taking the words of Jesus seriously


Ebenezer Scrooge despises Christmas, and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol traces Scrooge’s repentance and rebirth as a warm, generous person. The tale remains fresh because each year brings that special season when many of us, in our own unique ways, hate Christmas. And we have our reasons.


Making a list and checking it twice, Christmas is hectic, expensive, fattening and commercialized. It shoves us into contact with people whose kinship to us is not entirely a source of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. Christmas marks the passing of time in a way that reminds us that we are all on a subway to the cemetery. And the message of Christ is surely lost in the shuffle: Muslims, Jews, and even Christians might agree that that the last thing Jesus would have wanted is a gaudy, month-long birthday party at the mall. These complaints are not “bah, humbug, ” but wholly justified, and we have more where those came from.


For me, the Big One is narrative and theological. Somehow the story gets to me every year. Two young people get pregnant, and they don’t have any money, and the baby is greeted by an inhospitable world. Sure, there are angels singing and shepherds flocking and sages bearing gifts. But soon the young family has to flee, as King Herod seizes upon the world’s oldest solution: kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out. And so Mary and Joseph become illegal aliens, fleeing down into Egypt, wading across the river with a precious bundle held over their heads. Somewhere in this story I am supposed to find hope for the broken world.


My theological angst might persist even amid the ancient winter solstice festivals that inspired our Christmas traditions. Back then, winter blew a flurry of death, and people marked the turning of midwinter, where the days began to get longer and the nights shorter, reminding each other that spring was in the saddle. The idea was to find the light in a world still dark and cold. And that’s my problem. I need that hope and I am afraid to look for it. What if it isn’t there? If I let myself yearn for a redemptive vision of a world reborn, won’t I open myself to a deeper disillusionment? It is safer to out-Scrooge Scrooge, and to roll over and go back to sleep when all those Christmas ghosts come to call.


I don’t have an answer to this dilemma, exactly. But Santa Claus brought me a story that eases my Christmas slump.


Thirty years ago, I worked as a Santa Claus at the mall. The job came through a friend who thought I would be good at it. Others disagreed.


First among them was the imperiously tasteful woman who managed the Santa Claus concession, who considered me a special problem. We Santas called her “Miss Chamber-of-Commerce, ” for her excessively polite, yet pointed way of reminding us all that what paid for Santa Claus was those parents who coughed up $7.00—I am told the current figure is more like $20.00–to have their kids photographed on Santa’s knee. Tots whose guardians could not shell out seven bucks, though it was important to be jolly with them, of course, should be shuttled along briskly.


Miss Chamber of Commerce had her ways to remind us to hurry the riff-raff along. Standing on the outskirts of the crowd, she would cross her arms and smile weakly, trying to catch Santa’s eye. Her impatient gaze told all. I quickly learned to pretend that I did not see her.


She countered by standing right beside Santa, and hurrying them along herself. “Aren’t you GLAD you got to see Santa?” she would chirp, making it clear that she was speaking in the past tense.


I would say, “No, don’t go. Santa wants to hear what you think about his reindeer.” Miss Chamber of Commerce was not amused.


She accosted me in Santa’s secret dressing room, where several sizes of red velveteen suits and silvery beards hung in rows. “I’ve noticed that all the other Santas are averaging several snapshots an hour more than you, ” she said. “Would you mind picking up the pace a little?” Fewer Santa shifts would come my way, she hinted, if I could not take a more industrial approach.


But the children made up for Miss Chamber of Commerce and the early morning hours—early for a 19-year-old night-shift cook, at least. By ten, when the custodian turned the key in the mall doors, Santa had to mount his throne, since parents were waiting with children bent on seeing Santa.


One day from atop my perch, I saw a little boy standing in line. He was dirty and unkempt, accompanied by a gum-chewing teenaged girl who wasn’t paying attention to him. Something about him seemed very old, even though he was only about seven.


The little boy was shy, but I finally lured him up onto Santa’s knee, and he clung to me. When I asked what he wanted for Christmas, he said, “I want my mama to come home.”


Santa never found out whether Mama had gone to the grocery store or the graveyard, or somewhere in between, but I kept him on my lap for a long, long time. There would be no $7.00 photograph, of course.


Miss Chamber of Commerce accosted me at the dressing room door. She launched into her lecture on moving the unprofitable children on through. I can’t recall exactly what I said to her, but I am afraid it was not “Merry Christmas.” And thus the curtain closed on my career as a paid Santa Claus.


When Christmas bears down on me, I think about that boy. Whatever he has done with himself, whatever the world has done with him, I pray that he is all right. Remembering his sad eyes, I see myself, and I see beyond myself, too, more importantly.


My Yuletide despair, like some of our other holiday baubles, suddenly seems an unaffordable luxury. The world needs mending, and we have to look toward the light, and take the risk of unjustified hope, so we can give ourselves to those labors as best we can. Few of us are wise men, and none of us are angels, but we tend our own flocks, and wait for some child of God, and hold out our hand. If our hopes are unjustified, maybe that is all the better, since those are just the kind of hopes we need. And how can I not say it? God bless us every one.


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