"What's the difference between Jesus and Santa Claus?" I asked the children in my church one Sunday morning during Advent, when I was a local pastor.
One little 4-year-old boy spoke up quickly.
"Jesus will forgive you, but Santa Claus never will."
That 4-year-old was my own son, and I knew for a fact that he found Santa Claus a little scary. Well, Santa is kind of scary, especially when compared to Jesus. Santa is judgmental. Santa gives bribes for being good, and if you're not good, Santa doesn't forgive. He just puts coal in your stocking and moves on.
Jesus will forgive you. That's the whole Gospel right there. Unconditional love is the message of Christmas and it makes all the difference. "Do not be afraid," the angel says to the terrified shepherds watching over flocks. "Peace on earth" has come among us. "Good will to all." (Luke 2: 9,14)
That's quite a contrast to Santa, who, when you think about it, is pretty controlling and vindictive: "You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town." And worse, Santa spies on you. "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake." You'd better be good or good ole Santa won't give you any toys.
My little son never much liked that Christmas song, and he never much liked Santa. In fact, we have a picture of him sitting on Santa's lap just howling, his older brother vainly trying to comfort him. It's the last Santa photo we had taken with him as we didn't take him to see Santa any more.
'Who is this Santa figure in our culture?' has become a more than trivial question this year. Melissa Harris-Perry has written "A letter to Santa, racial lightening rod" that really nails the issue in response to the media firestorm precipitated by Megyn Kelly's "racialized Santa angst."
Harris-Perry writes to Santa:
Your whole story, which is supposed to be universal, can leave a lot of kids feeling pretty distressed at this time of year. Can you find a kid if he lives in an apartment building, not a house with a chimney? Can you find her in a homeless shelter?
And even more importantly, she asks Santa:
Why do you leave so many more toys under the big trees in the wealthy neighborhoods and so few under the trees in the poor communities? Are the kids with unemployed parents on the naughty list?
This is the basic problem with Santa-theology today. Santa now typifies the whole 'if you're poor you must be a slacker (i.e. naughty)" ethos that has taken over our society.
In vivid contrast, there is no question that Jesus' teaching is the basis of a radical Christian emphasis on forgiveness, and rightly so, as he is emphatic that believers must "love your enemies and do good... judge not...; forgive, and you will be forgiven..." (Luke 6: 27-37) In fact, four times Jesus says that if we forgive, we shall be forgiven; but if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven.
This is the heart of Christian theology, and the central message of Christmas.
Forgiveness and reconciliation, moreover, are not the exclusive province of Christianity, or even of religion, but a powerful process of confession for past wrongs, repentance, change, new relationship, and hope for the future.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are the message a broken, polarized American society needs most this holiday season, and from now on.