If you know any Romance languages or have traveled, you’ve come across the word santa many times. Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Santa Lucia, San Francisco. Santa means “holy” or “holy one.” There in the name is a hint, not just about the origins of his name in St. Nicholas but also about his nature. He’s not just a goblin; he’s a saint, the object of religious awe and honor. What if we treated him like a saint as much as a gnome?
He’s a holy ﬁgure, and yet I don’t want to take the fun away from him and make him into a humorless saint. After all, his jovial spirit and sense of generosity are precisely what make him holy. But if we lose the “Santa” in Santa Claus, I fear we’ll reduce him to a fairy-tale ﬁgure rather than a serious representative of the evolved human being the Christmas story is all about. I want to restore a deep appreciation for Santa and the values he represents—happiness, joviality, generosity, and kindness. These are the very qualities central to the new world envisioned in the Gospels. Jesus was the one who advocated a life of agape, of love and affection, rather than rules and authorities.
Accordingly, Santa is a non-authoritarian elder, a man of golden character who also appreciates fun and games and children. When Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me,” he is making way for Santa. In fact, at that moment in the Gospel story, Jesus looks like Santa. Santa lives at the North Pole, a special liminal place, a kind of utopian nowhere. He lives outside of normal human life and takes his meaning from that nowhere place.
There the veil is thin, as the popular saying goes, and enchanting things happen. There you are not bound by the limits of natural law. Reindeer ﬂy, a sleigh holds a worldful of presents, and billions of letters are read and answered. It’s a realm run on the principles of magic and miracle. Santa embodies a special spirit that is cheerful, kind, open to children, and above all generous. But Jesus is also a holy one, kind, open to children and generous.
He too is cheerful, although that aspect didn’t make it into the accepted versions of the Gospel. In the so-called Gnostic Gospels, Jesus laughs at and with his students. The profound and yet very human story of his ﬁrst miracle, at the wedding party in Cana, also shows a warm and caring Jesus, someone who is not above offering the ordinary, human gift of wine (setting aside the important symbolism of the story) when it has run out. Santa brings happiness to the world through gifts. He has rosy cheeks and, though a saint, he is not gaunt and ascetic in appearance. He loves life. His key expression is a laugh: “Ho, ho, ho!” Notice the ritual aspects of these qualities.
“Ho, ho, ho,” understood widely as the language and vocabulary of Santa, is his mantra—ritual words that express his being and his power. In some religions, a mantra is a word or words that, sounded thoughtfully, can make any action sacred. A person who is initiated into a special spiritual role may be given a special mantra to use throughout his or her life. These are words used to sanctify rather than to express an idea or a feeling.
In this sense, Santa’s words, “ho, ho, ho,” serve well to manifest his essence and his values. Jesus says, “The kingdom is near.” The angel says, “Don’t be afraid.” Santa says, “Ho, ho, ho.” With his stocking cap, bells, wide girth and cheerful mantra, Santa also has qualities of the holy fool. This is a ﬁgure in many spiritual traditions who does silly things and makes people laugh, but his purpose is deadly serious: to help people get away from the heavy, rational burden of a ponderous life. He wants to break through the logical and the practical in a funny way, using gentle humor as a means to the holy. This role is particularly ﬁtting because Christmas comes during the gap between darkness and sunlight—the perfect time, traditionally, to stop being normal and to begin experimenting with alternative ways. What about those bells that Santa wears?
For one thing, they emphasize the shaman side of Santa. Shamans might wear or use rattles that are either like bells or are bells. They announce the presence of the shaman or the evocation of spirits. They protect the shaman and those he is healing. They may be used to summon a spirit or to make the realm of spirit accessible and open. They can sanctify a space or play a role in healing, perhaps opening the person to the inﬂuence of a spirit.
Santa’s bells announce the presence of someone from another dimension. You hear the bells and you are ready to suspend your disbelief and open up your imagination. Santa’s bells are similar to the ones I would ring as an altar boy during the solemn moment when bread, according to belief, became the body of Christ: a liminal breakthrough in the Catholic Mass. Sometimes these bells are chimes, but sometimes jingling bells, just like Santa’s, and for a similar purpose.
It’s a small, almost insigniﬁcant signal, this jingle of bells, but the realm of the sky almost always announces itself quietly and gently. Nothing overdone. Extreme subtlety. I once observed a shaman teaching his students how to use his bell-like rattle to break through to the other world. I can imagine Santa teaching his elves exactly how to wear the jingles so they can do their magic. All of these qualities together make Santa a good image for the holiday. He has the solstice liminal qualities: the joy of new light, the inversion of normal values and customs, an otherworldly costume, a recognizable mantra. At the same time, he embodies the Jesus values of generosity and care. In other words, he blends the two basic ingredients of the season: solstice liminality with the Jesus utopian vision for humankind.
It’s too bad that we have to grow up and away from our “belief” in Santa, with all its vivid imagination and unbounded kindness. We are left with a much cooler, darker, more dangerous world, one that is on its own, without the assuring presence of a holy one who lives at the North Pole ready to give us what we need. We think we mature and grow out of naive belief when we stop believing in Santa, but it would be more appropriate to say that we lose our sense of enchantment and the magic of what it means to be human.
Imagine if we simply translated the name Santa into our own language, saying in English “Holy One.” We might have a different understanding of Christmas and gift-giving and partying. We might restore a sense of the holy to Santa, or at least a degree of seriousness and gravity. What if “The Holy One” visited our home and left us gifts? What if “The Holy One” gave gifts to children all over the world? This new sense of Santa might inspire us to bring the spirit of Christmas into our world. For me, Santa is a deep expression of the true meaning of Christmas.
It’s a meaning that could inspire anyone of any spiritual faith or of no particular faith. It could give us more reason to do special things for this festival, especially to open our hearts in kindness and generosity. Generosity is a special virtue that is often overlooked. Santa models it. Who else gives wonderful gifts to every child on the planet? Who else thinks so highly of children as to dedicate his life to them? Who else links arms with parents to improve the lives of children? What other spiritual ﬁgure is known primarily for his rosy cheeks and jovial laugh?
In the spirit of Santa and of trying to make the most of the spirituality of Christmas, as I mentioned, I always buy a toy for my children, no matter how old they are. By now they expect a toy from me, sometimes a board game that the family can play together and sometimes an outdoor gadget that will get us playing. Santa reminds us that play and fun are essential to a meaningful life. Let me give you a little piece of psychological logic that I like to use. If our lives are only serious and lack sufﬁcient fun and play, then our seriousness is probably a defense against play and not fully real in itself. Our seriousness would improve and deepen if we allowed more play in life.
The opposite is also true: If we are not serious about life, then our playing is probably superﬁcial —mere entertainment when it should be the source of deep joy. I recommend that we restore the true meaning of Christmas: good gift-giving, fun and play, great food, and family gatherings. If you look closely at the Gospel stories and teachings, you will ﬁnd a similar if not identical philosophy. The best way to celebrate Christmas, if the emphasis is on Christ, is to live out the spirit of those teachings and example. If your preference is to focus on the natural symbols of the solstice, then this is also a time of unusual generosity and fun.