one testament to the power of fiction is the way an imaginary or "parallel universe" Christmas story has overwhelmed the story at the heart of Christianity, the nativity story. I'm speaking of the Santa narrative, which has become such a powerful construct that our economy is partly based on it. One reason for this, of course, is marketing. Jesus could not sell G.I. Joes. Nor is the Christ story amenable to market penetration. The money-changers-in-the-temple action kit, for instance, would not be an easy sell.
So Santa has become a kind of more palatable Christ. Consider some of the parallels. Christ gives you eternal life. Santa gives you toys. And better yet, Santa asks no sacrifice. He offers no martyrdom. Like Jesus, Santa flies through the air and walks on water (though only when it's frozen). Santa going down the chimney is a kind of reverse birth. Instead of popping out of the Virgin chute and being given gifts, Santa, already laden with gifts, performs the miracle of return, to the h(earth), the interior of the home.
The reindeer are, of course, faintly Norsified cattle, and look at the curve of the rails on that sled -- could anything be more like a manger? Some would argue that Santa is the Christ. Christ immortal in the flesh. Christ if he'd run from crucifixion up north and hidden in his fortress of solitude till he was old and white-haired, thinking maybe if he put on some weight and wore a big red suit no one would recognize him.
But I prefer the secular Santa. Santa does not claim to be omnipotent. Santa has no Bible. We make up Santa's psalms and carols as we go along -- a book ever open to revision, distortion, invention, anything to make it more entertaining.
Santa is not too specific on commandments. He just wants us to be GOOD. Evil-doers will not get Christmas presents. Santa does not claim to perform health miracles. He cannot save you. Santa does not make vague promises about an afterlife. Santa gives you stuff while you're still alive.
There is no scary version of Santa, really. There are no theocracies for Santa. No holy wars. He is all give and no take. Beloved of children, he is the epitome of the power belly. The soft male. A big jiggly wodwo Buddha. A laughing Bacchus right in the heart of the hearth. Bringing you bad things from the dark side. The little guns, the dead dolls, the wrong socks, gizmos you don't need, Christmas cake.
It's all a big jolly rollicking frolic. And best of all, Santa is not a celibate. He rides the darkness all the world round 24 hours straight till he gets back to the pole in the morning to give to his true love, his heart's desire -- Mrs. Claus -- her special Christmas gift. Robert Priest's new book is Blue Pyramids: New And Selected Poems (ECW Press).