I wanted to start my blog with the subject “Jesus and Santa Claus” because of the history I personally have with this argument. For me, it was one of my earliest (or first) arguments that peeled me away from a belief in God. It would actually take a long time for me to get to non-belief, and lots more information and examining of arguments as well. But before I get ahead of myself, basically, it started like this. In my early 20s, I began telling this “joke” among friends:
“What is the difference between Jesus and Santa Claus? One is an elaborate fairy tale, designed to tell children, that rewards good behavior with the promise of gifts. The other is a fat man in a red suit.”
Maybe it’s a corny joke. Go easy on me, okay? I’m not a comedian. But the point in telling that little story of my early 20s is that on some level, I had noticed that Christianity was a control device in exactly the same manner as the Santa Claus myth, and I wasn’t convinced that Jesus wasn’t a myth either. But other than telling my little joke, I really didn’t think too much farther on the topic of Jesus than “I’m not sure, who knows”.
My then-wife, on a couple of occasions, had called me an atheist during those years. At the time I would immediately rejected that label. I don’t think I really rejected the label outright, as if I was repulsed by it, but I’m generally not the kind of person that likes to wear a label unless I’ve had sufficient time to examine what it means to be someone with that label. So no, I was not ready yet to call myself an atheist.
That’s the way it stayed for about a decade and a half. I didn’t go to church, and I regarded religion and religious belief as nothing more than a possibility that I hadn’t really spent any time researching. Why then, you ask, did I joke about Jesus and Santa Claus? Seriously, I can’t remember. I should have kept a diary. Maybe I just liked pointing out what I saw as a silly parallel. Maybe on some level I considered it probable that it was just made up. I don’t really know.
But let’s move this story along. Somewhere in my 30s now. At some point, I had seen or heard that Christmas traditions were just stolen from Pagan cultures. By now, well into the age of the internet and search engines, I was able to spend a few minutes, which turned into an afternoon, looking up Christmas traditions and where they originated. Honestly, I had to laugh. As you may have noticed, I wasn’t very religious at this point anyway, but the discovery that Christmas was entirely a pagan holiday, stolen and rebranded, struck me as one of the funniest things I had learned. Jesus and Santa Claus were getting more similar by the minute.
What did I learn was stolen? Well, for one, the date. The 25th of December never appears in the bible, but it is on or about the winter solstice. Christmas trees, a favorite of the faithful worldwide and a major holiday industry, is not only a pagan tradition, but expressly forbidden in the bible itself. Early church officials were really pissed when their followers did this because it was a pagan tradition and therefore blasphemous. Gift giving, yule logs, caroling, mistletoe, holly, wreaths, wassail, green and red, and burning candles all had rich pagan traditions that kept on after Christianity made its way across the continents in the first millennium. As an aside, I find it ridiculously humorous when Christians rally around the phrase “Keep Christ in Christmas”, because if we took out all the pagan traditions, you’re basically left with nothing. You don’t even have a date to celebrate.
Now, while I found it interesting that we took the celebration tradition from pagans, it doesn’t change the fact that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Maybe so, but there is still a serious problem with that- enter Santa Claus.
After spending a little time learning about early church history, I realized that the equation of Jesus and Santa Claus is more than just a story about being naughty or nice. It turns out that the formation of the Jesus story, and the Santa Claus story, share similar traits. I’ll blog about this later, but Jesus and Santa both follow the history of a story that is made up. Both were incomplete, different, borrowed, and often competing ideas with few detail until the story was packaged and sold at a specific time, and retroactively at that. Only after this mythologically formulated beginning did the legend grow.
Just like Santa, the myth of Jesus grew out of multiple different cultures and traditions, the various stories merged or separated along the way depending on the writer or artist, and one of those versions became solidified in the public’s mind after branding. Coca-Cola did it for Santa, and the Council of Nicea did it for Jesus.
So, Jesus and Santa Claus share very similar patterns of evolution, which is to say they are both made up. But I’m still missing what I consider to be the most interesting comparison between the two, and most important as an easy rebuttal to one of the most widely used defenses of the faith. You see, with a fairly basic understanding of the sciences, logic, and history, it’s not that hard to defeat any or all defense of the religion. Every one of them hinges on cherry picked information or faulty logic. From the believer in the pew, to preachers, to the highly educated and paid apologists of the faith, every one of their arguments fail the most basic standards of logic and evidence. From William Lane Craig to your church-going friend, as the argument fails they run to their “safe space”, which is “faith.” This argument can be summed up by some sort of phrasing about “feeling Jesus” or other such personal testimony. And frankly, you can’t debate against personal feelings.
However, by invoking Santa Claus, we can give an account for those feelings. For example, back when I was still a small child, and Santa was still very real to me, I could FEEL his presence when I walked into the living room full of freshly stacked presents. In a room that I had walked through barely moments before, suddenly there was very real, very tangible proof that the magical and wonderful gift giver had just passed through that very room, and his presence was palpable. I could FEEL the slight movement of air left over from his hasty departure. I could SEE where he must have just stepped as he laid the presents down around the tree. I could SMELL the difference of the atmosphere from his traveled clothing. Yes, HE WAS HERE, and I KNEW IT!
Yet, as it turns out, I was completely wrong. Years later, when I had my own children, my parents would laugh about how they were able to fool us enough to get the presents in place during temporary distraction literally in the next room. Or how we fooled ourselves into thinking that it was mere seconds since we had walked through, while it was in fact a good 20 minutes. I would later use these techniques to help my children enjoy a magical and special childhood.
But the point is, I REALLY felt Santa, a non-existent person. I honestly and completely could sense his presence. And yet, he’s honestly and completely made-up. He was never there, because he never existed. And if we can REALLY feel the presence of someone that doesn’t exist, then Jesus doesn’t have to be real to be felt. Every Christian that testifies to being graced by the presence of Jesus is fooling themselves just like I fooled myself into sensing Santa Claus. Jesus IS Santa Claus for adults.
I suppose I could update my joke. “What is the difference between Jesus and Santa Claus? One is an elaborate fairy tale, designed to tell children, that rewards good behavior with the promise of gifts, and is convincing enough where believers trick themselves into believing that they feel the presence of the character. The other is a fat man in a red suit.”
So, I obviously still have no comedic writing style nor timing, but it’s useful to know what started as a not-very-good joke in my early 20s turned out to be a lot more accurate than I could have imagined.
The Spartan Atheist