Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

The Ethics of Jolly Old Elfland

Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, Dec 21, 1935
Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, Dec 21, 1935

“My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic.”

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

I will never forget how I felt as a child, trying to fall asleep so that Santa could at last do his joyous work. On Christmas mornings, there were always a few gifts from him, wrapped up in different paper than any of those given by my parents. One year, I wrote a letter and got one back in handwriting I was convinced did not belong to anyone in my house. Another year, I sat in rapt attention before the giant, wood-encased television at my grandmother’s house on Christmas eve, watching as the weather man said there was something they were picking up on the radar that they simply couldn’t explain. I knew it was him. I had the certainty that only faith could give.

Years later, however, as a young father, I had developed an unfortunate strain of zeal that bordered on the puritanical. In my desire to instill in my children the unvarnished truths of the faith, I neglected to cultivate in them a proper sense of wonder. When our oldest daughter was about six years old, I informed her (rather unceremoniously) that Santa Claus was not real.  At the time, I believed I was doing her a favor. Surely, she was better off knowing the true story of Christmas without the added distraction of the strangely aggrandized myth of St. Nicholas. After all, I had been told again and again over the years that he was nothing more than an artifact of our disastrously consumer culture. And when I was growing up, hadn’t I known other families who received their gifts on Christmas morning from “the Baby Jesus”? They seemed perfectly well-adjusted.

What I wouldn’t come to understand until quite a few years later was this:  in vanquishing the jolly old elf from my daughter’s imagination, I had chased away with him a large portion of the sense of awe that properly pertains to the miracle of Christ’s birth.

To a child, magic is not at all an outlandish thing. They live every day in a world of endless possibilities. Around any corner, there might be a fire-breathing dragon; under every bed or in the dark corners of any closet, a horrible lurking monster. The living room sofas and their scattered pillows are merely islands of safety amidst a sea of molten lava. Fairies are no doubt real if you stay up late and go out deep enough into the woods to catch one. Countless hours are spent discussing amongst themselves just which three things they’ll wish for when they finally come across an ancient, genie-filled lamp.

To the Christian parent in a world awash in resurgent paganism — from wicca to witchcraft to the heathen followers of the Norse pantheon — such flights of childish fantasy can at times seem tinged with danger. For the same reason certain exorcists warn mothers and fathers about Harry Potter as a possible gateway drug to the modern-day occult or the spiritual death trap of brightly-packaged Ouija Boards available at any toy store, the 21st-century follower of Jesus looks askance at any myth that seems poised to further diminish the Christian ethos.

Still, I propose that we reconsider our quotidian suspicions — though often justifiable — when it comes to Old St. Nick. Why should our children not contemplate this mysterious (if almost entirely mythologized) saint, ever unseen but as consistent as clockwork, who loves us so much that he gratuitously brings gifts to the children of the entire world, accomplishing superhuman feats of logistics and undetectable intrusion all in the course of one cold and starry night as we ready ourselves to celebrate the birth of our Heavenly King? We know that he expects the best from us, but we sense, as we imagine his twinkling eyes and barely-concealed smile beneath the downy drifts of his magnificent beard, that he wishes for all the world to find whatever small goodness we have done and nurture it into a roaring flame of virtue, like a glowing ember found beneath the ash pile of our misdeeds and sins. Santa Claus embodies what is most attractive about fatherly goodness; he is stern not from cruelty or anger, but because he earnestly desires our right action. He is loving and kind not because he is soft and emasculated, but because he wants to share the goodness of his great bounty with us, and so ennoble us by his gifts.

In the blossoming young mind, the almost unbearable excitement of the Santa Claus story, properly cultivated, can’t help but set the stage for the incredible mystery of the Infant Christ, who comes to us as an unmerited gift to grant us every good thing; Whose very blood was shed to show us the great mercy of God and the infinite bounty of heaven.

In 1904, Chesterton wrote of his own ever-growing belief in the idea of Santa Claus:

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way. As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation; I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good— far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed towards me. Of course, most people who talk about these things get into a state of some mental confusion by attaching tremendous importance to the name of the entity. We called him Santa Claus, because everyone called him Santa Claus; but the name of a god is a mere human label. His real name may have been Williams. It may have been the Archangel Uriel. What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea. Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void. Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can afford no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.

