How Santa Perpetuates Idolatry in Pop Culture and Politics
We are creatures who are born to worship. Jonathan Haidt underscores this fact in his best selling book, The Righteous Mind, where he argues that the essence of our humanity rests upon our ineluctable drive to define our world within the framework of the sacred and the profane. Or, as the Bob Dylan song tells it, “You gotta serve somebody.”
The ancient Israelites exemplified this need to serve over 3400 years ago in the story of Exodus. As God devotedly freed them from bondage by inflicting plagues on Egypt and providing pillars of cloud by day and fire by night to lead them to the Promised Land, they witnessed; the parting of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, and countless other miracles along the way. However, they appeared to be ruled by the motto, “What have you done for me lately?” since when Moses left to get the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai (taking 40 days and 40 nights) and God was not performing miracles like their personal show pony, they became impatient.
In their concern that Moses was taking too long, the Israelites demanded his elder brother, Aaron, construct another god. With little resources at their disposal out in the desert, they became creative and constructed a molten god in the form of a calf using what they did have, their golden earrings and ornaments. They built an altar to this golden calf and offered sacrifices. Of course, they still needed to worship; they just bet on the wrong horse, or golden calf as it were. Back up on Mount Sinai, God warned Moses that the Israelites had “corrupted themselves” by worshiping a false god. Flash forward three millennia and not much has changed.
But, you may say, “I don’t subscribe to any religion, so the notion of false gods doesn’t apply to me.” Although we may feel the worship of false gods could not apply to us if we are non-believers, the desire for worship transcends religion, culture, and belief systems. In our modern society, we have infinitely more idols in our pantheon to select from than did the Israelites in the desert. These idols are both tangible and intangible. They may manifest in forms to include an obsession with fame, money, success, the image of perfection, our intellect, ideologies — and there’s even a term for worshiping ourselves: narcissism. For many in Hollywood, the god of worship appears in the form of the Oscar, a golden statue that fittingly bears a striking resemblance to a particular Egyptian deity. Sometimes we idolize a cause we believe in; however, the magnifying lens of dogma may corrupt even the noblest of causes.
Idol worship takes root early. To illustrate, let us take a closer look at an innocuous Disney-like character that has been taken to an extreme, distorting its narrative over time, and in the process, transforming an animated cartoon character into a golden calf: Santa. Nothing could be more iconic in our childhood imaginings of Christmas than good old Saint Nick sliding down our chimneys to deliver gifts while sleeping children dream of dancing sugar plums. Countless cartoons and stories frame narratives that paint those who reject Santa as the baddies, and of course, they are punished with lumps of coal and are blacklisted as naughty. What kind of Grinch could reject such a lovable, fantastic character that, though a product of make-believe, brings joy to the hearts of boys and girls the world over (or so we are led to believe)? Well I’ll be that grinch…
— Santa The False God —
Santa is not only a false god, but the false god starter kit — indoctrinating young children into worship at an early age by deifying a fairy tale figure who belongs within the ilk of Bambi, Dumbo, and Snow White. In order to see this, we must symbolically be willing to take the “red pill” from Morpheus of The Matrix fame and be willing to dispel our blissful illusions.
Through the red pill, the image of Santa with his rosy cheeks and fluffy white beard dissolves and gives way to Mad Men’s Don Draper, standing there with a smirk on his face and glint in his eye. And although Christmas is a day meant for Christians to commemorate the birth of Christ, through the influence of advertising, master marketing, and sophistry, we end up celebrating the opposite of all Jesus is supposed to represent. That is, instead of honoring Christ, we exalt the Golden Calf of Santa.
As part of this veneration, we indoctrinate our children from a young age to worship the other pagan gods that belong in Santa’s mythos: Greed, Materialism, and Consumerism. We, ourselves, provide our offerings to these rapacious gods at the altar of Madison Avenue. They are difficult to appease. Only when we max out our credit cards, go into debt, and buy every last Nintendo, Princess Pony, and video game, will they be satisfied. Sometimes we prove our devotion by fighting each other over the latest hyped-up toy that sits on the shelf. This self-denigrating behavior is highly pleasing to them.
Lies and deception give birth to false gods. The web of lies that we have created around Santa — where to begin? Although we all want to model honesty and integrity for our children, we somehow feel obligated to concoct the most elaborate lies about Santa. We make it our mission to ensure they believe he is real, even when they express sensible doubts. We describe to our children — who would probably be just as happy to have him be a fictional character like Elsa, in Frozen, or Mickey Mouse — a complex narrative involving his home in the North Pole, Elves working tirelessly year-round to make their toys (an echo of the sweatshops in China and third world countries where the cheap toys are actually made), flying reindeer, etc. We then tell children he showed up on the night of Christmas Eve (home invasion) while they were sleeping. And often, since their critical reasoning skills are beginning to form, they question how this could be. Not wanting to get out of favor with the invisible powers that reign over Santa’s image, we resolutely maintain that he showed up on Christmas Eve and that he indeed is real. Thus, we gaslight them to keep the illusion alive.
