Seeing Him

December 24, 2007 | 6 comments
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Because Adam asked, here’s my Santa Claus/Meaning-of-Christmas manifesto, originally written on my own blog three years ago. A brief update: our oldest daughter, mentioned below in this post, is now eleven, and while she is a joyful and spirited participant in the Christmas season, particularly for the sake of her three younger sisters, she isn’t herself much of believer any longer, and all my philosophical/theological reflections mostly flat with her. But that doesn’t worry me. Give her time; she’ll come around. I probably thought pretty much the same at her age, but as the wise man once said, I’m younger than that now.

Most of the people reading this blog, I assume, don’t believe in Santa Claus. I can understand: the evidence for his existence is scanty, as far as these things go; the (perhaps traumatic) revelations and/or realizations of one’s youth–whether via friends, parents, annoying relatives or one’s own snooping–have in all likelihood not been countered by any authoritative source; and your own experience probably confirms his continued non-existence. So really, I understand where you’re coming from.

I happen to be a believer in Santa Claus–or rather, a believer in the existence a Santa Claus-type agent, perhaps multiple ones. My dad actually called us older kids aside one day when I was about eight, and solemnly informed us there was no Santa. I said I didn’t think he was right, and I still don’t. No, I’m not saying this ironically, and no, I’m not going to haul out “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” and take the Santa-dwells-within-us-all line. I actually believe that some sort of supernatural, possibly divine, Santa Claus-Father Christmas-Weihnachtsmann-St. Nicholas-Grandfather Frost-Ghost of Christmas Present figure is present and doing his work over the holidays. No, I’ve never seen him, and I’m not sure what his work is–plainly, he doesn’t in fact deliver toys to every single child (or even just every good child, or every good child who happens to celebrate Christmas) every year, at least not if our family is any indication. But yet I find it hard to believe that something isn’t out and about this time of year, the same way I find it hard to accept reductive (whether economic or psychological) explanations of the religious impulse generally. Of course, I believe in such irrational things as a God who sends His gifts and agents out amongst us regularly too, though I’ve never seen any of them either, and have no idea what they do or why they don’t do what I wish they would. There’s plenty of cause for existential despair, that’s for certain. Still, if so many people feel something so strongly, and so much of that which hinges upon those feelings cannot be obviously accounted for–an anonymous gift, a helpful stranger, a happy coincidence, a fortunate find–it just doesn’t strike me as implausible to adopt naive belief, in the sense of Paul Ricoeur’s “second naiveté,” rather than “mature critique” as a response.

I don’t consider myself a man of strong faith, but as I once wrote elsewhere:

“I’ve tried the existential, atheistic route, and it was a failure: I simply couldn’t pretend to myself that I didn’t believe, that I didn’t suffer from a sehnsucht or longing for that which I felt was plainly there, despite my inability to actually apprehend any of it. . . . Certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily. I would be lying if I said I knew with absolute certainty where the power of God resides in this world, but I do not think I have ever doubted that it is residing somewhere. . . . What I’m describing here probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and of course it is to a degree. . . . [Yet] I think that a willingness to Socratically struggle (with oneself and with others) over what reality and wisdom really are, even if (perhaps especially if) you never feel as though you have arrived at a conclusion as to what that reality is, is a sine qua non of belief. Socrates was no sophist: he was a realist, in the sense that he never appeared to feel that there wasn’t something real to all this talk about justice and virtue and wisdom, even if he could never articulate it with certainty (indeed, even if, as was recorded, the most he was ever sure of was that he ‘knew nothing’). Socrates spoke of his daimon; we might speak of a sort of holistic intuition, or Verstehen . . . [or of] King Solomon’s wisdom, which the Old Testament record curiously [describes] not only as knowledge, but as ‘largeness of heart’–which I take to mean not simply his sympathy for others’ claims, but his capacity to believe what it was they said as well.”

So, I believe in Santa, and Melissa goes along (though she thinks my philosophical reflections on that belief are taking a good thing too far). What do we do in our home? We buy presents and give them to our girls of course, setting some aside as from Santa. Does that display hypocrisy on my part? No, because we try not to nail down in their imaginations the specificity of transactions on Christmas Eve. We don’t particularly encourage their belief in the dominant, rather materialistic Santa Claus account (factory at the North Pole, the latest toys being pumped out by elves night and day, etc.), and we definitely try not to get sucked into all the (too easily corporatized) tropes of that account–Santa at the mall, e-mail accounts, and all the rest. If and when one of the girls–the oldest of whom is now eight–ask me, “Did Santa bring this particular present?” I’ll tell them what happened. But I’m not going to tell them there’s no Santa. The fact that he may not have, and may not ever, come down our chimney doesn’t mean I know that nothing ever comes down any child’s chimney anywhere on Christmas Eve. That would run against too strong a feeling to the contrary–a feeling that is both very old and very widespread.

Of course, for some others, who might like to be naive (if only at Christmastime), the fact that there are and have been so many different gift-givers, doing so many different things at different times and in different ways across Christendom–the Three Kings, the Christkindl, Sinterklaas, La Befana, and more–may seem an impediment to believing. But again, I don’t really get this. As I implied above, I consider myself basically a philosophical realist; I don’t think perspectivalism goes all the way down. But hermeneutics is, fundamentally, a realistic endeavor; it denies nothing about the text to think carefully about the, shall we say, “spirit” in which a text is seen and received. And that’s the point, really: seeing what’s there is so much a function of our receptivity to that which may be seen. Is that the same as saying “believing is seeing”? No, because it’s not that straightforward: Linus’s belief in the Great Pumpkin didn’t create a Great Pumpkin. But if the stories and folkways and prayers of millions of people over centuries of time have included seeing something in common at Christmastime, even if there is disagreement over what exactly it was that they saw . . . well, that strikes me as a pretty good case for not allowing cultural criticism and rational maturity to reductively strip reality entirely away. Seeing is feeling too, after all.

