It’s that time of year when that rotund, joyful, white-bearded, sometimes bespectacled man dons his legendary red coat with white collar and cuffs, those white-cuffed red trousers, the red pompon-topped cap, squeezes his feet into often ill-fitting black boots, and, with a deep intake of breath, fastens the black belt which keeps everything in place. The three-fold repetition of the traditional greeting, ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’, and the wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, mark a festive closure of a party as he unloads from his brown sack the various presents. Many of us have put on Sandyford’s Santa outfit, either for Sunday School parties, or to bring cheer to children in schools in areas of deprivation in the city. Other readers of the Congregational Record may also have entered into the illusion by putting up stockings by a chimney and by taking a Rudolph-sized bite out of a piece of carrot.
Christians have been divided with regard to the notion of ‘Father Christmas’. The modern Western representation would seem to go back to the nineteenth century. Some historians have traced the merry old character to a cartoon creation by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Illustrated Weekly. Others have sought to identify the figure with Santa Claus, a figure inspired by the fourth-century Greek Bishop Nicholas of Myra (now in Turkey), who, among other notable acts of kindness, was said to have relieved the misery of poor children by throwing gifts through their windows. Many traditions have been grafted on to the legends. Some quite surreal, like the magical elves who help Santa in his workshop and the eight (some say nine) reindeers who pull his sleigh. Contemporary folklore has exploited the tale of this seemingly all-seeing and all-knowing figure who can discern whether children have been good or bad. To encourage good behaviour in the lead up to Christmas parents and teachers have sometimes sought moral authority from the mythical figure, echoing the words of the American song, composed in 1934, ‘Santa Claus is comin’ to town':
He’s gonna find out
Who’s naughty or nice
Ban Father Christmas?
During the civil war and interregnum in England the Father Christmas figure, who was to become iconic some two hundred years later, was much condemned. But not as the so-called bestower of gifts but as someone who encouraged riotous celebration, disorder, and immorality. It has to be said that the Puritans also reacted against the celebration of Christmas (Christ’s mass) on account of its associations with Catholicism and pagan customs and its lack of biblical justification. In Scotland too, Presbyterians tended to react against the celebration of the festival, even to the point of not declaring Christmas a holiday, particularly for the working classes.
More recently, Father Christmas has spawned a parodic sub-culture. The satirical science magazine Spy in January 1990 conducted a pseudo-scientific investigation of Santa’s workload in the 31 hours of Christmas (which takes account of the different time zones and the rotation of the earth and the inference that only 15% of the world would be celebrating Christmas). Santa’s itinerary would look something like this:
… 822.6 visits per second […] for each house […] Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house … a total trip of 75.5 million miles […] Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound […]
While recognising the problem of deception is it so wrong to use the cultural motif to feed children’s imagination? In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis used Father Christmas as a symbol of hope and joy amid the bleak winter in Narnia. Father Christmas, who had himself been banished from Narnia during the long reign of the White Witch (‘it was always winter but never Christmas’), is able to come back once the Christlike lion Aslan returns to free the inhabitants from her power. The presents he offers the Pevensies are vital to their survival and to their success in future battles. Lewis was attacked for including Father Christmas in his story by scholars and by his close friend J. R. R. Tolkien. Some scholars are still trying to discover the secret code for the reference to Father Christmas!
The Absent Father
Whether we are willing to suspend disbelief or not (and I am very happy to do so, having spent so much of my professional life studying landmarks of Western theatre) one of the most significant issues this Christmas is that of the ‘Absent Father’. Statistics with regard to single-parenthood show how far we have departed from the model set by Joseph, who, though not the biological father of Jesus, was, in obedience to the angel, there for Mary to provide for the family and to secure safety in Egypt. For many, the term ‘father’ has become synonymous with cruelty, abuse and other images conveying pain. One of the reasons for the renewed popularity of Father Christmas nowadays is the search for a father figure who would appear kind and benevolent. While it is true that Joseph is a much neglected figure in sermons on the Christmas story, the greatest neglect of all is of the reality which some of the mythical representations have sought to imitate. The missing person in so many churches is the first person of the Trinity, God the Father. It would seem that even in evangelical circles there can be dualism in the Godhead at Christmas. While it is understandable that the focus is on Christ and on the Holy Spirit we can have a distorted view of the Christmas story. This is often reflected in prayers addressed to Jesus. However, Jesus himself taught his disciples to direct prayer to the Father (‘Our Father in heaven’), as do the letter writers in the New Testament. Yet, God the Father is often left out of the nativity which He planned with the Son and the Holy Spirit in that council meeting in eternity before the foundation of the world (Revelation, 13: 8).
The True Father Never Disappoints
Many presents given this Christmas will be cast aside shortly after they have been received. Many people too will not receive any gifts. However, no Santa sack could hold all the gifts that the true Father has for us. Moreover, his gifts will never disappoint:
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James, 1: 17)
So different from earthly fathers, God does not change or forget his children. Moreover, the heavenly Father who feeds the birds of the air knows exactly what his children need (Matthew, 6: 29).
The gift to us
Of the innumerable gifts the Father gives us the most precious is Jesus. As Paul formulated it: ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ (2 Corinthians, 9: 15) We quite naturally think of the cost to Jesus to come into this world, to be born in Bethlehem, to be despised and rejected, and to die on a cross. But how often do we think of the cost to the Father to send him and to see him suffer in this way? We often talk about not being able to afford certain things. God could not afford to give us Jesus. Yet He gave. It is very hard for us to grasp the Father’s sense of loss as He deprives heaven of his much loved son, and then sacrifices him for us.
The gift to Jesus
At this time of year we love to look again at the gifts bestowed on Jesus and in particular those given by the Wise Men. So many of the much loved carols help us to review the extent of our own giving to Him, not least the one by Christina Rossetti:
What can I give him Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him -
Give my heart.
There is, however, a gift which is not usually mentioned at Christmas but which Jesus highlights in his high priestly prayer in John 17. It is the Father’s present to his son: that of ourselves. We might rightly think that this exchange of gifts is not equal: we get Jesus, and He gets us! Yet God the Father sees us as the most precious gift he can offer his son. How this thought should transform our thinking about our salvation and give confidence in Christian service. As Eric Alexander has suggested in his stimulating comment on John 17 (Prayer: a biblical perspective, 2012), God the Father may be compared to the father of the bride, who makes the greatest gift he ever gives – he hands the bride over to the bridegroom. That is actually a picture of what happens when the sinner comes to Christ. The question [in the traditional marriage ceremony] is, ‘Who gives this sinner to be united to the only Saviour?’ And God the Father answers, ‘I do’. So Jesus says, ‘You gave them to me’.
The Disappointed Father
What a far cry from the fictitious Father Christmas, who disappears from even the child’s radar so soon after Christmas! But how easy it is for us to have a Father-Christmas-type relationship with the true Father, forgetting both the giver and the gifts. Nothing is more disappointing to the Father than our spiritual amnesia, our ingratitude and our unbelief.
The Christmas celebrations offer us an opportunity to share Christ with those around us (see Douglas’s outreach report for all the opportunities of service). Christmas also gives us an opportunity to worship Him, with that child-like sense of wonder and trust which Christ himself commended, and to express our thanks to the Father for the greatest present ever given.
With very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year
Session ClerkView All Letters