As you prepare your Christmas lists, let me tell you a story…
A long time ago in an oppressive empire far far away, there lived a Saint known to all as Nicolas. We know that Nicolas oversaw the diocese of Myra in Lycia (south-western Asia Minor) during the fourth century. Story goes that he rescued three small girls from prostitution one night by tossing three bags of gold in through their window. When artists painted images of this, commoners confused these three bags with the heads of small children and, since three children stood beside Nick in the same picture, people began to believe he had resurrected three kids whom another had murdered and hidden in a brinetub. I suppose the connection between rescuing kids out of sex slavery and resurrection isn’t far off.
In addition, he miraculously saved three unjustly condemned men from death like an original Robin Hood, appeared at the general council of Nicea in 325 where he pimpslapped Arius for telling lies (that’s right, boys and girls, Santa gave an oppressor the right hook one year), and then suffered for his faith under Constantine (yet another reason why Constantine and the crusades doesn’t really represent Christianity).
On Saint Nicholas’ feast day, the Dutch call it the day of Sinte Klaas, people give presents to promote the liberating generosity of those three bags of gold. Having rescued three kids, Nick earned the title of patron saint of children and thus the British “Father Christmas,” but we might more fittingly call him the patron saint of brothel raids and safe houses for former sex slaves. Merchants and pawnbrokers eventually claimed those three bags for their own, turned them into three simple balls, and put outside the front doors of nearly every pawnshop.
That’s the history, more or less, but says little of mythology. I’m finding more and more that people misunderstand both the purpose and intent of the myths. Myths are fictions, nothing more. They employ the symbolism of dreams to create applicable story that teaches us what it means to come alive. I don’t mean allegory or history or even philosophy. Myths employ less of the tactics of Gospel writers who shared stories of a man who lived, less even than what Confucius or Aristotle attempted through sociological dialectics, and more of what Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or Lewis or Stan Lee use.
I’m not contrasting the truth of the Jesus story against the falsehood of mythology—Lord knows we’ve had enough wars between reindeer sleighs and nativity sets. Rather, I’m showing all of you apples and oranges out there that you cannot compare yourselves to one another in ways that create December tensions while remaining logically consistent. And anyways it’s not like logic ever had anything to do with the creation of bumper stickers that pit “Jesus is the reason for the season” against “You can take my naughty list when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” After all, permitting special interest groups to use your car or van as a portable billboard seems ignorant at best, downright brainwashed at worst—no matter what your pet issue. Good thing it’s not election year, or I’d also add that…
Aaanyways, we’re getting off track and will soon be talking about how I’ve thought of putting random quotes from Old Gaelic on bumper stickers. Before the detour, I was pointing out that mythology is something else entirely:
“Suppose somebody in a story says ‘Pluck this flower and a princess will die in a castle beyond the sea,’ we do not know why something stirs in the subconsciousness, or why what is impossible seems almost inevitable. Suppose we read ‘And in the hour when the king extinguished the candle his ships were wrecked far away on the coast of Hebrides.’ We do not know why the imagination has accepted the image before the reason can reject it; or why such correspondences seem really to correspond to something in the soul…. The power even in the myths of savages is like the power in the metaphors of poets…
“It seems strangely forgotten nowadays that a myth is a work of imagination and therefore a work of art. It needs a poet to make it. It needs a poet to criticize it…. We do not submit a sonnet to a mathematician or a song to a calculating boy, but we do indulge the equally fantastic idea that folk-lore can be treated as a science. Unless these things are appreciated artistically, they are not appreciated at all…. When [the professor] is assured… that a primitive hero carried the sun and moon and stars in a box, unless he clasps his hands and almost kicks his legs as a child would at such a charming fancy, he knows nothing about the matter….
“If any scholar tells me that a cow jumped over the moon only because a heifer was sacrificed to Diana, I answer that it did not. It happened because it is obviously the right things for a cow to jump over the moon. Mythology is a lost art, one of the few arts that really are lost; but it is an art. The horned moon and the horned mooncalf make a harmonious and almost quiet pattern. And throwing your grandmother into the sky is not good behavior; but it is perfectly good taste.”
— G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Mythmakers never intended for their readers to think these things actually happened. Over and again, Stephen King emphasizes how fictional stories “tell the truth in the lie.” Your kid’s not an idiot—she knows when we’re playing pretend. Or better yet, show me a picture of an adult who has forgotten how to pretend and I will show you a picture of a dead child. In America, we call our myths “tall tales.” The word pre-tend shows something stretched before us, something with height and length that was not there before—a tea set complete with invisible tea or a symphony of woodland sounds, broken twigs and mockingbirds that warn of approaching chariots of fire. The mythopoet claimed that invisible real estate and later fathered modern fiction writers and graphic novelists.
Which brings us to Saint Nicolas, Father Christmas, the French Papa Noel, the Dutch Sinte Klaas and the Americanized Santa Claus. Granted, some people abuse the myth (as they do with others) to tell threatening stories of morality to small children—we’ve only to read David Sedaris’s hilarious rendering of Santa Claus and the Six-to-Eight Black Men to see this. Still others like merchants, pawnbrokers, and creditors, abuse the myth (as they do with others) to turn those three bags of liberation into three bags of usury and oppression. But those are not the only two responses.
As always, it’s not either/or. In the imaginative threshold itself lies a third way:
“Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given a human form, like a snowman. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens; so that snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold. The test therefore is purely imaginative.
“But imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.”
— G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
For that’s what the original myth of Santa Claus does in the telling—it summons benevolent men to travel the world around giving bags of help to children, the poorest and most helpless of any class or caste. It moves us to help them slip the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. This isn’t a story for tickle-me-Elmos or naughty lists.
This is a story meant for things like Operation Christmas. In fact, my fondest memories of Christmas involve us sneaking up onto the front porches of needy households at night with bags full of liberating help.
This is a story meant for those people who ask you to give goats and sheep to their global neighbors instead of giving them an iPhone 5 or well-behaved kids who abide by Victorian niceties.
This is a One-Less-Gift story.
And a fourth.
And a fifth…
Do I believe in Santa as an object of faith?
Well no, that’s silly, but neither did any of the early audiences who heard the first telling of the myths. I believe as they believed—I believe good myths change us. I believe if you tell me a magical old bearded man spends all year preparing for one day each year when he gives everything he makes away to the needy, something inside me sparks divine.
I also fear false mythologies, what modern people have unfortunately grown to call “myths” when they mean lies, the sorts of things that need busted, those graven images of Santa that either devour mile-long Christmas lists in shopping malls or flog small children for their sins.
No, I believe rather that Santa’s tale calls up a generous streak in children. I believe in an old and radical liberator, the Generous Saint who provides the woodstove with heat during ice storms—which is exactly what we experienced in Joplin the last few years when ice shut down our city. Multiple houses turned into soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Keep your eyes open for that, for there goes Sinte in living color.
And if we toss in Rudolph as the misfit who leads the pack or Yukon Cornelius repenting of greed or elves who busy themselves all year long to help one jolly old couple liberate this caste called “kids,” then our myth grows richer. Rich stories set in winter help us discover what it means to lend a hand when all green trees grow cold and dead.
When I have kids of my own, I’ll tell them the story of Santa. I might even dress up in a red fat-suit like my Grandpa Deano did so they develop rich imaginations and big hearts. All that threatens to freeze their souls will thaw in the face of this ancient, gilded story.
And then (Lord willing and a creek don’t rise) my kids and my bride and I will help this poor world by sneaking into oppressed nations armed with bags of gold.