I’ve heard some believers criticize the wonderful carol, “Some Children See Him” because it makes the birth of the world’s Savior “relative.” He doesn’t look different depending on who sees Him!, is their refrain. What silliness. Such a believers are simple, Cartesian empiricists; they have accepted the idea that every belief must turn on an objective sight. But what we are prepared to see, what we are receptive to seeing, and what we feel when we see it, ultimately matters much, much more, I think, which is why the lyrics of this quaint Christmas hymn, as cloyingly liberal as they may be, are utterly appropriate to the holiday:

Some children see Him lily white
The infant Jesus born this night
Some children see Him lily white
With tresses soft and fair

Some children see Him bronzed and brown
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down
Some children see Him bronzed and brown
With dark and heavy hair

Some children see Him almond-eyed
This Savior whom we kneel beside
Some children see Him almond-eyed
With skin of yellow hue

Some children see Him dark as they
Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray
Some children see Him dark as they
And, ah, they love Him so

The children in each different place
Will see the Baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs but bright with heav’nly grace
And filled with holy light

O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering
Come worship now the infant King
‘Tis love that’s born tonight

Merry Christmas, everyone. Best wishes for a happy holiday. Close your eyes, listen to the skies, and all those good things.

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6 Responses to Seeing Him

  1. Tatiana on December 24, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    Ah, Russell Arben Fox, I always love how well you articulate that faith which so few of us have. I know that Santa is real. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Surely there is room for a person or group with advanced technology and advanced spirituality who finds joy, or works out his perdition, by doing anonymous good deeds for his lesser kin? To me it doesn’t require any elaborate justification or philosophical underpinnings. It’s straightforward and simple. Just as I am pleased by leaving out seed for the chipmunks, and just as I take joy in their innocent pleasure upon finding my gifts, so there are others in this universe, of which we know only the tiniest cranny in the nook of a corner so to speak, who find a similar joy with us.

    As we advance, do you see that there will be far greater and more horrific sin available to our powers? So that we, as we are now, appear as innocents to those more powerful than us? Is it any surprise that they find pleasure in doing us good?

    Think about it, in this universe there are creatures both smaller and larger than us, faster and slower, stronger and weaker. Of every trait there is a continuum which we fall somewhere upon. It only makes sense that there are also creatures smarter and less intelligent, kinder and crueler, more benevolent and more malevolent, weaker and more powerful. To imagine otherwise is to misunderstand the scale of the cosmos entirely.

  2. Adam Greenwood on December 24, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    Thanks, Russell F. Your essay here meant a lot to me the first time I read it and it still does. I feel weird admitting it but you ought to know.

  3. James on December 25, 2007 at 2:50 am

    I believe in Santa.

    Not necessarily the Jolly old elf with warp-speed, space flight capable, reindeer and an annual escort from the United States Air Force. (Although, showing http://www.noradsanta.org to my youngest was fun.) I believe in Santa the righteous gift giver. Who follows the example of the Savior and gives in love to all with no expectation of recognition or reward in this life. Santa is the archetype of the ideal home teacher or bishop who goes about tending to the needs of the saints even when they aren’t looking. Even if it means going out in the dead of night to see that they are taken care of. That example gives me something to try to emulate. I’m nowhere close to that level but if I keep trying, perhaps I’ll move down that path a little.

  4. Ray on December 25, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Merry Christmas, Russell – and Santa, wherever you are.

  5. John David Payne on December 26, 2007 at 12:39 am

    I don’t get it.

  6. Jonovitch on December 27, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    I was impressed with the intelligent way a former boss of mine told me how he dealt with the issue of believing in Santa with his three boys. As they got older, inevitably they’d ask. So he told them the truth.

    “No, Santa isn’t real,” he’d explain to them (referring to the fat guy in a red suit, not the philosophical version presented by Russell above.) “It’s a lot of fun and it makes people feel good, but he’s not a real person (even though his modern character is based on St. Nikolaus). But I want you to know that Jesus Christ *is* real, that he *was* born in Bethlehem, and he *does* live still today. *That* is not a story. That is the truth.”

    He’d explain to them that they can continue to pretend about Santa and can still have fun. He’s a grown adult, and he still pretends, so there’s no reason a younger person can’t still have fun with it. He didn’t offer excuses and he didn’t try to justify anything with overly complicated answers. He just told it like it is, which is exactly what his boys were asking for, and at the same time solidified the reality of Jesus Christ.

    He explained that even though this method might keep from prolonging the game another year or two, the honesty helps to creates an unspoken trust between the parent and child that comes back to pay huge benefits when the child has much more serious questions about believing in something he’s never seen. You can still continue the game with the older kids by letting them in on the secret with a wink and a nudge as they continue the tradition with their younger siblings.

    But without telling the truth as soon as they ask, you risk the damaging prospect of having to confess to lying about some things (Santa, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy) while claiming other things to be true (Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, the Church). It’s a tangling web and a confusing set of complex conversations and justifications that I’d rather avoid with my teenage kids once they get to that point.

    I thought it was a brilliant solution to a common problem, and I’m certainly going to apply it when my kids ask about Santa. There’s plenty of time later to discuss the finer points of an existential spirit of Christmas being embodied by all of us that is the real Santa Claus. I just don’t think a ten year old is going to go for that.

    Jon