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Beyond the Lone Islands

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

My Issues With "Santa"

Last week a Christmassy post at Simply Heather's blog set a rather complicated line of thoughts in motion in my head. I promised a more full explanation to a short comment I made, and this post is the result. I don't really wish to argue with the point Heather was trying to make though. That might work just fine for some readers even if it doesn't for me. It all depends on what images we have in our own head to begin with...

I think I will need to begin with certain differences between the Father Christmas or Santa Claus of the English/American tradition and the Swedish one. First of all, while you use the word Christmas, referring to the birth of Christ as centre of the holiday, the origin of the Swedish word jul has nothing to do with Christ. There is a corresponding old English word you may recognise - Yule, or yuletide, which is of pre-Christian origin. (Links go to Wikipedia articles.)

Our equivalent of Father Christmas (nowadays they're pretty much mixed up, because we get so much of British/American culture via television) is Jultomten.

In old Swedish folklore, a tomte is a fairytale figure for which the best equivalent in British folklore is probably brownie. A kind of hobgoblin or gnome are other possible translations. Basically he was a figure that lived in secret on a farm and could be of great help if you kept on the good side of him, but could play nasty tricks on you if you didn't. At Yuletide/Christmas it was customary, for example, to set out a dish of porridge and milk for the tomte; outside on the ground, or in the barn, or some place like that.

In the late 19th or early 20th century, it was a Swedish artist Jenny Nyström who created the image of the traditional Swedish "jultomte". She introduced the typical pictures that are still very popular on our Christmas cards. Below is one of them, which also includes a buck (he-goat), which in turn also belongs in the old traditions.

Before Tomten came into our Christmas gifts tradition, the gifts were delivered by a Yule Buck, or someone wearing a buck-mask, or neighbours etc would knock on the door and just throw in presents anonymously on Christmas Eve. Later on, the tomte got mixed up in this and the image blended with that of St Nicholaus/St Claus/Father Christmas from other European countries.

Tomten/Father Christmas still comes to call in person on Christmas Eve, instead of coming invisibly through the chimney in the middle of the night as he does in the English-speaking world. Here he traditionally knocks on the door, and someone wearing an extremely ugly and scary mask enters and begins by asking in a muffled and severe voice: "Are there any good children in the house?"

Now this is where my issuses with "Santa" or Tomten begin! Besides the man looking really scary, his question indicates that if you have not been good enough, you won't be worthy of his gifts. Moreover, parents know how to use this line of arguing too, especially in the months before Christmas: "If you don't behave, Tomten will know, and there won't be any Christmas presents!"

I don't remember at what age I began to suspect that Tomten was just my grandfather or uncle or someone else dressing up and hiding under that mask.  (The traditional way of getting away with this trickery is that some grown-up will suddenly decide they have to go out and buy a newspaper in the midst of the festivities. Grown-ups do so many strange things that children probably rarely question this odd behaviour.) What I do know is that the first dream or nightmare that I can remember from my childhood was one where I dreamt that Tomten came, and asked his question  - "Are there any good children here?" - and my mother (I think it was my mother, in the dream) said: NO...

This is why the image of the child's faith in Santa does not work for me as an image of faith in God.

This is also why, for many years after I became a Christian, I banished all tomte-decorations in my own home for Christmas. And if I had had children of my own, I don't think I would have agreed to try to make them believe for a moment that there was a real Santa/tomte. Since I never had children, however, that remains a theoretical standpoint...

Unfortunately, there seems to be quite a few people who got stuck from childhood on with an image of God which all too much resembles my childhood image of  Santa/Tomten: The old masked man with the beard whose first question is if we've been good enough to deserve his gifts. And if that is your image of God, then I say: No wonder if faith fails you when times get rough, and you discover that in fact all over the world a lot of good people suffer, while villains seem to thrive and get away with murder (quite literally).

But that is not the true Christian image of God at all. The true image of God is found in Christ, who stepped right into all the human suffering and took it upon himself to bring us back the gift of eternal life, without asking if we've been good enough. None of us have, that's the problem. Every one of us has a certain standard of "good" inscribed in our hearts but also the awareness that we keep failing to live up to it. Some come closer than others but still not 100%. Even small children have that awareness.

