I have this image of Santa in my mind. It is not a Christmas card Santa in snow and with reindeer, nor is it of Santa on the final float of the Christmas parade with smiles and waving his hands.
This image goes back to Leeston, my first parish. It is Christmas morning and I’m taking the service. The children are there, some still in PJ’s, clutching toys in their hands. Each proud of what they have. Some presents are from Santa. Some are not!
We are singing “Away in a Manger”, which I must add, I include each year for the adults more than the children. It takes them back to their childhoods and a time when life was simpler, of singing it at the front of the church while dressed as angels, shepherds and wise men, or star billing as Mary or Joseph . Adults like “Away in a Manger”.
Well, while we were singing “Away in a Manger”, who should come through the door but Santa. The door into the church was half way along the side of the church, so I expected all to see him and the children to all rush up to him and say thank you for the gifts… or more likely ask for more. But no one seems to notice him.
The carol finished. All sat down. I was looking at Santa as if to say, “Should I introduce you?”, but he was shaking his head. I gave my short sermon. It can’t have been too memorable as I cannot remember it today, but then how many sermons that we preachers sweat blood over are remembered the next day, let alone years later?
The service finished with a rousing rendering of “Oh come all Ye Faithful”. And I shake hands and admire the presents of the children and all head off to prepare Christmas dinner or to join family.
I went back into the church to find Santa sitting by the nativity scene. Now lets be clear, I’m not into nativity scenes, but there is always someone in a parish who is, and makes sure it comes out each year. Well, there was Santa kneeling down before it. As I get closer I can see that his shoulders are shaking as if he is crying. I hummed a few bars of “Tis the season to be Jolly” to let him know I was coming and the shaking stops and he turns and sits on the step to the communion table. Clearly he had been crying. So I sit down on the step up to the lectern. I put on my best emphatic face and wait.
Then, at last, he started to talk.
He apologises at first for distracting me during the service. I assured him that I am often distracted by my own thoughts and inner dialogues.
He then tells me he often calls in on a church at the end of his night’s work. After the weeks leading up to Christmas and the night’s work, he says he has the desire to have some space and time to himself. Some time with God. Time to reflect on the night. A time to pray… He drifts off in his thoughts.
I look enquiringly, then repeat the word “pray”.
He said that is what he was doing when I came back in. He was talking to God about the children he had delivered presents to.
Thinking that his must be a great job making so many children happy, I ask about the tears.
He looked back at me for a while in a way that made me feel 30 going on 18. You know the look that says “you may think you know everything, but just sit there and I will tell you how it really is”. So I sit.
He takes a deep breath. And then another.
Yes, I do make some children happy. But really I’m powerless. I can only do what parents allow me to do.
I was in a house delivering a heap of expensive computer games, and I could see the ones I left last year still in their boxes. The children had asked for rugby balls.
And in the very next delivery, I am leaving educational games for a Commodore Amiga, they had been on sale. But these kids have an Apple computer. The games would not work. I wanted to swipe the presents between households, but I cannot do that.
At another house the children wanted mum and dad back together, and I left a pile of plastic toys. Those kids will be so disappointed. But, they will smile for their dad.
When I read the children’s requests I sometimes think they are windows to their souls.
The longing of a little boy for a toy oven.
The girl who wants a flute.
The boy who wants a new heart for granddad.
The ones who ask for all the latest toys.
You know some kids ask for real important things and it break my heart when I cannot deliver, you see I have to give what the parents supply me with. There were hundreds of children this year who asked for their mums to be kind to their dads, to stop putting them down. I would have loved to tell these mums what their children say. But all I get to do is give out Barbie dolls.
And while we are on the subject. Children often pray to me asking me to stop their dads beating them and their mums up. Sadly, I am not covered by the mandatory reporting law. And I cannot go to the Police. I wish I could give courage to these children rather than board games like monopoly.
A deep breath.
Now not all parents cause me distress. Some parents go to a lot of trouble to make sure I have the right gift to give to their child. But it seems so unfair that the children of the poor get less. And sometimes poor parents miss rent payments to pay for gifts! They feel they have to give to keep up with others, but they do not have the money. If you want to understand the growing gap between rich and poor, you need to do my job. Just the weight of my bag of toys for some parts of town is so much lighter, and the stockings are only half full, topped up with an orange and a banana.
For some kids that is all there is an apple or and orange, as the parents have been out gambling or drinking.
My good counselling skills went out the door at this point. It was Christmas morning. A time for happy families, laughing children and here Santa was painting a bleak picture. So I blurted out that as Santa he was meant to make things… well… happy.
He takes another deep breath, smiles at me then says.
Once when the world was a simpler place. Inequality existed, but it did not affect Santa as much. Santa had a small gift for all. That was back when I was Nicolas. In fact I was able to make some changes to make life better for children. But once Coca Cola got hold of him things changed. The bright red suit arrived. He had to put on 30 extra kgs and develop type 2 diabetes. Following Coca Cola came the toy manufacturers who promote their toys for Santa to deliver.
Santa was talking in anger, but also in the third person. He was talking about Santa as if it was no longer him. That Santa was a consumer product, a marketing gimmick. That from his simple origins as a champion for the neglected children, he was now a tool that was being use to make money and often he was left powerless in his ability to help the marginalised, the poor, the neglected.
That here at the end of his long night’s work, he was despising what he had become.
I suggested his blood sugar levels might be a bit high thanks to all the beer and cake left out for him.
He told me that I was missing the point. He was now a brand in a consumer economy. One that toy shops depended on the world over to maintain profitability. Santa asked how he could live with himself knowing that.
He stood and shouted at the Cross. I hate what I have become. I despise what I have been turned into. His words seemed to echo back from the cross.
Now he was in the first person again. I quickly reassured him that he had made the children in my church happy. It was not that bad.
He replied. Yes, but did they really need all those toys? And how many parents working in sweat shops, making those toys for the children of my parish, had children who went without. Santa said he rarely gets to call on those children on Christmas night.
I was the one left in silence for a while. I could hear my mum say “it is Christmas, you don’t think about things like that at Christmas” but sitting looking at Santa, with the cross behind him, mum’s advice did not seem appropriate.
At last I asked what he could do to change things.
He replied that he was beyond doing anything. “I am powerless to do anything, I am just the creation of corporates, used to make money. I am a ‘construct’; you are a person with heart and soul. I once had a soul but now I am just a tool for the Christmas economy.”
If a fairer society is to be brought to birth then it would have to start with….
He never finished that sentence. He looked to the cross, and left.
And I got up and closed the church and went home to my Christmas dinner. That was 25 years ago. I really have not given Santa much thought for a long time. But this year I have three young boys in my life, and Santa is real to them. And I reflect back to that Christmas day in church. And I wonder, will Santa be in a church somewhere this Christmas day, still crying? May be he will have found someone more skilled than me, who will have helped him with his identity and “self-worth” issues, I hope so.
Copyright Ross Scott (Chaplain Wellington Hospital) November 2017