There are two myths of Christmas. The first is the narrative of the nativity of Jesus. The second is the narrative of Santa Claus. These two myths sometimes seem to be in conflict. The nativity narrative clearly emphasizes the spiritual aspect of Christmas, light and renewal coming into a world of darkness and old corrupted forms. The Santa Claus narrative seems more aligned with the material world, anticipation of gift receiving, joy, celebration, the family home, etc.
I enjoy watching Christmas movies with my daughter in the run up to December 25th. Any other time of the year they seem very much out of place. But in this window of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas roughly aligned with Advent they feel appropriate. One of the movies we watch is “Elf” starring Will Farrell.
“Elf” is clearly a version of the Santa Claus narrative dealing with a family celebrating Christmas. It does so in a very post modern and materialist way in that it (on the surface) pays lip service to or uses the underlying spirit of Christmas as a means of telling a story. There is the sense that there is something lost (i.e., the spirit of Christmas) that the characters are trying to rediscover. I remember Christmas (particularly Christmas Eve) as a child being extremely exciting, mysterious and joyful. Then as I matured and had a family of my own, Christmas became very stressful and something I wanted to put behind me rather than experience. I lost that childhood spirit of Christmas that I once felt very strongly. I nostalgically longed for that feeling but essentially gave up on trying to recapture it after years of it being stressful.
The movie “Elf” is interesting on multiple levels. It is a comedy and therefore does not take itself seriously even though it ostensibly deals with this serious theme of reconnecting with spirit in a materialist, post modern world. And I get the feeling (although I do not know this for a fact) that the director of the movie Jon Favreau is a cynical Hollywood type who is more interested in making money than addressing spiritual matters. At the same time, this spiritual message makes its appearance in the movie and resonates. It artfully and comedically follows the beats of the Hero’s Journey. The cynical, workaholic father played by James Caan comes to see through the agency of his childlike, 30 something son raised by elves played by Will Ferrell that there is more to life than materialist pursuits. What is interesting to me, is that even in this post modern, cynical age, this spiritual message still bleeds through and is marketable. This is true even when the message is conveyed by (perhaps) cynical actors and creators.
What is also interesting to me is the way in which the movie “Elf” and all the others bring the Santa Claus narrative into synthesis with the Nativity narrative. Jesus came into the world in the form of an innocent baby. His incarnation brought hope and renewal into a dark world of old corrupted forms. In the movies conveying the Santa Claus narrative the main characters have found themselves to be old and corrupted forms of their former, innocent, childlike and believing selves. They find themselves wanting to recapture that believing nature they had when they were children or they find themselves confronted with the opportunity to recapture that believing nature.
It is said that “seeing is believing,” but children can readily believe without seeing. In the modern, material world God is all but invisible to most people. It seems to me that the Christmas message conveyed in these Santa Claus narratives is that of renewal, not to return to a state of childhood, but to recapture that childlike alacrity to believe without requiring material proof. Put another way it is the hope of re-incarnating the innocence of a baby within and renewing our own hearts.