Editor's note: The late Jonathan Daniels was a co-founder of The Island Packet in 1970 after retiring as editor of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., also The Beaufort Gazette's former owner. He wrote a front-page column for the Packet, and this one has been published on Christmas Eve every year since 1970.
Is Santa Claus coming to Beaufort County? Is he coming anywhere?
There has seemed to be some doubt about it. Indeed, in recent years there has seemed to be almost a concerted movement to take Santa Claus out of Christmas as an old impostor against whom children should be warned and all Christians admonished. He had no place, some preacher said in a Carolina town, in a parade heralding the approach of Christmas. And in Baltimore, a priest used the occasion of a Christmas party for little children to denounce Santa Claus and at the same time make a pretentious Christmas gift. He announced, as if he had wrapped it up with a red ribbon, that he "gave Christmas back to Christ."
The form of his gift was a Christmas sermon in which he undertook to disillusion the children about Santa Claus. Undoubtedly, from a theological and scholarly standpoint, the well-meaning priest thought he did a decent and necessary job. The old elf was unmasked, and the priest reported he received many letters of commendation. One which he made public was from a father who wrote that "you go out and work like a dog to buy your kids presents and Santa Claus gets all the credit." It seemed time for the priest to unmask Santa Claus as a pagan, an elf, a hobgoblin, and also apparently as a grabber of Christmas credit.
Maybe a pious deed was done. Maybe a pagan has been killed, even if a demon has not been exorcised. Now perhaps the father who resented Santa Claus getting the credit for the gifts he bought can spend Christmas as the undisputed center of his Christmas scene, expanding in the doctrine that it is better to get thanks yourself than to see delight and wonder on the faces of others.
It may be time to unmask the whole company of the pretenders, the fairies, the elves, all the good little people who have until now had hiding places in the hearts and minds and imaginations of children and of those adults, too, who decline to grow grim and stern about the property rights of the theologians on Christmas Day.
'LAW' IN A MANGER?
Undoubtedly, such theologians know "the law." They keep "the truth." Well, they've been keeping it now for two thousand years. They were keeping it when Jesus was born. And no people more clearly received -- and soundly deserved -- the scorn of Jesus himself, who said that the children, not the priests, know best the way to the kingdom of heaven. Also, it was Jesus who said that one who gave to the least gave unto him.
The clear teaching of that is that any who give joy in his spirit (even such a disreputable old pagan as Santa Claus) give for him and give in his service. Of course, it literally is true (and was no surprise to the children when they were told) that Santa Claus has no place in the Christmas story. That story was filled by angels and shepherds and by wise men who gave a baby in a stable such strange gifts as gold and the ingredients of incense and perfume. Santa Claus was not there.
And neither, so far as the record goes, were any solemn priests. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, who were most sure they knew the law and the truth, were not even mentioned. What the angels sang was not the solemn law but tidings of great joy.
Of course, Christmas is Jesus' day -- not Santa Claus'. The little children bowing their heads every time the priest mentioned Jesus' name knew that. They have not been deprived of the Christmas story. Neither have little Methodist and Baptist children. Santa Claus is not pushed into the Savior's place. Indeed, Santa Claus is most welcomed in homes where Christ is most worshiped. It is not un-Christian to let Santa Claus help the children celebrate the birthday of their Lord.
Christ has not lost his day -- or his world. He does not need any man -- even one in vestments -- to give it back to him. An ordinary man does not presume to say, but it could be that Jesus does not think Santa Claus is the chief despoiler of the Christmas spirit at Christmas time. There are possibly some greater offenders against his day and his spirit than children who hang up their stockings and parents who watch the children empty them on a morning in which young delight and young wonder do not seem impiety, heresy, paganism.
There are other Christmas interlopers. Pride and selfishness, hardness of heart and meanness of spirit remain even on Christ's birthday as in all the year around it. His day is stained by the sins of gluttony and drunkenness, envy, even hatred.
His world is divided, and people in division sometimes make hatred of each other seem a virtue. The peace which his day proclaimed is still denied. In such a world it seems at least a sad service to Christ or Christmas to direct particular indignation at Santa Claus.
The one heartening thing in Christendom is that Santa Claus does come. He will come next year, too, and the next; and on Christmas days in all God's years so long as there remain the eager hearts of children, homes of love around them, faith in glad tidings, exceeding great joy, all these things that still make the world worthy of God's love.
Perhaps among these good things the faith in Santa Claus, which is the faith in good and loving giving, is only a small item. Maybe historically and theologically, Santa is a disreputable, phony old pagan, perhaps a hobgoblin and elf who consorts with such a covert company as the fairies.
He does seem sometimes to have imposed some tall tales upon the minds of children.
Certainly some preposterous stories have been circulated about the travels of his reindeer in an age of supersonic planes. He could stand a visit to the barber. He might begin to realize his continuing addiction to red clothes seems a little suspicious, if not sinister. His residence close to the North Pole puts him in a position that might concern those who are most concerned about security.
Hobgoblin, pagan, elf -- he may be all those things. The important thing is that he comes on Christmas morning. He will pass this way.
And it will be time to stop him as an itinerant intruder on the birthday of Jesus when those who would stop him can show they add more joy, more kindness, more love to the celebration of the birthday of our Lord than Santa Claus himself.