Column: Santa has his place in Christmas

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 31, 2006

This is the day. We’ll unwrap gifts and feast tomorrow, but Christmas Eve feels like the holiest day of this season.

Awe and anticipation fill the air at packed church services. Even if we’ve been singing Christmas carols all month, today the old traditional songs ring truer and purer than ever.

Expect nothing and be surprised, I heard on the radio Friday. That was a man’s advice to his son one Christmas season. The boy’s eyes filled with tears because he thought this meant Santa would leave no gifts at their house. But once his father explained what he meant — being grateful for whatever you receive — the boy embraced the idea with a special joy.

That’s definitely the best way to approach gifts. But Christmas Eve is all about expectation — the beginning of a story whose ending we know but never tire of hearing. It’s at once both the simplest and the most spectacular part — a baby lying in a manger, an angel appearing to the shepherds, Magi traveling from afar to pay homage to an infant.

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“Aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas — the birth of Santa?” Bart Simpson once said.

It’s awfully easy for children to get the story confused. The story of Jesus’ birth is drummed into Christian children often and at an early age, but the rest of the world keeps harping on this Santa guy. You see him in commercials, in stores, in the Christmas parade — places in which it would seem blasphemous to place an image of Jesus. Why wouldn’t kids think he’s more important? Santa appears to be everywhere, plus he brings presents.

I was absolutely convinced as a child that Santa was real. We went through the motions of the Christmas pageant, wearing tinsel wings and quoting from Luke, but all my anticipation went into looking at the night sky on Christmas Eve, searching for Rudolph’s nose.

A babe in a manger who would grow up to preach love, die on a cross and rise again — that was way over my head.

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Maybe that’s why Santa persists, despite complaints about commercialism and the excesses of the season. It’s easier to comprehend a generous, rosy-cheeked fellow distributing gifts around the world than this savior who promises the intangible gifts of grace and eternal life. I’m not sure I understand what it all means even now.

The Santa image caught on in the United States in the 19th century — an “invented tradition,” according to one expert — and shows no sign of fading out. He magically grants wish after wish without ever going shopping, even though the products of his workshop often bear the names of Fisher Price and Mattel.

In “The Battle for Christmas,” historian Stephen Nissenbaum says Santa reconciled opposites. “He customized mass production. He maintained a personalized relationship with his enormous mass market — after all, his clientele was all but universal. And he did it all from motives that were in no way entrepreneurial.”

In short, the perfect benefactor.

But, boy, did my little brother cry and turn red the first time he was big enough to visit Santa at Miller & Rhoads in Richmond. He turned stiff as a board and would not sit in this scary man’s lap. There’s something to be said for the instincts of small children.

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Friday afternoon, someone on the staff at Ketchie Creek Bakery in Mocksville called the Post, a little frantic. A truck had crashed into the side of their building, totaling the kitchen and dooming 500 customers’ holiday orders. Ketchie Creek needed to get out the word so customers would understand why no one was answering the bakery phone and why no orders could be filled.

Woe to the holiday hostess who was counting on the bakery for her grand finale.

The way we celebrate Christmas has a theater-like quality to it. Lights! Music! Food! It is a season of dramatic exclamation points, not the least of which is Shopping! But I won’t get on my soapbox about that; it would be too hypocritical.

And while there are plenty of reasons to throw exclamation points into the story of a savior’s birth, I believe the true meaning is in the quiet, solemn moments that can pop up unexpectedly — at the sight of a bright candle, the strains of an old carol, the warmth of family and friends crowded into a squeaky pew.

Christmas Eve — this is the day. Expect nothing. And be surprised.

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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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