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Friday, December 6, 2013

Santa and the Antithesis of Christmas

I will never forget our first Saint Nicholas day here in Berlin. We invited our neighbors over for a nice Saint Nick's coffee time. They came dressed up in as Saint Nicholas and Knecht Rupert, his servant. Saint Nick was wearing the typical Father Christmas garb, and carried a sack of gifts. But Rupert was actually scary. He came dressed in brown, wearing an ugly mask and carrying a sack of coal and a whip. They both asked the kids whether they had been good or bad...Our kids were terrified and didn't know what to say! Before Saint Nick would give them anything, they had to answer that they had been good.

"According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If they cannot, he beats the children with his bag of ashes.  In other (presumably more modern) versions of the story, Knecht Ruprecht gives naughty children useless, ugly gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks, and stones, while well-behaving children receive sweets from Saint Nicholas. He also can be known to give naughty children a switch (stick) in their shoes for their parents to beat them with, instead of candy, fruit and nuts, in the German tradition." (From the very reliable source of Wikipedia!)

Another time, we were invited to spend Christmas with another German family. Santa came in with gifts, but before the children could receive them, they had to either sing a song for Santa, recite a poem or otherwise perform something before him. Our children, again, unused to this tradition, were petrified and had nothing prepared. Santa refused to give the children anything until they did. This experience was mildly traumatic for them.
All of these cultural tidbits reveal how counter-cultural grace is here, and I'd venture to say it is is similar in other cultures. Think of Santa's "naughty and nice" list... 

There are a number of problems with Santa's logic, compared to God's gospel logic in the message of Christmas:
1) We can never truly say that we've been good and deserve God's gifts.
2) We cannot clean up our act before God comes to us (kids here must clean their shoes before they set them out, or else Saint Nick may not leave any sweets in them)
3) There is no act we can perform to make God pleased with us in order to then receive his gifts.
4) Not only does he withhold the coal and the whip we deserve, he give us gifts we have not deserved.
5) God doesn't just give us material gifts. His greatest Christmas gift is the gift of his son Jesus, which promises peace with God and an intimate relationship with Him because what separated us from him was removed by Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
These truths should inform how we talk about Christmas to our kids and how we use "rewards" and "punishments" in our child-rearing. I need to think about it more. I see how a whole culture bases its value on its works and how deadly of a trap it is. I want my kids to know grace, undeserved grace and hope that experience would so delight them, that they'd understand the deep, deep love of their Savior. That and only that will motivate them to want to be "good."