Friday, November 25, 2016

Oh no. It's nearly Christmas!

I must confess, Christmas is not one of my favourite times of the year. I know there are plenty of people who get really excited, look forward to the possibility of snow and can't wait to drag a tree into the house and cover it in tinsel and other assorted decorations. Not me. Sorry.

Having got that out in the open, the reason for writing this post is how we handle the story of Father Christmas. I read a short piece in the paper the other day about an article in a medical journal by two psychiatrists about the dangers of the Santa narrative in a post-truth world. Now it may have passed you by, but 'post-truth' is the word of the year for 2016. In a nutshell, post-truth is about discovering that we've been lied to about something and then in turn distrusting facts in favour of emotions when we make choices like whether to stay in the EU or elect a President. As a side note there was an interesting interview with Trevor Noah on the Today programme (Radio 4's morning news and current affairs programme) this morning about the Trump victory. If it's available on iPlayer it might be worth a listen.

Anyway, back to Santa and post-truth problems. The problem, according to the article comes when our children discover that the story isn't all we've been telling them. You get the drift without giving anyway any secrets! The argument follows: if our parents lied about that, then what else have they lied about? Can we really trust anything anyone tells us? This in itself presents a problem, but there's another issue with the traditional Father Christmas story. Only well-behaved children with a 12 month track record of being good will get presents and then only according to the disposable income of their parents. Apparently Santa is more of a capitalist than we might have first thought. Christmas, it turns out, is a meritocracy.

Now, let's shift tack for a moment and think about how we handle Christmas as Christian parents. What do we do with Santa? I never bought into the whole "Jesus is the reason for the season" mantra. He's the reason we celebrate, but that's because we redeemed a celebration rather than established one. We offered a new story, an alternative view of the world. Something we'd do well to remember. But we live with these two stories, the Jesus born in poverty and obscurity offering hope and redemption to anyone who wants it, and Santa, an all-seeing, judgmental old man who might have a jolly smile but who's been monitoring your behaviour all year round and will reward you accordingly.

Perhaps we need to set about redeeming Christmas again. Not in terms of putting Christ at the heart of it, but reframing Father Christmas in a narrative of grace that might allow us to move from that story to the gospel in a better way. What if Santa came and blessed you with a gift despite your past record? What if the point of his gift was to let you know that you were not forgotten, despite the evidence of your situation or circumstance?If my hazy memory of the St Nicholas story is anything to go by then this is closer that the "naughty or nice" narrative of more recent times.

As Christians, particularly as Evangelical Christians, we can struggle with these things. But what if we looked at them from a perspective that was rooted in grace and not just winning a doctrinal argument. Maybe that would mean we wouldn't have to face the post-truth questions quite as much.

My favourite Christmas service I was ever involved with came pretty early in our ministry days. We were in Newark and I came up with the idea to explore a conversation Jesus and Father Christmas might have had. I don't remember the details. I know they talked about how it felt to be thought about only once a year, to be expected to perform to amuse or convince people of their identity.

If I were doing it again this year maybe we'd try and work a more redeeming angle. Let Christmas be about getting what you haven't earned and what you don't deserve.

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