The Monstrosity of Santa


Editor’s Note: Each weekday of Christmas, the Raven is delivering a favorite holiday article. On the first day of Christmas, the Raven gave to me… A Santa Claus Monstrosity! (First published December 24, 2009).


We have created a monster . . . and his name is Santa Claus.

Santa came to my son’s daycare last year. I can’t blame my little boy for getting upset when they foisted him upon Santa’s knee. Santa is unlike anyone a two year old has ever seen; the long white beard is enough to make any toddler uncontrollably scream for momma.

At my age (almost 31!), I’m no longer perturbed by Santa’s excessive locks, but I do find his moralizing to be excessive and pernicious. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to throw all morality out of the window. The concept of morality is complicated, but I think of good morals primarily in two related ways: First, the conscious desire to do no harm to others, and second, the conscious desire to love others.

Santa’s moralizing is harmful to children and harmful to adults. It’s monstrous. For example, take a look at this beloved Christmas song we teach our children. Santa is coming to town, so:

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!
O! You better watch out!
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town

Seriously? “You better watch out”? That threat is enough to make me cry. “Better not pout”? That’s what children do! “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake”? That’s just creepy.

Even more monstrous, Santa simplistically bifurcates the children of the world into two categories: “naughty” and “nice.” Adding to Santa’s monstrosity is that he has duped adults into playing his game. Santa provides us with a powerful threat over our children, “If you don’t behave, Santa won’t visit us this year.” This allows parents to project “naughty and nice” onto our children, and relieves us of the burden of taking responsibility for our own “naughty” and “nice” behavior.

Of course, Santa isn’t real. I remember the day I was told this depressing reality. When I was in third grade, my mom dressed me in a read sweatshirt that had snowflakes and white letters that read, “I believe in Santa!” Well, a fifth grader on the bus ride home told me that Santa doesn’t exist. After I ran home in tears, I asked my mom about the truth of Santa’s existence. “No. He doesn’t,” she replied. “But I believe in the spirit of Santa.”

The spirit of Santa. It sounds cliché now, but I’m convinced there is at least a hint of truth in all things cliché. At its best, the spirit of Santa is an unabated desire to give to others. Santa flies around the world, climbs down every chimney, and carries a bag with an everlasting supply of toys for girls and boys.

At its worst, though, the spirit of Santa is tyrannical and simplistic. As suggested above, Santa’s giving is bestowed by threat: “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout” . . . or else! To claim that any individual can be divided into “naughty and nice” is a shallow view of human nature. The truth is that each of us is a mixture of “naughty and nice.”

I’m convinced that the spirit of Santa can be redeemed. For that to happen, it’s important to examine the life Saint Nicholas, the 4th century Bishop of Myra. Nicholas, the historical figure on which Santa is based, was orphaned at a young age. His parents were very wealthy and left him a substantial inheritance. He generously gave all of his money to help anyone in need, young and old. Beautiful, heartwarming stories about Saint Nicholas’s benevolence have been retold throughout the centuries. You can read a few of them here.

Nicholas had his irascible moments, though. In the year 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine held a meeting with the Bishops of the Church at the Council of Nicea (present day Turkey.) At that Council, the Bishops debated the identity of Jesus: Was he human? Was he divine? Or was he a mysterious union, both human and divine? At great length, a priest named Arius passionately argued against Nicholas’s position. Nicholas was infuriated and, in front of the whole council, slapped Arius in the face.

St. Nick: Naughty or nice?

He was both, of course.  As are all of us.  When children are naughty, adults tend to respond with negativity, which leads to an escalation of naughtiness in child and in adult. Instead, respond with a conscious desire to love unconditionally. For that’s the gift all children, naughty and nice, need the most.

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