TOWARDS Christmas in 1951, some priests in Dijon, France, decided to hang an effigy of Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, in the Cathedral square. Then they set his beard on fire. And his whole body went up in smoke.
Around 250 children were invited to watch the spectacle. The Church explained its reasons in a press conference, saying that Santa Claus was a lie and that 'lies about him cannot arouse religious feelings in a child.'
'For Christians, the festivity of Christmas must remain the annual celebration of the birth of the Savior', the Dijon priests added.
In Indonesia, some Moslems stupidly believe that Santa Claus with his red and white hat is a 'Christian' symbol. They do not study history: even in Christian countries the whole celebration of Christmas was once denounced, and Santa Claus festivities – with their non-religious and commercial nature – were attacked. It is not particularly surprising that the priests in Dijon wanted to eliminate this odd character called 'Father Christmas' from childrens' fantasy.
In the beginning, the anti-Santaites were not Catholics. In the beginning—before Santa Claus ever became the central figure of Christmas—it was Christmas itself that was the target.
In Scotland, the Calvanists abolished Christmas in the 1560s. In January 1645, in London, Parliament announced the Directory for the Public Worship of God. The Parliament, now controlled by the Puritans who were anti-church and opposed to all decoration and 'papist' frivolity, thought it unnecessary to celebrate Christmas, particularly when marked by any 'wanton Bacchanalian feast'.
Indeed, prior to this, Christmas had been an exciting holiday. For twelve days, the churches and buildings in London were gaily decorated, gifts were given to beggars, delectable foods were prepared, and parties took place. People dined, danced, sang, drank and gambled. There was a very fine line between faith and wantonness, between thanksgiving and bacchanalia.
The Puritans saw that all this ended in sin. Once in power, they refused to use the word 'Christmas' (because it contained the word 'mass'), and instead used 'Christ-tide'. They declared that the 25th of December was not a holiday; markets and shops had to open as usual. Of course there were no festivities. If there was anything special, it was that 25th December was a day of fasting and prayer, a day for the faithful to kneel and be mindful of their sin.
In English history, the Puritans became increasingly threatened from 1660 on. Those who took flight to America—specifically to New England—continued their way of seeing life. It is not surprising that in 1659, in Massachusetts, people were fined for celebrating Christmas.
It was only a century later that Christmas began to appear, and only from 1830-1890 that it was regarded a legally sanctioned celebration.
This was where Santa Claus, in his modern portrayal, came to be featured: not of course by the Protestant church, nor by any other church, but by general imagination, the desire for fun, and the mechanism of capital.
In the beginning there was the exchange of gifts. As time went on, Christmas presents were not things one made oneself, but bought. Shops started window displays. Desire developed into need and a never-ending sense of non-gratification. In 1874, Macy's, the huge department store in New York, featured a window-display of dolls whose value totaled ten thousand dollars. From then on, competition in splendid shop window display has been part of Christmas.
The figure of Santa Claus, as we know him today, is part of that display: an illusion that promises possession and things. The American figure does resemble a religious figure: he is mysterious. But, as a salesman, he is not frightening. He is merry. If his story resembles a religious one, it is because young children are made to believe in him through the deception of adults. The anthropologist Levi Strauss called Santa Claus the god of all age groups in our society.
From the fantasy of Santa Claus we can see two separate but parallel worlds: the world of children and the world of adults, and the path between them as an initiation rite of passage.
The priests in Dijon probably saw how this 'rite' had to be distanced from 'lies', namely lies about Santa Claus. Lies never educate, they said – and furthermore Father Christmas had taken over Christ's role as the figure of Christmas. That was why he had to be eliminated.
But those of no faith will probably say that behind the Dijon Cathedral—as in any religious institution anywhere—are also lies, just different ones. It could just be that adults need religion in the same way that consumers like to look at shop displays: they need promise, they need beautiful lies or illusions, just as children need Santa. The rite of passage to adulthood happens when they become aware of that.