Our granddaughter Madeline turns six today and we’ll be celebrating with her later in the day. Hopefully, a cake will be involved. I’ve been avoiding her lately, because she’s been asking a lot of questions about Santa Claus and I don’t want to be the one who bursts her bubble. (If your little children are watching with you and you’re not ready to have that conversation with them, you might want to listen to this message later on without them.) So Madeline has been asking about Santa Claus, namely how he can get in their house since they don’t have a chimney. Their house does have a furnace vent pipe, which she has seen and Santa seems way too big to fit down that.
“Sometimes Santa just uses the front door,” my wife who never lies told our trusting little granddaughter.
“Hank wouldn’t like that,” Madeline said.
Hank is their dog who barks whenever anyone comes in the front door.
“Santa has it all figured out,” I said, joining my wife in her torrent of falsehoods.
But Madeline is having her doubts, I can tell, but is too afraid to admit Santa might not exist for fear that if Santa isn’t real, then neither is Christmas. In her mind, if Santa isn’t real, there’ll be no more presents under the tree, no family gatherings, no sock over Papa and Nana’s fireplace, no big breakfast with cinnamon rolls, no two weeks off of school, no playing with her cousins on Christmas afternoon.
Madeline hasn’t yet learned one can still have the joy of Christmas without the myths of Christmas.
This morning, I want to talk about people who still have value even if some of the stories we tell about them aren’t true. Last week, I mentioned that the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree was a made-up story, written by a clergyman named Parson Weems. Even though that story isn’t true, it hasn’t caused us to stop appreciating George Washington. We’ve been able to separate the myths told about him from his very real virtues and accomplishments.
We are less willing to do this in religion. A fellow pastor recently asked me if I believed Jesus was born of a virgin and I said, “Honestly, no.” I explained that virgin births were commonly attributed to great spiritual and political leaders—Alexander the Great, Mithra and Mithras, Romulus and Remus, the Pharaohs, the Caesars, Buddha, even Mary the mother of Jesus. Many North Koreans believe that when the former president, Kim Jong-Il, was born, a shooting star caused a spontaneous change from winter to summer. I pointed this out to the pastor and suggested that stories about virgin births needed to be put in their proper historical and mythological context, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
He said, “If Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, his entire life is a lie and Christianity is false.”
Right after he said that, I had an inspired response. Most of my inspired responses come to me a week or two after I need them, but this one came right when I needed it. I asked him if he believed in Santa Claus and he said no. Then I asked him how old he was when he stopped believing in Santa and he guessed maybe he was 6 or 7.
“When you stopped believing all the stories about Santa Claus, did you stopped celebrating Christmas and tell your parents not to buy you any Christmas presents.”
“No, of course not.”
“But just because I don’t believe some of the stories about Jesus, I have to stop being a Christian? Is that what you’re telling me? Christianity has nothing to offer me, no beauty, no moral code, no spiritual insight, no community?”
I know other Christians have the same misgivings I do about some of the Jesus stories—the virgin birth, the miracle stories, the resurrection. They have concluded that while some of the Jesus stories aren’t likely historically true, Christianity still has value and still has something important to offer us. But other Christians have said, “No, if all the stories about Jesus aren’t true, then Christianity is a lie and I want nothing to do it.” But those same people still celebrate Christmas and tell their children and grandchildren about Santa Claus and still like getting presents, even though they’ve stopped believing in Santa Claus.
My point is this: Our customs, our traditions, our religious and cultural heroes still have great value even if the stories we tell about them, passed down from generation to generation, the things we’re supposed to believe, aren’t always historically accurate.
I feel sorry for people whose imagination is so lacking they can’t discover the nugget of gold in a beautiful story. I’ve noticed they are often the same people who can’t be moved by a beautiful song, who can’t say to another, “I love you,” who can’t pause and appreciate the flaming beauty of a sunset, who think the value of one’s life can be measured in cold, hard cash, who never stop to wonder how many stars are in the sky. I feel sorry for people whose imagination, curiosity, and humanity are so deficient they only value what they can touch, spend, or count.
I don’t celebrate Christmas because Jesus was born of a virgin. I celebrate Christmas because I love the stories about Jesus, whether factual or not. I celebrate Christmas because I believe it’s important to elevate and honor the values of Christmas—generosity, peace, goodwill among people.
Beware of those who tell you what you must believe. For soon they will tell you what you must feel, though they themselves feel nothing.