I miss Tommy every day, but I miss him most on Christmas. Father Tom Hartman was my best friend. We were the God Squad in this column and on TV for almost 30 years. In such a span of time, two souls become like two trees grown together and intertwined. It is hard at the end of their growing together to precisely know where one tree stops and the other tree begins. Tommy was especially joyous and vibrant at Christmastime. He loved it. In fact, the only real argument we ever had was over Santa Claus. I thought “Santa” was a cute story and nothing more. One Christmas, I asked him why he didn’t just come out and tell kids that Santa Claus is not real. Tommy was really angry at me. He said, “Don’t you talk smack about Santa! Santa is real for me.” I backed off immediately. Until the end of his life two years ago this coming February, Tommy and I basically agreed about everything except for Santa Claus — and Jesus.
One of our most beloved personal customs was to have Tommy offer annual Hanukkah greetings in our column and to have me offer Christmas greetings. This spiritual switcheroo has ended. Now it is on me to offer holiday greetings for both Hanukkah and Christmas. This year, in honor of and in memory of Tom’s love of Santa I am going to offer a serious theological essay on the true meaning of Santa Claus that hopefully can transcend a belief in flying reindeer.
The deepest theological meaning of Santa is constituted by the undeniable fact that giving is more important than the gift. Santa is about the joy of giving to others. In the figure of Santa we have the perfect theological distillation of the gift giver. He is simply joyous in his task. That joy is the essence of Santa not the nature of the gifts he has packed in his sack. Giving is our way of transcending ourselves and Santa is the universal giver, the magical giver, the flying giver. Without the figure of Santa and without his Christmas Eve flight, all that is left of Christmas presents are the presents themselves. If the gifts are meager then Christmas is grim, but if the gifts are delivered by a flying sleigh and eight flying reindeer, then the gift is wrapped in wonder and joy no matter what it is inside the wrapping. Santa is the meaning of the joy of giving and that is definitely real and not just for Christians. Christmas gifts depend upon the size of your wallet and the size of your heart — and really, only the size of your heart matters.
The other deep theological element of the Santa myth (sorry, Tommy!) is the truth of karma. The Hindu/Buddhist doctrine of the enduring effects of virtue or sin in our lives is clearly true to me. I know there is much theological disputation about the suffering of the righteous, but those questions of theodicy pale before the truth of life that we do indeed, in most cases and at most times, reap what we sow. A life of kindness is most often repaid by kindness. A life of honesty is most often repaid by trust. A life of service is most often repaid by love. The discovery of these verities is the mark of a spiritually evolved life. Of course we can point to aberrations in the law of karma. Suffering innocents and prospering wicked people abound in our broken world. However, the fact that we recognize them as aberrations of the law of karma is the true end of all arguments about theodicy. This theological wisdom is perfectly instantiated in the simple song: “He’s making a list and he’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out if you’re naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town.” Santa is karma for kids.
Santa is also about children, and so is Christmas. We forget that Christmas is a holiday not about Jesus as the Christ. That part of his mission happens later. Christmas is about Jesus as a child. Every great holiday is about children because children are the promise that our holidays will live into a new generation. Children play the dreidel game and light the candles in the Hanukkah menorah, and children decorate the tree and leave cookies for Santa. Santa is a celebration of childhood, and without the experience of holiday joy as a child, one cannot really have holiday joy as an adult.
I now understand why Tommy loved Santa so much. On this Christmas I will again await a sign of my friend’s soul in Heaven, and I shall strain to hear a distant sound on the horizon of joy that sounds like “ho-ho-ho.”
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!