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Strange as it may seem, one enduring trait of the Christmas holiday has always been those dubious merchants of doom called doubters. Doubters come in all shapes and sizes, from siblings to elementary school classmates, or maybe just a stranger on a crowded street corner disavowing the existence of Santa Claus.
Theirs is a cold place with little hope for redemption.
But there are also good guys, the Santa defenders, too.
One of the most renowned Santa defenders of our time was Francis Pharcellus Church, editor of the New York Sun newspaper, who in 1912 wrote an editorial about a troubled little girl named Virginia. That editorial remains with us now more than 100 years later as proof that the spirit of Christmas burns bright in the hearts of believers.
Yes, Virginia, I too have known some who decried the existence of Santa as a crass distraction from the real purpose of the holiday – the birth of Christ and salvation of mankind. But over the centuries, Santa has devolved from Greek saint sharing his wealth with all who believed, to Santa, purveyor of pricey merchandise with questionable safety records, all of which is imported from China via the North Pole.
That said, let me state clearly. Santa has never missed my house once in over 60 years. No matter what, even in these darkest days of adulthood his spirit lives briefly within me.
Several years ago I remember churches that included Santa in Christmas celebrations banishing him to Main Street. They said his message of commercialism was no longer welcomed in God’s house by people of faith who consider him a distraction to the real meaning of the day. If you’re still out there, Virginia, wondering, Santa has come down a notch from delivering coins and tasty confections to hungry children.
These days he’s more likely to be packing an Xbox or iPad into his bag.
But the spirit that Santa carries, the subliminal message of a valuable gift to those who believe, is actually about connecting to something bigger than the Internet.
Purists of the Christmas holiday sustained a serious blow last month when Pope Benedict revealed his position that Jesus may not have been born when previously believed. He may in fact have been born several years earlier than Christian calendars proclaim, the pope said.
Even the day, December 25, could be wrong. Our celebration of Christ’s birth during short days of winter may be nothing more than a persistent reflection of pagan holidays long past.
But faith is not about a deadline or a particular number on the wall so much as the steadfast belief that no matter what, no matter when, no matter how, better times lay ahead. That’s the way it is at Langdon and so many other places around the world this time of year, when we fill our stomachs with food and our hearts with faith, hope and love.
Besides throwing cold water on the Gregorian calendar, Pope Benedict also revealed that there may not have been animals present for the birth of Christ. True believers feel church nativity scenes shall remain unaffected by this, as tradition usually outweighs revelation – especially in terms of long held belief – at least for a while.
Perhaps this is no surprise to me, because as a farmer I have to say that for decades I surveyed the scene of my cud-chewing animals, as well as pigs, horses, dogs and cats, on Christmas Eve, watching for changes in behavior that might indicate they realized Savior was drawing near.
A sense of calm was as close as I ever came.
Really though, what else should it be?
In all my years, I have seen cold, warm, rainy and snowy Christmas Eve nights. Nights when I gave my animals more to eat, adding a little extra in feed troughs and bowls, a celebration of the Birth. Nights when I watched the skies for that string of sparkles following his sleigh or Rudolph’s red nose lighting the night. Even one 10-below Christmas Eve as 40 mph north winds blew roads full of snow when a dear, nearby neighbor called at 10:30 p.m. to ask if I would leave my family, start my diesel tractor, plow the road so they could get to midnight services, plowing it again for them at 2 a.m. when it came time to come home.
Lord knows I wanted to, but even my holiday spirit has limits.
In the end, this day is neither secular nor non-secular, but about things we all hold dear. It’s about families and friendship, kindness and joy. A belief that even in the presence of hate, love and the human spirit will eventually triumph.
And that throughout eons of time, once in a very great while, one man can make a difference.
Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.