Santa Isn't Fat and Angels Don't Have Wings
But there is a Santa and there certainly are angels.
The sights, sounds and smells, the music, songs and winter chill that say it’s Christmas, tug at us deeply and have for thousands of years. Visiting the Vatican and cathedrals in Europe, one is surrounded by statues, paintings, symbols and icons. Even the architecture is designed to lift us up, at least to look up, ascend, and perhaps even transcend.
Personally, I have long understood that the imagery associated with celebrations of spirit were intended mostly for the illiterate, uneducated, ignorant majority. Celestial forces, angels and demigods, were characterized as human forms with wings, floating in the air, not really much different than Santa and his flying reindeer. Who remembers that the jolly fat man, white beard in the red suit we all love, was commissioned by Coke-a-Cola. Prior to 1931, Santa was depicted as a tall gaunt man or a strange-looking elf, donned a bishop's robe or a Norse huntsman's animal skin.
We forget to notice that all these cartoonish symbols and images, including the magnificent paintings and sculptures by Michelangelo and others, are not about fat men and angels. These symbols and icons are about us, you and me and our children. These external forms point to and represent inner qualities, potential states of relationship we all have, or at least, should have.
To reify means to treat an abstraction as if it were an independent, concrete thing or reality. We see floating human forms with wings hovering above the manger, where a glowing mother and her radiant newborn are surrounded by a bright star in the sky and three strangers with gifts, and that is what we assume the symbol means, literally. Or we see Santa flying high overhead, pulled by reindeer, one with a glowing red nose, and that is what we think the image means. That is, indeed, what an illiterate or ignorant person would experience. Have we always been so gullible?
Fables are fabricated short stories, often involving animals, inanimate objects or even human representations, such as witches or celestial beings, intended to teach us something about ourselves; Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs, for example. It is not a big stretch to include Santa in this genera. What qualities is Santa modeling? Happiness and joy derived from altruism, which rests firmly on empathy, mostly for the wellbeing of children. The imagery, stories and songs surrounding Santa and Christmas are modeling and therefore encouraging these qualities, behaviors and virtues in each of us. And each of us becomes Santa when we experience and express these higher capacities. To think that the images of Santa are about Santa is to miss the meaning of the story, why building a house of brick is better than sticks.
Ok, fair enough. Now apply the same simple logic to baby Jesus in the manger. The bright star in the sky happens at a particular time of the year. The glowing infant represents the birth or awakening of humanity’s higher capacities, latent and embodied in us all. Mother represents the nurturing of these capacities. The three strangers, depicted as wise men with gifts, wise because they recognize, as does the nurturing mother, how important these higher capacities are. And their gifts are specifically intended to protect, nurture and uplift these capacities we all have. What is a baby? A baby is the innocent beginning and unfoldment of these amazing capacities. Yes, indeed, each and every baby is that baby. So why all the fuss? Because we forget.
We forget to treat every baby, every child, and every grownup with the care and respect this graphic short-story represents. Worse still, we reify the image and believe that the story is about a particular baby. We forget that we are being told a story. We treat the abstraction as an independent, concrete reality. We miss the point that we are that baby. We are that nurturing mother. We are the three wise men who recognize what is really happening and bring gifts to protect us, uplift and encourage us.
Why all the fuss? Because, as a friend often said, we are the world and the world is in us. What happens to us, happens to the world. If we fail to be wise, if we fail to have empathy and nurture, these magnificent qualities and capacities will not grow. Yes, celebrate the birth of Christ with a sacred Mass, but don’t forget that we are all that baby. Don’t forget that we are Santa.
Even in the old testament, we are reminded not to forget, not to reify, not to mistake the image for what the image or idol represents. Idolatry is the worship of an idol or physical image, such as a statue, painting or a person, something or someone other than God, as if it were God. In Islam, for example, there are no external images, no icons, statues, idols or pictures of God. However, this prohibition does not negate the mental images followers create of the Quran, which believed to be a revelation from the prophet Muhammad, or of Muhammad himself and all the beliefs, which are mental images, that the Quran, the Bible and other stories induce. Part of the story, in these cases, is to say that the story is not a story, but a revelation. Forgive me, but words are symbols and symbols are metaphors. Metaphors stand for or point to something else, in this case, a deeper meaning than a happy fat man flying in the night sky. Truth is alive, moving. Words, books and pictures can point to or represent the wind, but will never be the wind. Story is story no matter how revered the inspiration may be.
I love the comparison of the Egyptian God Horus and the story of Jesus. Horus was conceived of a virgin and worshipped 3,000 years before Jesus. What else do Horus and Jesus have in common?
Both were the “only begotten son” of a god (Osiris or Yahweh)
Both foster fathers were of royal descent.
Both had their coming announced to their mother by an angel.
Birth was heralded by the star Sirius (the morning star). Jesus had his birth heralded by a star in the East (the sun rises in the East).
Ancient Egyptians celebrated the birth of Horus on December 21 (the Winter Solstice). Modern Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25.
Both had shepherds witnessing the birth.
Horus was visited at birth by “three solar deities” and Jesus was visited by “three wise men”.
After the birth of Horus, Herut tried to have Horus murdered. After the birth of Jesus, Herod tried to have Jesus murdered.
Horus was baptized in the river Eridanus. Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan.
Horus was baptized by Anup the Baptizer. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
Both Anup and John were later beheaded.
Horus was taken from the desert of Amenta up a high mountain to be tempted by his arch-rival Set. Jesus was taken from the desert in Palestine up a high mountain to be tempted by his arch-rival Satan.
Both Horus and Jesus successfully resist this temptation.
Both have 12 disciples.
Both walked on water, cast out demons, healed the sick, and restored sight to the blind.
Horus raised his dead father (Osiris) from the grave. Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave.
Both delivered a Sermon on the Mount.
Horus is known as KRST, the anointed one. Jesus was known as the Christ, “the anointed one”.
Horus isn’t the only virgin birth. Krishna was born of the virgin Devaki. Buddha was born of a virgin named Maya, or Mary. Osiris, the father of Horus, was another virgin-born god. Mithra, a Persian sun-god, was virgin-born, in a cave, on December 25. Quetzalcoatl; the Spaniards were surprised to find that the Aztecs had a story of a virgin birth. Savior Dionysus was born of the virgin Semele. The old Teutonic goddess Hertha was a virgin and bore a divine son. Scandinavian Frigga was impregnated by the All-Father Odin and bore Balder, the healer and savior of mankind.
Personally I like the inspiration that Santa, Christ and Buddha represent, invite and encourage in me. All of these powerful images are inviting me to discover and become what they represent. Why else would we keep telling the story over and over again for thousands of years? Even in the Buddhist tradition Buddha is often assumed to mean Gautama Siddhartha. There is a deeper meaning.
When we say Buddha, we naturally think of the Indian prince Gautama Siddhartha who reached enlightenment in the sixth century BC, and who taught the spiritual path followed by millions all over Asia, known today as Buddhism. Buddha, however, has a much deeper meaning. It means a person, any person, who has completely awakened from ignorance and opened to his or her vast potential of wisdom. A Buddha is one who has brought a final end to suffering and frustration, and discovered a lasting and deathless happiness and peace.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa, whenever I or anyone embody happiness and joy derived from altruism, which rests firmly on empathy, often for the wellbeing of children. Each of us becomes Santa when we experience and express these higher capacities. Dare I say that the same is true of Jesus, Buddha, and others too? Don’t forget, all these stories are about you and me. And that is, indeed, something to celebrate.