The gratuitous nature of goodness is the message of Santa Claus – that we are here through no merit of our own and live lives filled with breathtaking beauty and undeserved blessings. These things are true, even if there are no such things as flying reindeer to deliver them by sleigh, or a workshop full of elves somewhere above the arctic circle busily crafting them for our enjoyment. The truth is, there are better things even than these – nine choirs of flying angels bearing God’s gifts, and an eternal kingdom full of saints drawn from the lowliest places of the earth, praying for our salvation somewhere above the heavens.

British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is, of course, because such technology does things never before imagined; it exists outside the realm of our known horizon of possibilities. Faith is not unlike this. We believe in a God of miracles, if not magic. A God who created the cosmos and breathed life — with an intellect and free will — into nothing more grand than a handful of dust. A God who could turn water into wine, heal the sick, make the lame walk and the blind see, and raise the dead. We believe in a God who could somehow fit His omnipresence within the body of a human child, a child who grew to suffer and die for our sake on a cross. This child, our Christ, Who also rose from the dead, became truly present in bread and wine, giving the gift of Himself to those who believe in Him every day on altars all around the world.

I recall a parish tradition from my youth that I found quite touching. There was an elderly gentleman who would play Santa Claus each year and visit the children engaged in religious instruction one Sunday as Christmas approached. But once the children had had the chance to meet Santa, he didn’t disappear until the following December. At the end of the Christmas Midnight Mass, he would appear at the back of the Church and make his way slowly up the aisle, kneeling in a long moment of silent adoration before the Christmas creche before making an equally somber departure. I’m not an advocate of such innovations in the liturgy, but I admit that I always found this one well-meaning and pious.

The story of Santa Claus need not diminish the great mysteries of Christmas when it can exist alongside of them and point us in their direction. We believe in a God who is good, who gives freely, who is everywhere, who always watches – who knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake! It’s not such a stretch to see that Santa Claus can be viewed as a type of Christ, and if we allow our children to believe in him, we should do what we can to ensure that he points them toward the mystery of the Incarnation and the true meaning of Christmas.

Originally published on Dec 15, 2014.

31 thoughts on “The Ethics of Jolly Old Elfland”

  1. In my family, we talk about Santa Claus and we receive gifts from Santa Claus, but when pressed, we are up front that Santa Claus is just a story. I guess I want to keep my credibility for more important things. I regularly, randomly lie to my kids about all manner of things, but I do it transparently. When the time for seriousness comes, I tell them the truth. When I relate to them the roughly two incidents in my life of actual mind-blowing encounter with the supernatural, I want to do so as a person who is scrupulously honest when not obviously playing a prank. When I evangelize them, I want them to know they’re not just hearing what I want them to believe — they are hearing what I myself believe.

    My Father-in-Law has been in a reflective mode recently and has talked about the Great Depression/World War II generation’s (his parents’) desire to give their children everything. They suffered through a whole lot, and saw it was a triumph that they could give their children such a high standard of living. Love and Pride, all twisted up together. Disastrous results.

    I don’t know for sure how widespread the belief in Santa was, before the twentieth century. But I have a nagging sense that, like everything else, it was blown wildly out of proportion by ambitious parents trying to out-do their own upbringing.

    One of the key virtues of the Santa Claus myth, in my opinion, is that it acts as a mechanism to give gifts without receiving any credit for giving. You wrap a gift, write a name on it, and the implication is that it comes from Santa Claus. What a convenient fiction for a generous heart! You get all the joy of giving, without any expectation of reciprocation. Maybe instead of giving our kids the joy of believing in Santa, we be letting them experience the joy of being Santa.

  2. I find it odd that the US celebrates this type of magic at Christmas from Santa and not St Nicholas day like most of Christendom has. I have more of a problem with this (and with the origin of our iconography from such an anti-Catholic pen as Nash!) than the stories of an elf giving presents or Odin hidden under modern guise bowing to his Lord and Savior at Mass.

