I had a talk not too long ago with a very intelligent person about Christian Christmas stories. He asked, “Surely you don’t actually believe that the Christmas story you preach really happened?” It was a question that I settled long ago, although it reminded me that many people still struggle with their faith around the holidays.
Even though there are probably some good reasons to ponder the “reality” of the Nativity story over the holidays, I honestly don’t even think about it anymore. I once read a quote that went something like, “The question is not always whether it is real, but whether it matters…the things that matter most become reality.”
Atheist Sam Harris has written about “tiny lies” and the cost they have on our culture. He even discusses Santa Claus, taking on a popular non-religious Christmas tradition as a form of deception. I see Harris, much like my friend, in a very “stuck” place. When we bring the wrong question to the table, we often feel the need to “force feed” answers. No one likes being force-fed.
When it comes to Santa, the question for families is not so much whether or not he and his reindeer troop are real; rather the question is whether or not he matters. Because if he matters, every family finds a way to make him real during the season.
Some families do not think perpetuating a Santa Claus story is a big deal; I respect that choice. They engage perfectly well with their children over Christmas and often find ways to foster the same spirit of giving. The idea that the cultural story of “Santa” may have inspired their own traditions is largely forgotten, but certainly the story had an unspoken effect on when and how the family celebrates and gives.
Santa can be a point of contention among friends (especially when your neighbor’s child starts insisting to yours that there is no Santa), but even with such mild controversies, life moves on. People accept or deny whatever traditions that suit them and the world keeps turning with or without Santa Claus. It turns for good and bad reasons alike: Black Friday shoppers still trample. Credit card debts get racked up. Children experience profound anticipation and joy. Families adopt a giving strategy. Holiday cards, family photos, jingles on the radio, specials on the television, fruitcakes….all of it keeps moving forward.
Harris and others like him treat the Santa narratives with the same degree of skepticism as the birth of Jesus. I don’t want to be mistaken as equating the Nativity story to Santa Claus here because they matter for entirely different reasons. If I were to be honest, I don’t fret much over the “real history” of either story. To me, it’s the wrong question to ask because it gives us false sense of accomplishment on our way to a cheap truth.
More so than even a Santa Debate, questions of Christ’s birth are best framed around what matters, not the historicity of the event. At least for me…and to that it, I would say:
It matters…that the fundamental worth of the human body meant enough to God to become human. Christmas reality occurs as we honor and advocate for the sacred value of the human body.
It matters…that God so loved, that He gave fully of Himself. Christmas is real as we attune ourselves to God’s Spirit in order to give generously, without fear or holding back.
It matters…that Jesus was born into poverty and laid in the most unsanitary of places: an animal’s feeding trough. A Christmas reality finds solidarity with our neighbors in need.
It matters…that God came as an infant and depended upon flawed human beings to provide for Him. Understanding this prepares us for the reality of our own need for interdependence and for humility, trust, and grace.
It matters…that Jesus was not born an earthly king and that the government authorities in the birth story were so threatened by a tiny baby that they committed infanticide. A Christmas reality will give birth to a presence in us that uproots and redefines our notions of power.
It matters…that even the most despised workers of the age, dirty “blue-collar” shepherds, were invited to the manger. Christmas reality accepts that we are to as He was at His birth: inclusive, inviting, accepting.
It matters…that in our Nativity story, every character trusted in a future that he/she could not see. It matters that in some way, they all—even God Himself—trusted us with these wonderful narratives that serve us as “more than truth.”
For many people, questions about whether there was a recorded astronomical event that the wise men followed or whether Jesus truly was born during the census of Quirinius are challenges meant to investigate and check for accuracy. I can accept that, but I also know that I have lived long enough to see such questions do little more than cultivate an orchard of cold, pale trees that are incapable of bearing fruit. I have long since lost interest in asking them.
It seems to me, the better question to ask is: “What about this story matters?” When we’ve accepted what matters in the story, the Nativity is itself born into our hearts and made real day by day as we live it out in a shared community.
Should we find ourselves stuck this Christmas, wondering if Jesus was born during the Spring equinox rather than on December 25, or even find ourselves wondering if Jesus was ever born at all, then pause a moment to consider: Some stories are more than true and as such they both ask and deserve more from us.
When a story matters that much, we experience a whole new reality.
Have a Merry (and entirely real) Christmas!