Santa Claus is Coming to ... Church?
Ward Christmas socials are a common tradition throughout the church. It's one of those unwritten rules, I think. You have to have one. There's no questioning the practice. It's so ingrained in our culture, in fact, that to suggest in ward counsel that the ward NOT throw a party this year is a crime punishable only by death.
Incidentally, burning at the stake and being called as the deacon's quorum advisor are the two swiftest means of execution.
The reason why this practice is so universal, I suspect, is because around the end of December, all wards are frantically trying to spend their budgets. There's money in the bank, the stake is going to take back what we don't use, so let's spend it.
But that's not the real reason, of course.
The real reason is that we are Christians. Despite what some denominations may say about us, we believe adamantly and absolutely in Christ. We accept Him not only as the Son of God but also as the Savior of the world. He is the greatest man who has ever lived, the center of our religion, and the very reason we exist as an organization in the first place. It's only fitting for us to commemorate His coming into the world.
And so we have ward Christmas socials.
Yet despite the universality of the tradition, the actual practice of it is unique for every ward. For example, some wards have a dinner. Other wards offer only desserts. Some wards sing Christmas carols. Some wards choose not to sing at all. Some read the Christmas story as recorded in the Gospels. Others recreate the nativity scene - complete with a Mary and a Joseph and several Primary kids dressed as sheep.
My ward leans toward the extravagant when it comes to this little get-together. In fact, little wouldn't be an appropriate description. People in Los Angeles don't do little.
No, our Christmas social is a big shebang. The party of the year.
There's always a dinner and desserts. Then there's singing. And a reading of the Christmas story. And a nativity scene. And a musical number by the Primary. And a musical number by the choir. And a dance by one of the talented young women. And a guitar song by someone else. And six other presentations. And did I mention the expensive ornamentation and impressively festive decor?
I'd invite you to come and to see the whole spectacle for yourself, but then you'd attend your own ward social and be sadly disappointed. Few parties measure up to the grandeur of ours.
But the size and complexity of these events is not as interesting to me as, say, how they end.
In every ward I've ever attended - excusing those I went to as an infant for which I have no memory whatsoever - Santa Claus appeared at the end of the party. He carried a big bag of goodies and bounced around shouting ho ho ho. It was the highlight of the evening.
Most of you likely know the scene to which I refer.
However, some members find this whole Santa business disturbing. They're not bothered by Santa's appearance, mind you, though that does tend to terrify a toddler every now and again. No, what bothers them is that Santa shows up at all, and it's especially troubling that he's the highlight of the evening.
You see, these people believe Santa has no place inside a church building. Ours or any other.
When I first heard this, I nearly dropped out of my chair. "Have you been roasting chestnuts by the fire and cooked your brain in the process? What could possibly be wrong with Santa?"
I didn't say those exact words, of course, but I did ask a friend why he opposes Jolly St. Nick at the ward party.
"Are we not a Christian faith?" he said. "Shouldn't the glorious and miraculous birth of Christ be the center and focus of any Christmas gathering?"
"But we do the manger scene," I say. "We read the Christmas story. We give the birth of Christ its appropriate attention."
And to that my Anti-Santa-Lehite says, "Yes, you do the manger scene, but the climax of the evening, the big event, the 'moment we've all been waiting for' is the arrival of Santa, not Christ."
"Come on," I say. "Santa is a tradition. We grew up with Santa. He's a cultural icon. He embodies the true meaning of Christmas. He's the spirit of giving. He's the miracle on 34th Street."
But my friend, as well as others opposed to the practice, argues that Christ is all of those things as well, and much better at it to boot. After all, doesn't the Savior represent the true meaning of Christmas? Was it not He who gave the ultimate gift?
I have to admit that I found his argument extremely persuasive.
Of course, some don't stop there. Santa Claus, some argue, is not only a distraction from Christ, but also a shameless commercial icon who has turned Christmas into a shopping exercise, not a season of service and thanksgiving.
That may be true to some extent, but probably more critical than Jolly St. Nick deserves. He was a real person, after all, and a historically nice one at that.
Another LDS friend of mine and true defender of the man in red cites Santa as the reason Christmas is the biggest public holiday of the year. Because of him, my friend says, Christmas is "a great outpouring of love and magic and mystery and fun."
And to that I must also agree.
So culturally Santa is the man. But spiritually, he's out to lunch.
That's why I suggest that as a people we consider drawing the Santa-line at the ward Christmas party. Let's leave Santa where he belongs, at the shopping malls.
And let's reserve the ward Christmas social for the true meaning of Christmas, Christ. It doesn't have to be a sacrament meeting, of course. We need not hear a weepy round of testimonies. We can have fun and laugh and drink eggnog heartily (the nonalcoholic variety of course).
But the climax of the evening - in fact every aspect of the evening - should focus on Christ.
So let's keep the old man out of the church.
That is, until the North Pole opens for the preaching of the gospel, at which point we'll all welcome Santa Claus with open arms. Of course, that corn cob pipe has got to go.
Copyright © 2004 by Aaron Johnston
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