    • Not odd. We are a nation of immigrants my friend and holiday traditions naturally evolve, especially after 600 years or so. In fact, I would argue that with the over-the-top political correctness of late, when some one wishes me a “Merry Christmas”, I tend to take them seriously, more seriously than I would have just 8 years ago.

      In the spirit of GKC (and 1P5) thank St. Nick for your nation… it could be a lot worse.

      • Originally, we were English Colonialists, not immigrants. And the vast majority of the population in America in 1960 were native Americans; that is, whites of european descent

        • You are correct that the settlers of European colonies in the new world were Colonists. However in regards to the concept of a nation of immigrants, that point is irrelevant. Also, respectfully, your definition of “Native American” is wrong. Native equates to indigenous, which the Europeans clearly were not.

          To make your statement more correct, originally “we” were Dutch, Spanish, French even some Germans, and believe it or not there were some Scottish exiled by Cromwell who ended up here in the 17th century… And yes English as you stated, but they were mostly Puritan, who had very little in common with Christendom, accompanied with venture capitalist, who held little spiritual stock. It is also worth stating that African slaves were also present for the founding of Jamestown.

          So even from onset of European migration to the Americas there was very little chance of Christmas traditions being exclusively anyone’s. Add in the Irish, and Asians of the 19th and Mediterranean peoples of the early 20th centuries, plus the Middle East and Hispanic surge of late…

          I think the our status of a nation of immigrants stands, and our traditions are a reflection of that status.

          • IANS is a native american in the fullest sense of the word for he was born in America and one can not get more native than that.

            O, maybe you are thinking of the political classification where, the Humpty Dumpty political class, uses words (Native American) that have a gnostic meaning differing from what most men think they mean for if one is not counted as a native when he is born in a particular country, then you know the political class is lying to you and trying to disappear you

            We are not a nation of immigrants, unless one ignores the Federalist Papers, one of which references a people united in race and language and culture

            And it is interesting to note that when it comes to slavery one never is presumed to be referencing white slaves (slavs) who were working in the northern factories while the hypocritical abolitionists were agitating over the negro slaves only )they could have freed the white slaves, but, they didn’t care about that )

            In any event, this was a fun diversion.

            Have a Blessed Christamstide

          • I did not make any presumption on the race of the slaves mentioned. I specifically wrote “African slaves”. And I’m sorry but words have meanings – to be born American is not the same as a bloodline native to the continent of America – it is not a political classification but a racial one. Do not take “nation of immigrants” to be the only definition of our nation – we are also a nation of laws, a nation under God.

            Thank you for citing the FP’s – all too rare. However again irrelevant, the excerpt does not argue for the endowment of the USA on a single Anglo people. In fact – if you read into Madison, Jay and Hamilton you’ll find that Judaeo-Christian ethics (which united all of Europe, not just the English) combined with Cicero’s theories on natural law and government, are the inspirations behind our founding documents – particularly the FP’s.

            As for your assertion of white slaves laboring in northern factories in the middle of the 19th century – I challenge you to cite this historical point

            … before the Illuminati remove all such references.

          • This is fun, guests are cleaning-up after IANS made breakfast.

            The white man was on this continent prior to the red man.

            The Injuns called this area of the world, turtle island; so, to IANS the Injuns you cite are TINs (Turtle Island Natives) whereas IANS is a Native American.

            There is no such thing as Judeo-Christian ethics for a real Catholic; for judiased proddies, yes.

            I’ll have to get back here later for the link to the white slaves in northern factories but it is not surprising this recondite knowledge is possessed solely by cranky autodidacts 🙂

            Blessed Christmastide, brother.

          • Ah yes, the great Turtle island migration. How could I forget that monumental event in human history? We’re dangerously close a debate on the migrant status of Adam and Eve after Eden.

            I look forward to original citations… Until then Merry Christmas!

          • Adam was the original immigrant for he was created by God out of the uncursed earth and then brought into the Garden

            Gen 2; 7,8

            So, our immigration policy should be only men who are children of God – Baptised – are eligible for immigration.

