DG MARTIN COLUMN: Remembering the pro- and anti-Santa church factions

Published 9:49 am Wednesday, December 21, 2022

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It is hard to make sense of Christmas if you try to explain it in one dimension.

As I wrote in this column several years ago, the holiday means different things to different people.

It is a religious holy day, of course — but so much more. Or so much less, depending on how you look at it.

A time of magic and dreams come true for children.

An orgy of shopping and spending.

Festive parties, crowds of people from office or work — seeing each other in different ways. Or jammed into other people’s houses seeing if you can find a few of your friends among their friends. Standing. Eating. Drinking. Talking. Trying to relax as you walk past people who don’t even look up from their conversations.

Rushing to the airport, packing everything in the car to get from one set of in-laws to the next. Going out for last-minute gifts and getting stuck in traffic. Putting off the flu. Closing in from the darkness of the short days.

Among all this we sometimes try to make sense of how it all fits together.

I remember the first time I thought about the competing and conflicting messages that come down on us at Christmas.

Growing up in my hometown, things revolved around school and church. With schools on holiday, the church took charge. Young people practiced for the Christmas service. Our choir conductor persuaded us that we could really sing — and that our carols were serious and important. We sang on the Sunday evening before Christmas, and worshipers brought wrapped canned goods as gifts to be distributed to needy families.

Just before Christmas, the young people who sang in the choir walked around the town singing their Christmas carols at the doors of their favorite people.

There was another custom that one year made our church face up to the conflicts in the various Christmas themes. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve the church always gave a party. Almost everybody came for the simple refreshments and fellowship.

At some point during the party — as if by surprise even though everybody knew what would happen — Santa Claus would appear for a visit and to give the little boys and girls presents. The toddlers were awed. The very young children, though doubting, thought that maybe Santa was real, after all. The older children snickered as they, along with the adults, tried to guess who was playing Santa Claus this year.
As far as I knew, nobody had ever worried about whether it was proper for the church to endorse Santa by bringing him into the church.

Then, one year, the group that planned the party decided not to invite Santa. When word got out, there was an angry reaction — and a series of arguments in the church between “anti-Santas” and “pro-Santas.”
The “anit-Santas” thought that the church’s Christmas activities should be Christ-centered, not Santa Claus-centered. They thought that the appearance of Santa at the church’s Christmas was inconsistent with the celebration of Christ’s birth.

If Santa Claus were the center of attention and interest, they asked, how were the children to get the real message of the Christmas season?

On the other hand, the “pro-Santa” faction could see no real harm in Santa. We had always had him. It was our tradition. Why should we change things that had worked so well? Why take away the fun that Santa Claus brought to every party?

In the end, the “anti-Santa” group won. Santa lost his place at the party.

But every victory has its price. I missed the party that year. But people told me it wasn’t as much fun and not as many people came.

The hard feelings didn’t last long, and most people came around to the “anti-Santa” way of thinking — welcoming a few precious moments away from his dominance of the seasons.

When Christmas comes around each year, some folks back home still remember the anti-Santa/pro-Santa battle.

I remember it, too. And this year I find myself wishing that some group like the “anti-Santas” would take charge of my Christmas, filter out the conflicting messages, give order on the overwhelming demands of the season, and impose a welcome peace.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”