Don’t Tell Mr. Macy That Santa Claus Isn’t Real
Mara: “Do you really believe he’s Santa Claus?”
R.H. Macy: “I do.”
-Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Like Ruth and Gehrig, Jesus and Santa Claus have teamed together during the Christmas season as long as we can remember, forming a not entirely compatible pair that allowed the sacred and the profane to coexist in a way that conveniently served both Christianity and Capitalism in their incessant and not entirely rational holds on humanity.
But with increasing secularization, when a growing number of Americans list “none” as their religion, and many American Christians of all denominations and Catholics in formerly rock solid Papist countries such as France, Spain and (gasp) Ireland have abandoned the pews, it seems Santa has gained an advantage bigger than the lead that Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes lost in the scintillating and controversial Formula 1 finale in Abu Dhabi this weekend by being sandbagged by Max Verstappen and Red Bull on the last lap.
At least one Italian Catholic bishop has taken matters into his own hands to try to even the field. On December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas, Bishop Antonio Staglianò told a group of school children waiting for a visit from “Babbo Natale” in the town of Noto and all under the age of nine, that “Santa Claus is an imaginary character.” While acknowledging that the historical source of Santa was St. Nicholas himself, a fourth century bishop who was known to be kind to the poor, Bishop Staglianò railed against the current image of St. Nick as a symbol of inequality, American capitalism and dishonest parents (telling one child that she should tell her Santa-assuring parents, “you tell lies”).
While Bishop Staglianò doesn’t officially speak for the Church, he claims that his views are consistent with those of Pope Francis, who has recorded his distaste for the bungling bureaucrats of the European Union who have proposed a more neutral nomenclature for the holidays, even comparing them to totalitarian dictators. Never missing an opportunity to exploit every issue for political purposes, an Italian nationalist condemned the EU proposal as “shameful.”
I doubt that many would dispute that the original meaning of Christmas has been vanquished by the ubiquitous spirit of commercialism that has become the world’s dominant religion. But if you want to identify a villain in the world’s increasing secularization, the Church can do better than Santa. In fact, it can look to itself. Nothing has fomented distrust in all institutions, not least the Church than the continuing disgrace of its mishandling of the clerical abuse scandal. Choosing the perpetrators over the victims, it couldn’t have alienated the formerly faithful more than if it had made it its mission statement. We are still waiting for the first Santa scandal.
While there is much to be said for sticking with the Baby Jesus, a flawed institution run by myopic men, not so much. That’s why you will find me standing in the Santa line in the toy department. Now if he will only finally bring me my Ferrari.