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One snowy Christmas season my small son asked me, “Daddy, did they have lots of snow at Christmas when you were little?”

“No,” I replied. “We didn’t have any snow.” I was about to elaborate when he brightly explained it for everyone.

“I know why, Daddy. It’s because you are older than snow!”

Good thing I was driving and not my wife. She laughed so hard she’d have surely crashed the minivan.

The real reason we didn’t have snow at Christmas is that when I was Ian’s age I lived in sub-Saharan Africa. That fact is not nearly as funny as my son’s explanation, but it did provide me with a valuable perspective on Christmas. Living as we did in the bush, I learned of Christmas traditions from my parents and from storybooks, not from the culture around me.

The memories are sparse yet satisfying. Dad would take us out to cut down the “Christmas tree”—a twisted, vaguely balsam-like thing that made Charlie Brown’s scraggly selection look positively mall-worthy.

We’d string together real popcorn for garland and fashion green and red chains out of construction paper and Elmer’s glue. Mom had plenty of shiny old-school Christmas ornaments and a string of lights that usually worked. Thankfully, we had enough replacement bulbs. The nearest store that sold actual Christmas lights was more than a day’s drive down a dust-choked road designed to maximize carsickness.

Mom made butter cookies too, formed with vintage Christmas-cookie cutters she toted all the way from her mom’s house an ocean away. Those cookies were pretty much the extent of our Christmas cuisine until the actual Christmas dinner (eaten at lunchtime). Then we’d have a rooster freshly whacked by my farm-boy father. Might as well eat ’em before the python gets in the henhouse. (That’s another story.)

But perhaps the most unusual Christmas tradition, one that seems almost idiosyncratic to my brother and me, is that we never believed in Santa Claus. That detail astonishes people when they learn it. “What did your friends say?” they’ll ask.

Our friends didn’t say anything at all about Santa Claus, because he didn’t mean a thing to the typical northern Ghanaian village kid. My parents read us stories about Santa Claus, sang Santa Claus songs to us, and let us in on the fact that he’s just a made-up character. (Yes, I know about Saint Nicholas. He didn’t have any reindeer.) We were not scarred in the least by this “deprivation.” In fact, I think it made it easier for us to understand and accept the real Christmas story.

In my teen years, as I learned how to be an American, I listened to music (ironically British) that looked unflinchingly at the disappointment of the Christmas season. Ray Davies sang darkly about a street-corner Santa getting mugged. Emerson, Lake & Palmer conflated the stories of Santa Claus and Jesus as they sang of their disillusionment. It seems the lyricist didn’t believe in either figure (Exhibit A: the ironically titled “I Believe in Father Christmas”).

Greg Lake himself, however, later reacted strongly against any notion that the song was anti-religious. He recalled his own childhood festive season,; “Christmas was a time of family warmth and love. There was a feeling of forgiveness, acceptance. And I do believe in Father Christmas.”1 Clearly, Christmas meant something to Lake, and that underlying belief helped inspire the song.

Does that mean Greg Lake believed in the literal Santa Claus? I highly doubt it—it seems more a belief in a nebulous, ill-defined spirit of Christmas. But that’s not the important question. The bigger question is what should Jesus mean to us? Should we believe in the Virgin Birth?

Jesus said some unusual things, such as, “The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”2 He also claimed, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again.”3 To make sure the people didn’t miss his point, Jesus reiterated, “I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me.”4

What was that will? He spelled that out too. “It is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day.”5

Many of the people listening to Jesus didn’t believe he was that Son. Even in first-century Judea the Christmas story got questioned. It seems too good to be true.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer closed their “carol” with a two-edged conclusion about us getting precisely the Christmas we “deserve”—whether that’s heaven or hell. They have a point to make, and we’re prudent to consider it. What Christmas are we getting this year? It seems to me that is predicated entirely on what we believe about Jesus himself.

Believing in the possibility of a miraculous intervention in our world doesn’t take blind faith, but it does require faith. And even that faith is a gift from God. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me.”6

I find it genuinely hopeful and eminently plausible to take the Israelite at his word: “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.”7 Ironically, by believing in Jesus, I get the Messiah I don’t deserve.

For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
will make this happen —Isaiah 9:6–7

A thank-you aimed heavenward seems appropriate here, along with a heartfelt Merry Christmas to all of you.

—Tim Gustafson

1. Greg Lake quote, from Mojo magazine, as cited in Wikipedia:

2. John 6:33

3. John 6:35

4. John 6:38

5. John 6:40

6. John 6:44

7. John 6:29

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