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."
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...