Don’t blame Santa for our materialistic world

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, December 21, 2021

I’ve been a fan of Santa Claus ever since I hung a sock from a nail on the mantel behind the kerosene heater in the living room seven decades ago.

My belief that he was physically real disappeared gradually around age 9 or 10, as it does with most youngsters, but my love for the idea of Santa has remained strong.

And liking the idea of Santa Claus need not diminish an understanding of the real importance of Christmas. If a concern for others is nourished among the young and is allowed to manifest itself, then a maturing understanding of “giving” will replace the very early desire for “receiving” that Santa Claus represents for little children.

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As a practicing Christian, my mother made sure that our Christmases were first, and foremost, a celebration of the Christian faith. But she and my father also fully enjoyed Santa Claus.

Thus, on each Christmas Eve, we kept things in perspective. We gathered in the living room as many families did — and, I suspect, still do — and read the Nativity story as recorded in the second chapter of Luke. We then sang Silent Night.

As bedtime drew near, though, we crawled onto the sofa to listen as our mother read “The Night Before Christmas” from a colorfully illustrated paperback book. It was such a natural part of the celebration, but it was always secondary to the religious observance.

The mystery of it all had an impact. I can recall lying in bed and looking out through my window for any sign of Santa’s sleigh, but also to see if there was a star shining brighter-than-usual — and there often seemed to be on that night of wonders.

It would be pollyannaish to say that today’s world has kept the biblical Christmas and the mythical Santa in proper perspective. Materialism’s impact on our lives, not just at Christmas but throughout the year, has become so important that the idea of giving often doesn’t rise above the idea of receiving. In a broader sense, “what’s in it for me” has become, for far too many people, a slogan to live by.

But don’t blame Santa Claus for our failings. It is we, not he, who have turned Santa into a symbol of materialism.

The Santa Claus myth, at its root, is all about selfless giving. Saint Nicholas was a real person — not an elf, but an influential, though controversial, priest of the Fourth Century who lived in what is now southern Turkey. He came from a wealthy family and used his influence as well as his wealth to help the poor. Throughout his life he gave repeatedly to those less fortunate, even providing dowries to poor young girls so that they could marry and better themselves.

His giving became the stuff of legend, and he was pictured as going about the community carrying a sack filled with gold to be given away. Centuries later, Clement Moore immortalized that image: “A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.”

Of course, Saint Nicholas was only exemplifying the Christmas message, which at its heart is about giving: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.”

The Nativity story is, in fact, replete with giving. The innkeeper, too often pictured negatively, was actually quite kindly disposed toward Mary and Joseph, a young couple forced to travel late in her pregnancy. He had no room for them in his inn, but offered shelter in his stable, where the birth of Jesus occurred. The later arrival of the three magi bearing gifts furthers the sacrificial image of giving.

Where the biblical narrative ends, man’s boundless imagination takes over. Throughout history, people have added narratives related to giving, one of the most beloved in our time being “The Little Drummer Boy” who has “no gift to give” other than to play for the baby Jesus on his drum.

No, Santa Claus is no threat to Christmas. He can be an altogether wholesome part of our celebration, so long as our hearts are in the right place. And I still have that old, now badly tattered, copy of “The Night Before Christmas.” We have dug it out every Dec. 24 for decades and shared the story with our children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. We will again this week.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is