The message of Christmas is not: Try harder!
The message of Christmas is: Don't be afraid, because help will be given.

The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David's a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger."
Luke 2:10-12

What a strange sign to announce that help is on its way: Can you imagine anything more helpless than a newborn baby? Landing on a bed of straw in a stable on top of all, instead of on a bed of silk or fine linen in a ruler's castle.

One thing for sure: A lot of people for various reasons won't find him "good enough". But he will know as much as anyone about the conditions and struggles of ordinary people...

PS. A few Santa/tomte figures did find their way back into my Christmas decorations later on in my life. I will return to that in another post...



Simply Heather said...

Boy, I have SO many things I'm thinking that I need my mind to slow down for a minute....phew.

First of all - AMEN to your closing!! Love how you put this post together, so full of detail and truth.

Very well done, Monica.

I NEVER knew anything about your tradition in Sweden, not even a hint of it. The first part about a gnome living outside gave me the heebie-geebies anyway...and then to think that a person would come in a creepy mask, stand at the door and all of the rest....I'd cry. I would still cry. Seriously.

Saint Nicholas (from my understanding) was a man who reached out to those less fortunate, sharing gifts with them.

My mother never taught me that Santa was real or that he wasn't. But I managed to believe in the imagination of him...not suggesting that he was real, I'd just search for him and wonder. For me, that was okay. For my brother, he was devastated when he found that Santa wasn't real (he's 10 yrs older than I - may be why mom didn't suggest that Santa was real to me).

I have always said that I would never lie to my children about anything, and I don't. It hurt to tell them the truth about Santa from the beginning, when they wanted to believe in him but I just wouldn't want them to found out one day that he wasn't real and then question if God was real or not. That was always my reasoning in not telling them lies.

I've never told them there is an Easter Bunny who brings baskets, or a Tooth Fairy to grab their teeth or any other folklore image. BUT, I do continue to share with them that other children believe these things and that it's hurtful for them to tell those children what they believe is not true.

I've managed to allow my children the ability to find for themselves what they believe and do not believe. There really is no other way to secure it within themselves.

I really like that you've shared all of this with us.

Now...when I wrote that post, I was not suggesting that children believe in Santa Clause. Maybe I should have re-read it and edited my words. What I was hoping to imply was the ability to, as adults, still hold within us the sense of wonder, hope and belief that we carried when we were children. The ease of those feelings we once had, rather than a need to be concrete on a subject or, as some could be, non-believing and that is that.

It's all about Jesus, His Spirit, our relationship with Him at Christmas and always, in my home and in my heart :)

DawnTreader said...

Well Heather, you know, I did manage to understand what you meant in your post; it's just that I can't really recall a whole lot of those feelings of "wonder, hope and belief" from my own childhood. It's not that I had a really miserable childhood. But in my memory, it is just not marked by a lot of "wow!" either. For me, that came later!

Simply Heather said...

I'm glad it came ♥

Scriptor Senex said...

An interesting dialogue between you and Heather, Monica. Also fascinating to find out the differences between our traditions.

Dan Felstead said...

WOW...interesting conversation! I will jump in with my 2 cents...and that is all it's worth! I am one of those naive kids who "believed" there was a Santa, an Easter Bunny etc....I also believed there was a kind and loving God...never the twain did meet! I just have never had a conflict between the two...and still don't today. I am searching for questions about my relationship with God but it has nothing to do with the Santa myth. More about that at some other time! I think one's perspective on this issue is simply as you said Dawn Treader...your memories of this from childhood will shape your opinion as an adult. My memories are so strong and so wonderful of Christmas at home that to relive those at this time of year is truly therapeutic for me. I am not saying that I am right or's just the way it is. I don't think it is the end of the world to feel either way. It simply depends on our backgrounds.

One thing for sure after reading your post Dawn is obvious that Sweden and America have more in common about Christmas than differences. You description of the Swedish traditions was fascinating and I really enjoyed reading about them. And Oh Yeah...the issue of "children being nice" ...we have the same thing..."Santa checking a list to see if we have been "naughty or nice"... if naughty we get a lump of coal! Again, I never had a problem with this myself because I never equated it with a relationship to Christ. Because, I agree with you...if we had to be "nice" in order to get into heaven...none of us would make it! Again...I just always kept those two separate.