A savvy child who uncovers the pretense, or a child whose parents maintained Santa in context as fictional, will want to reveal the farce to their friends at school or tell their younger siblings. A mother or father, not wanting to upset other parents, may tell their child to go along with the charade, thereby teaching the child to lie. Ironically, we celebrate this ostensibly religious holiday by breaking three of the Ten Commandments: worshiping a false god, idolatry, and lying. We also invite breaking a fourth: “Thou shall not covet.” Because the materialistic nature of the holiday highlights wealth disparities, it can cause children to envy the gifts that peers who have wealthier parents receive. (It also conveys a sense of shame to these kids since, after all, Santa is supposed to bestow gifts based on a child’s goodness, not their parent’s economic status.) And that is just the beginning…
The character of Santa evolved from the legendary monk, St. Nick, who, according to the folk tale, gave away the entirety of his inheritance to the poor and then traveled the countryside to help the sick and needy. While this is a heartwarming image, it certainly does not inspire the sale of Xboxes. So marketers, Coca-cola’s ad agency chief among them, made St. Nick over into their own image and one that best served them. We now have their new and improved version — Santa 2.0. And since Christmas has traditionally been a time of reflection on God, what better way to divert that attention than by having Santa assume the role of God in this new religious idiom. Father God has been replaced with “Father Christmas.”
Furthermore, the central tenet of the Christian faith is belief — Christians are often simply referred to as “believers.” This core tenet has been hijacked by Santa. We are told through countless renditions of the Santa story that we just need to “believe” in St Nick. What used to be children’s prayers of peace for the world and goodwill to all have devolved into petitions to Santa for material goods. The substitution becomes one of a god that sanctifies greed. And as part of this mockery, godlike traits have been conferred upon him.
Santa is omniscient and omnipresent. Replacing church hymns which sing of these as defining qualities of God, we instead sing devotional songs attributing these traits to Santa: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good so you better be good for goodness sake…” And the absurdity of Santa trying to usurp this role makes him come across as one who suffers from a Cluster B type personality disorder that deludes him into believing he is God and that he possesses the ability to reward virtue and punish evil. This would at least explain his lack of healthy boundaries with all the spying on our kids he does. Or maybe he just fell on his head one too many times coming down the chimney. Either way, leaving some psych meds out along with the milk and cookies would probably be a good idea.
Unfortunately, we have become codependent enablers of his condition, tirelessly covering up for him through lies and gaslighting our children about this cartoon character. We add a pinch of neurosis to the mix by promoting a Surveillance State, Orwellian skew to Santa, who is always watching them as if they have been cast in a Disney version of 1984.
It may be time to ship this cartoon character back to the land of make-believe where he can join his friends like Buzz Lightyear and Simba. We do not have to relegate him to the land of misfit toys, but we probably should retire him from his role as the Golden Calf in the North Pole. And whatever values we have or wish to share with our children would be a big improvement over the Madison Avenue banalities in Santa’s sack.
— Santa Rides On —
Nevertheless, as we get older, many of us replace Santa with an array of false gods. For example, the Golden Calf may shape-shift into what may be perceived as more sophisticated animal shapes — an elephant or donkey. The mesmerizing spell cast by these jealous gods compels us to congregate only within our like-minded factions, us against them mindsets naturally form, creating barriers to anyone who doesn’t think as we do. Beliefs that we idolize in this way even in their abstract forms of, say, left and right, liberal and conservative, divide us and thereby reduce our common humanity.
In 1942, C.S. Lewis wrote a satire about a senior demon, Screwtape, who educates his nephew, a novice demon, Wormwood, about the devilish psychological mind tricks he must use to capture souls. The division is essential to this mission. Screwtape teaches: “All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [God], are to be encouraged.” And: “Whether the client becomes a patriot or pacifist does not matter as much as that he goes to the extreme in one or the other.” We need only look at our political climate today to understand the timeless nature and profundity of this message.
We have the Orange Santa (or did) and those who believe in him and the gifts he can bestow. We also have the same passion among those who see him as the Fascist who stole Christmas and democracy. One group storms the capitol with horned Buffalo heads in honor of their icon. The other dispenses lumps of coal, like not buying beans or pillows from non-believers.
Looking through the lens of the red pill would allow us to see a collage of thousands of Santa makers sitting in private offices, secret meetings, and board rooms around the world, or lurking in the recesses of the Dark Web. We might see them in places we least expect them — they are behind the scenes — orchestrating our thoughts, actions, and behaviors behind many political groups, movements, and organizations. Every time we speak disparagingly of a group they have pitted us against, it is a feather in their cap and a testament to their powers of persuasion.
As mentioned at the outset, the refrain “You gotta serve somebody” still rings true. And yes, we are born to worship and believe. Through adhering to beliefs and ideals worthy of our respect and dedication, we have overcome previous pandemics, wars, and countless fights for equality and freedom throughout history. There is more work to do, but first, we must face the issues of our time squarely, observing them with clear thinking, and not allowing emotion, idolatry, false gods, or the brainwashing of self-serving influences to corrupt and color our judgment. In order to do this, we must be intrepid enough to willingly see these causes as they really are. For, in the end, we are still responsible for who and what we serve, and we do not have to bow before any old Santa or Golden Calf that crosses our path.