A Golden Sled for Christmas: A Few Thoughts on Father Christmas, Books, Gladness, and Faith
When I was a little girl, almost 50 years ago now, one of my favorite books was The Animals’ Merry Christmas, plum full of little stories and poems about darling mice and noble polar bears and kindly goats, crammed with charming illustrations by Richard Scarry. Somehow at age 3 I had taught myself to read, so even when I was that small, I read those stories over and over. My very favorite was about a little bear who wished for a golden sled. Gold, as in honey. A yummy color choice for this small bear.
He wrote to Santa telling him his wish, which worried Santa a bit. The workshop was low on gold paint, and there were all the dolls’ lockets and fire-engine trimmings to paint. He thought the bear would have to be just as good as gold to warrant a golden sled, but wouldn’t you know it — as he spied through his magic telescope, that bear was just as good as gold! So, Santa dipped into the silver paint, instead, for doll lockets and fire engines. And he used every last drop of his gold paint on a sled for that little bear! Wow. Imagine such a thing! I was so impressed! And I glommed on to the idea that a golden sled would be the most astonishing Christmas present. Ever.
Well! On Christmas Eve night, as all my aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sister and parents and my dear grandmother were merrily opening our presents (being Scandinavians, we do this on Christmas Eve), the doorbell rang. Strange. Who would be coming to our house on Christmas Eve? When my mother answered the door she said, “Jill! There’s something out here that must be for you!” And I most curiously stepped out onto that dark, cold, snowy porch…and there was A GOLDEN SLED sitting there! Gold as gold could be! With MY NAME written in beautiful letters across the golden Flexible Flyer crossbar. Can you believe it?! I still remember standing in silent shock. And then, I heard a jingle of bells coming from the darkness, and a friendly “Ho! Ho! Ho!” and so I KNEW! Santa had come and brought me –ME! — this dream of a golden sled.
I’m writing today because I’ve been a little sad to see a number of discussions recently suggesting that Santa Claus does not belong in the Christmas celebrations of Christians. There seems to be a sense that Father Christmas eclipses the Christ Child if they’re both involved. For me, the mind-boggling delivery of a golden sled is one of my sweetest, strongest memories of childhood, so full of magical wonder and toe-tingling excitement I can feel it still. And here is what it taught me, long after my brother had spilled the beans about Santa and the Easter Bunny both at one go. It taught me that my dad loved me with a lavish love. So much did he love me that he delighted to make my childish dream come true. He planned and plotted, bought a sled and spray-painted it gold, painstakingly painted my name in his beautiful handwriting, snuck outdoors on Christmas Eve to settle that sled on the porch, ring the bell and dash off through the snowdrifts, giving a hearty HO HO HO to boot, just to give his little girl a fantastical, magical, wishes-come-true Christmas. Elaborate, merry, love. That’s what I got out of my devoted, godly parents’ playing Santa Claus. That joy and merriment did not diminish my faith by one iota. I think you can see why.
Another father who gifted his children with highly imaginative Father Christmas make-believe, was J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic. Beginning in 1920, when his first son was just three years old, and continuing for over 20 years, Tolkien would faithfully treat his children each December to an extraordinarily creative letter from Father Christmas. The letters, written in curious, trembling, elven-esque handwriting, complete with illuminations and fanciful illustrations, were enclosed in elegant envelopes, stamped with exotic, North Pole postage. These envelopes would mysteriously appear, year after year, to the delight of the children, each installment bearing a personal greeting and a new, amazing tale from Father Christmas.
Tolkien’s Father Christmas managed a hilarious household up at the North Pole, including the well-intentioned North Polar Bear, who was ever causing trouble and mishap, as well as Snow Elves, Red Gnomes, Snowmen, Cave Bears, a couple of mischievous Polar Bear nephews named Paksu and Valkotukka and others. This troop, who not only had to keep track of toys, but were in charge of the Northern Lights dispenser, also had Goblin enemies to out-maneuver from time to time. With such a life, Father Christmas always had fantastic stories of what had been going on at his place during the year.
Tolkien was, of course, fairly adept at fantasy, and with these letters, we can peek in on his genius, lavishly presented to his children. Such a gift. Not unexpectedly, Tolkien also developed another alphabet — a Goblin alphabet — with a letter written in that, as well as an Arctic language for the North Polar Bear. His illustrations vary from brilliantly colored watercolors to ink line drawings, but always capture the fantasy feel of this completely other land.
When my children were small, we did not pretend that Santa was real, but thoroughly enjoyed the great volume of stories about him and allowed him to stuff their stockings with chocolates and oranges and jolly surprises to find on Christmas morning. They knew it was us, but we all enjoyed a winksome pretending. I must say I’m a bit envious, though, of the child I was, and of Tolkien’s lucky children, whose parents threw themselves into creative, entertaining, highly-imaginative merry-making at Christmastime without worrying about their children’s inability to separate fiction from reality or the demise of their faith.
When I spoke to several groups of young moms recently about the power of stories, one point I tried to make was that Christians do not need to fear imagination. C.S. Lewis, for one, reveled in fantasy and held the opinion that truths could possibly be best grasped when clothed in fairy tales. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, one of his most vivid signs that the curse of the White Witch was weakening was the appearance of Father Christmas himself. What a moment that is, when the children’s dark fear gives way to joyous relief:
And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world – the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia, it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They were very glad, but also solemn.
Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus – whatever you call him, whether he fills your shoes with sweets or your stockings with presents or lands a golden sled on your doorstep – is an extravagantly kind, glad, generous figure. That’s not someone to fear, nor someone who will sabotage children’s glad and solemn recognition of the Kindness and Generosity of God-with-us, Emmanuel.
This is not to say everyone must enjoy the fictional figure of Santa Claus. People – you can do what you want! What I am saying is that it’s completely possible to smile at the gladness and lavishness and spine-tingly wonder of St. Nick, to touch the longings of children for what seems too-good-to-be-true, to treat our kids to playful, imaginative merry-making, and to do all of that without undermining faith. It’s why I happily recommend quality books on my blog about the Nativity, as well as fantastic books about Santa. I hope you’ll at least consider enjoying both sorts.
Christmas at the Johnsons, around 1963. A few years before the golden sled!