Sorry to take up so much of your comment space!


DawnTreader said...

Dan, you take up as much comment space as you want ;) I love it when blog posts lead to discussion...

I do know our traditions have a lot in common even though there are also differences. I had forgotten about the lump of coal though. (Did anyone ever actually get one?!) There are also such an awful lot of American movies - which we get here too - that spin on the "believing in Santa" myth - I think they have probably added to my impression that "you people" tend to overdo it a bit... (Making even more of a "fuss" about Christmas than we do here.)
;)> ♥

Dan Felstead said...

Dawn Treader...I love the Holiday and the entire season...but I DO hate most of the holiday movies! They are all so predictable and cliche. I usually have to watch one or two of these a year with my wife who loves them! It is my cross to bear!!!


DawnTreader said...

What don't you do for love...! ;)

I usually end up watching one or two even without anyone "making" me! Otherwise obviously I wouldn't be able to complain about them... ;)

We have our own sentimental Christmas reruns too; many of those are based on the children's books by Astrid Lindgren, and as she often looked back to her own childhood for inspiration, that keeps alive some of our old traditions from the early 20th c and our mental images of what Christmas "should" be like.

GB said...

I read that posting word for word twice. Monica. It really was interesting post Monica with an interesting dialogue afterwards too.

I am fascinated by the whole issue. I don't know whether I ever believed in Father Christmas. We certainly never equated Father Christmas with God or Christ with our children.

With the family in New Zealand it's no longer an issue and Christmas is not celebrated in the same way as in Europe although it's hard to define the differences. One thing which is different, of course, is that we are not trying to brighten a cold and miserable December because it is summer. Odd though it may seem that makes a huge difference to the way Christmas is celebrated. As to a Father Christmas or any cultural similarity I've just not really been aware of them to any substantial degree.

DawnTreader said...

GB, I can well imagine that the weather makes a huge difference! When my friends in Australia for example tell me of barbeque garden parties at Christmas I often have difficulties even trying to picture it in my head. But if I lived in that climate myself, I doubt I'd bother half as much about all the traditional decorations etc because most of them are really so connected to bringing light into the darkness.

I should perhaps add that I doubt a whole lot of people would actually SAY that they equate Father Christmas with God (or the other way round); it's just that I find that when some people - and especially those who have left their childhood faith behind - try to explain their image of God... Then the picture they come up with very often resembles a Father Christmas-figure more than anything else. (Which may work as long as he keeps bringing the stuff that was on our wish-list, but when lumps of coal start hailing down...)

ANNA-LYS said...

Du skriver fängslande och klart!

Trevlig Helg

DawnTreader said...

I think that's the first time since I started this blog (11 months ago) that I actually got a comment in Swedish! :)

Don said...

I'm a late arriver to this post. I was drawn to the title. I came over from your picture blog to hear the St Lucy singers.

I appreciate the dialogue that sprang up here, especially because I follow or have read many of the bloggers that are posting here.

I grew up Methodist, became agnostic, and later became a born-again Christian.

I grew up with Santa, I remember finding out when he wasn't real, and the only lasting place he had growing up, was that we still got presents from him even after we all knew it was just our parents giving us more gifts.

In my own home, we didn't celebrate Christmas. We did some community service projects at Christmastime to share the gospel.

Christmas is such a blend of myth, traditions, Christianity, and paganism that it's almost impossible not to have conflicted feelings about the whole thing.

These days, my wife and I are more outsiders looking in on much of the culture that celebrates more than we do. We attend a family sing-along. We send some money to one daughter who has begun to celebrate Christmas with her children. This Christmas, we're going away for four days.

Bottom line? I think Christmas is different home by home. Whether that is America or Sweden or the UK. There are certainly differences, and there is overlap. But all in all, it's a strange blend or unresolved mixture that varies from house to house.

Again, great exchange of ideas. Glad to see it.

DawnTreader said...

Glad to see you here and joining in the discussion, Don! :)

rae said...

Very interesting post, and comments to boot! I never equated Santa with God, but I'm pretty sure that's from my parents. I know a lot of people who do!

DawnTreader said...

Thanks for reading, Rae! :)


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