            Vote for IANS

          • Hmm… I think Adam’s legal status would be more of a refugee. Regardless, I commend you on your first source citation.

          • +++++++++ begin quotes +++++++++++

            At the time when Lincoln inaugurated coercion against the seven seceding Southern states, there were (rounding off 1860 census figures) 1,387,000 slaves in the seceded states and 1,817,000 (or over 56 per cent of the total American slave population) still in the Union, including nearly 3,700 in the District of Columbia and 18 in New Jersey. When White servitude is acknowledged as having existed in America, it is almost always termed as temporary “indentured servitude” or part of the convict trade, which, after the Revolution of 1776, centered on Australia instead of America. The “convicts” transported to America under the 1723 Waltham Act, perhaps numbered 100,000. The indentured servants who served a tidy little period of 4 to 7 years polishing the master’s silver and china and then taking their place in colonial high society, were a minuscule fraction of the great unsung hundreds of thousands of White slaves who were worked to death in this country from the early l7th century onward. Up to one-half of all the arrivals in the American colonies were Whites slaves and they were America’s first slaves. These Whites were slaves for life, long before Blacks ever were. This slavery was even hereditary. White children born to White slaves were enslaved too. Whites were auctioned on the block with children sold and separated from their parents and wives sold and separated from their husbands. Free Black property owners strutted the streets of northern and southern American cities while White slaves were worked to death in the sugar mills of Barbados and Jamaica and the plantations of Virginia.

            +++++++++++++++++ end quotes+++++++++++


            IANS is having some fun by now posting copy and pastes without attribution for he thinks himself unworthy of praise knowing what ought be known 🙂

          • I’ll try to refocus the discussion:

            You claim the white European is indigionous to the Americas and therefore can not be considered an immigrant to them. You claim a segment of the white population was enslaved and forced to work in northern factories. I have repeatedly challenged you to provide source citations for such claims. You have yet to do so. And finally you have evaded the question of why you refer to yourself in the 3rd person? (just curious)

            If you are confident in your history and in your world view then these things should not be difficult.

          • Sorry IANS but that is passing the buck. The burden of citation is on the one who states something that is meant to represent a fact. Otherwise one might come across as a biased, history revisionist, bent on a narrative that suites a world view, rather than an honest, inquisitive student of historical topics, focused on the truth.

            I just want you to be fairly interpreted…

          • While there are men who tduirng Christmastide think a buck passed is not necessarily a buck given; but capable of rational breath are those who think serious secular history is always revisionist – unless one is a whig.

            You do not seem to be capable of catching a humorous clue, so, IANS will help you along.

            IANS has posted more than one source but you gainsaid one and declared it irrelevant – as though you are some sort of authority.

            You may consider your own self an authority but, like the cheese, you stand alone.


          • Well quoting the Federalist Papers is irrelevant when it comes to this nation being awash with immigrants. And it certainly isn’t a source for the claims I specifically addressed. Still waiting for those…

            And seriously, why 3rd person?

  3. One curious element of Christmas morning that gradually occurred was that each child crept over to me–each child who had come to understand the nature of Santa–and whispered a fervent ‘thank you!’ so that the younger children couldn’t hear. There was such a sense of gratitude that could now be directed … somewhere. I got the impression that before, when gifts just appeared, they were bewildered about who to thank. It wasn’t God, as GKC came to understand, but it wasn’t the parents either. It was just perplexing. We have to thank someone, and yet during the ‘Santa years,’ there was no avenue for an entirely human response.

    I’d never go back and remove Santa–too much fun!–but I was gratified to see them grow out of it in such a healthy way.

  4. Great article Steve. I have argued the same point my self many times – so now I’ll email this article to all the Grinches!

  5. Excellent article. Sometimes orthodox people get so orthodox they forget that a big part of Christianity is that thing about being like a little child – humble, accepting and ready for joy.

  6. Santa points all children, us included, to that great mystery where the Supreme giver of gifts bestows on all the children of the world the perfect Gift in a single night. Jesus Himself used fiction (parables) to reveal deep mysteries of the kingdom of God.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...