from the true meaning of Christmas and evidence of the secularization and over-commercialism of the season. They didn’t stop me from standing in line to see Santa at the mall or from watching Christmas movies on TV, but they made certain I knew that the presents under the tree and all the holiday fun was their doing, not Santa’s.
In my 20s, I remember conversations with friends who said they stopped believing in God when they stopped believing in Santa Claus. I concluded that perhaps my parents were right, and it was best not to lie to your kids.
So when I became a dad, my wife and I never really pushed the Santa myth on our kids. We were as generous as we were able each Christmas, filling the floor under the tree with gifts. We talked with our oldest daughter a few times on how Santa is a fun story, but that was it (though she wasn’t supposed to spoil the fun of other families).
I didn’t think my kids were really missing out on anything, until our second child, at the tender age of five asked us one evening, “Why does Santa not come to our house?” Her childhood wonder was intact, but she felt excluded. So that year, for the first time we let Santa into our home. And we’ve been doing it since.
Sometimes Santa brings a present for each kid but he always fills the stockings. Our kids are disappointed if Santa forgets to give them toothpaste and an orange, though not all of Santa’s offerings are so practical. Mostly, Santa gives our kids the same made-in-China crap our kids see at the Dollar Tree. Clearly, with more 7 billion people on the planet, Santa’s workshop has had to do its fair share of outsourcing.
For just over a year now, Santa has attended our church in Medford, First United Methodist Church (the Church of the Rogue). He came in full Christmas regalia this past Sunday, and after the service, kids and families took photos with him. It was a joy to see how excited our two-year-old was to see him. At the same age, his brother and sisters were as frightened of Santa as they would be of any bearded man at the mall who wanted them to sit on his lap. But our two-year-old smiled and shook, he excitedly squealed and in a little song voice chanted, “It’s Santa, It’s Santa. . .” Santa has also carved out time to come to church this coming Sunday as well. Even though it’s Christmas Eve and a busy day for him! Our pastor will interview him during her sermon (service at 10:30 if you’re in town for Christmas).
I had an out-of-season conversation with Santa a while back (AKA Don). He’s been doing the Santa gig for years and carries a Chris Kringle ID in his wallet. Even in the Summer, he is never totally out of character. He is the real deal.
I remember him telling me how he regards the Santa mantle as a ministry and he told me about times when kids asked for stuff that couldn’t be wrapped in pretty paper with a bow and placed under the tree. Broken families, terminal diagnoses, tension at home, Santa sees. Santa knows. When a child asks him for something which he can’t deliver on (e.g., “Santa, can you bring my dad back?”), he prays with children and points them to Jesus. Santa can’t always do anything about the things kids face, but he knows the power of Christ’s presence and isn’t afraid to tell them of the true meaning of Christmas.
My friend Leroy is also Santa this year. He is the perfect choice to play the part. He has an authentic and hearty laugh. And he’s a big guy, just tall and round enough to fill Santa’s suit and boots. Yet Leroy is also a different kind of Santa from the many we see around.
is an African American minister and activist living in Portland. He serves on the boards of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), The Simple Way and EEN, the Evangelical Environmental Network and He and his wife Donna have been active in mission and ministry for decades. Together they founded The Voices Project
, an organization that promotes and trains leaders of color.
When Leroy shared pictures of himself in Santa garb on social media, he got some clap back for not conforming
to the dominant cultural image of St. Nick. Here was Leroy’s response:
Ok I will answer publicly the behind the scenes criticism of #blacksanta
My wife and I are in the vocation of youth and leadership development. This can start when kids of color are young. The images that children of color see are overwhelmingly white when it comes to heroes. This is a big problem and it starts young kids of color to doubt themselves and their significance in the world and puts negative images of themselves in their minds. Check out doll test if you don’t believe me. Taking an image like Santa Claus and changing it to a black man does more than make for a good picture outwardly it forms a good image in the soul even if it’s fairy tale. Fairy tales helps us dream of ourselves and be inspired in positive ways. I took pictures with adults yesterday who came alone because they to need to dream of themselves differently in a world that is crushing down on them. We also had many white parents of black children who want their children to see these images, and so many families of color. I was changed as I represented the man who brings gifts and I was black. The gifting was mutual. #blackrolemodels
I hope that helps my critics to chill a bit.
Leroy as Santa subverts the dominant narrative of white supremacy and showsAfrican American children and communities of color that their skin and bodies matter too. That despite dominant cultural images which tells them they don’t matter, they do.They are children of God and yes, Santa comes for them. This is a picture of Jesus.
I still sometimes say curmudgeonly slogans to my kids like, “If you re-arrange the letters in Santa it spells SATAN,” or “Santa Claus is Satan’s Cause!” But I don’t believe it for a second. Leroy and Don are both Santa’s which bring the Presence of Christ with them. They give Jesus to people.
I think sometimes about the people I’ve met who’ve stopped believing in God when they stopped believing in Santa. Maybe the image of God they held in their mind was as cultural and casual as our images of Santa. Maybe faith was just another family tradition. I am committed to showing my kids Jesus, and I have discovered that Santa is not the adversary I once imagined him to be.
It is Advent. Jesus is coming. And he isn’t the only one.