We hear a lot about the war on Christmas. But the true seasonal struggle is the war within Christmas, a single holiday shared by two deeply antagonistic religions.
Religion one is the religion of Jesus Christ, the figure whose birth the holiday commemorates.
This religion emphasizes universal grace and forgiveness.
Religion two is the religion of Santa Claus, the holiday's most visible representative. Santa upholds a much sterner creed.
You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He's making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
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!
While Santa is checking his list twice for naughty children to be denied gifts, Jesus rebuked a disciple who asked if he really was expected to forgive an offending brother over and over again.
Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" 22Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
Santa brings gifts and presents to the good, and denies them to the bad. Jesus on the other hand is not nearly so certain about who is good.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
"No one, sir," she said.
"Then neither do I condemn you."
Santa brings his presents at night and leaves them to be opened in the morning. Jesus on the other hand warns:
This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?
Santa, we are told, is actively hostile to the pouting and crying of small children. In fact, if they want any gifts, they had better not pout or cry at all. Jesus by contrast thinks it's better to have a millstone tied around your neck and to be drowned in the sea than to make a child suffer.
Santa and Jesus do not disagree on everything of course. Both figures are very tree-positive. Santa lays his gifts under a Christmas tree. Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a tree that grows from a mustard seed.
What is the Kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and put in his own garden. It grew, and became a large tree, and the birds of the sky lodged in its branches.
But Santa's tree differs starkly from that cited by Jesus. Jesus chose one of his aggressively shocking images: a scrubby fast-growing plant little valued by commercial farmers. Santa's preferred tree is a handsome spruce or fir, a legacy from the ancient cults of pre-Christian Germany and Scandanavia.
What is endlessly fascinating to me about TV commentary on the "War on Christmas" is that the commentators most exercised about the subject are themselves almost always adherents of Santa's religion rather than the religion of Jesus.
What would Jesus say of them? As a matter of fact, I think Jesus told us what he thought of those who speak most noisily of their devotion to their faith:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
This is cross-posted at the National Post.