Elf on the Shelf or Grace on the Case: Two Visions of Saint Nick
How legalism and Christmas can be separated by remembering the original saint and the Christ-child he followed
I am not a parent. This was made rather clear to my colleagues a few years ago coming up to Christmas when we were talking about our Christmas Day routines. My manager described her plans for the signs of the arrival of Santa Claus, and the many gifts that he would have brought for her children, and how magical it would be. I tartly responded that “Isn’t it more magical to believe that your parents love you?” I was informed rather clearly that not being a parent, I did not understand this. I recognised that I should not have been critical of someone’s parenting style, but it was an expression of my discomfort on the over-emphasis on Santa Claus. (My parents brought us the big gifts at Christmas, but our stockings were from Father Christmas. My parents knew that the big thankfulness ought to go to them for the presents!) To me, the story has always been a rather strange one to navigate of why gifts are given, especially at Christmas.
Although the Elf on the Shelf has been around for a while, it seems this year that the concept has taken firmer root in the culture. As I waited to pick up a Christmas present in a shop, I heard the shop assistant upselling an ‘elf door’ to give access for elves to check on the children. People have suggested that the watching elf is acclimatising children to the surveillance state of modern capitalism in Britain. And in all of it is a more advanced outworking of the list of Santa Claus coming to town, which he is checking twice, apparently now on the field and signals intelligence of his many watching elves. Truly, the North Pole has switched from manufacturing to a service economy in line with the growth of data as the principal commodity of Silicon Valley.
And that’s at the heart of my longstanding discomfort of the relationship between Santa Claus and gifts. In the present day, the elves are checking upon the children, entering their house (with their parents’ consent and compliance? Or else under the same coercion that their jewellery and iPads and rarely-to-be-used fragrances will not be given to them would they not agree to this surveillance?) and observing their behaviour, against a moral standard not likely to be explicable a priori to the children, spoken of only when the parents, in stead of the elves themselves, find some misdemeanour. The gifts are to be merited to those who do good works, whatever that means for young children.
In the past, the story had the same message, if manifested in different ways: For me, Santa Claus’s list seemed magical, as if he had some moral omniscience, or else the quill and paper itself somehow conveyed where the names ought to go. The song reinforces said all-seeing nature — that he sees when one is sleeping or awake, and calls for one to be good for goodness’s sake. That ‘goodness’s sake’ being a sort of intensifier, rather than an actual description of the reason to be good — the sake really to be to avoid missing out on his coming and the presents he will bring. Similarly, the song does not explicate a moral framework, save for counselling one to avoid crying, pouting, and instead to watch out. As a person who thinks emotions are not a good thing to suppress, crying and pouting being singled out as moral evils strikes me as rather dangerous and suspect that the author of this song was in some way connected to the British Empire.
Of course, in the further past, we had the spectre of Black Peter, or Krampus, or (hastily wikipedias) Knecht Ruprecht and Belsnickel. The concept of them is each the same — alongside Santa Claus, they bring the retribution — the dark, empty gifts or else the actual physical violence — for those deemed naughty. They are his travelling companions, an inextricable part of the same organisation. (As a side note, The Infallible Wikipedia also informs me of Mr Bingle who brings messages from Kris Kringle to shop at a particular department store, an equally horrid if more capitalist than legalist companion to the good saint).
So we see, across the mythos of Santa Claus, its part in the Christmas festivities, a requirement of good deeds in return for presents and the avoidance of suffering…
Saint Nicholas was a historical bishop from Demre, Turkey. Though he has both legendary and historical stories, his link to Christmas gift-giving is the relatively well-known one. A poor man had three daughters. Because of the systemic sexism of that time (or more accurately, the specific manifestation of the systemic sexism of all time in that time) without money, his daughters were to be forced into prostitution. Poverty, the restrictions on women, the societal stigma against any unmarried women, let alone those in sex work, all oppressed the family. St Nicholas, famously, secretly delivered the money needed for those women to have another, freer, way of life. Were these women virtuous? Did they do good deeds? Had they met the requirements of some kind of list? Saint Nicholas no doubt knew a good set of laws and commandments from the Bible that had mostly coalesced by that point in history. But that was irrelevant to him.
Saint Nicholas intervened before the fact, to liberate people from the circumstances that would push them into choices they did not wish to make and which some would deem immoral. Saint Nicholas claimed no credit, no parade, no mince pies, and tried to hide from those who sought his identity as gift-giver. In one account, when found by the family, he says to only thank God, not him. The stories of chimneys and stockings all come from these attempts to hide from personal glory and serve the work of Providence instead.
To go further, his gifts were for those in need, who had been deprived by their society. If I were to work backwards that all moral children get presents, and the more moral perhaps get the most presents, I would have to assume an inexorable link between immorality and poverty. Saint Nicholas did nothing of the sort — he knew that morality was found in how one with money treated those without, how one who could aid those put down by society by their standing ought to do so. If we repeat this myth, we elevated those with much and we denigrate those with little, where Saint Nicholas would have us making sure those going to food banks or seeing debt charities were getting Christmas presents at a time where the world would say they did not deserve them.
By now, I’m sure you might sense my belaboured point. The world, along with inviting us to consumerism with the Coca-Cola Claus, invites us to legalism, to bringing up children both in the literal sense and the spiritual sense as needing to follow sometimes arbitrary moral rules for fear of punishment or exclusion from gifts. No doubt the Pharisees promised blessing to those who kept every rule, regardless of whether they knew God or had love for others. The gift of Christmas itself is not the gift to a world gone right. Jesus does not come as gift because we earned his presence. The world was a mess. A mess of empire, of poverty, exclusion, division, oppression, false religion both in idols and in people applying a faith in a real God in a way that cut people off from Him. Jesus came to bring the gift of freedom from that oppression, just as Saint Nicholas reflected centuries later. Jesus came to bring the gift of goodness, that instead of by working in human frailty, we’re empowered by divine love, giving goodness as our thanks for the gift, not our desperate plea for it. Jesus came to break the power of accusation and punishment, and give a life free from the tyranny of a law that could not be kept. Jesus came to seek and save, and give the undeserving the spiritual food and the sacrifice of himself. To use the weak rhyme from the title, Grace was on the case. The grace, the free gift, the transforming way of being, transformation for the world and for individuals, was planned and acting before individuals could think about morality and good deeds. It’s a present to be unwrapped, and held onto, and passed on. It’s grace for everyone, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘rich’ or ‘poor’.
So when we give gifts this Christmas, let them be as gifts should be, unearned. A gift earned is a wage. And your boss doesn’t love you. But your friends do. Your family do. They give out of love, as Saint Nicholas did, as Christ did. Don’t let’s get ourselves or our kids fixated on getting everything right under constant scrutiny — because no matter what you might have heard, that’s not the Christmas or Christian story. It’s a story of a person arriving at just the right time, of Love all wrapped in human wrapping paper and mortal ribbon, sent not in return for good deeds but out of the unlimited love of the Parent God. If Father Christmas comes, may he be in the name of the Father and of Christ, bringing gifts to all. If Santa Claus, comes, may he be in the name of Saint Nicholas, who gave to the needy because of their need not their morality. If you give those gifts yourself, do them out of your love for your neighbour, and your celebration of Christmas.