I was seven years old in 1970, the year that Rankin/Bass produced the holiday special Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. I watched it that year and every year thereafter. I knew nothing about claymation or stop-motion production; I just knew that I loved the wonderful story that answers all the questions about Santa Claus. I could sing "Put One Foot in Front of the Other" right along with Mickey Rooney.
That Christmas special, like its predecessor Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, essentially takes the lyrics to a classic Christmas song and brings them to life, creating an entire story around the words to a song. Details are added as needed to complete the legend, and viewers can learn everything from why Kris Kringle wears a red suit and how reindeer fly to why Santa comes down the chimney and why he lives at the North Pole. It's a magical story, if a bit far-fetched.
And then there's other Christmas story--the one about the birth of Christ. Sometimes I wonder if we might do the same thing to the Jesus story that we do to the Santa story. The truth is, we don't really know too many details about the birth of Christ. We know that Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, and that they had to travel to Bethlehem register for the census, and that Mary was just about ready to give birth when the couple arrived in Bethlehem. We know that there were no accommodations available for them and that they took shelter in a stable. We know that the baby Jesus was born in the stable and that Mary laid him in the animals' feeding trough. And we know that shepherds who were guarding their sheep in the fields nearby heard about the baby's birth from an angel who appeared to them. The angel told the shepherds about the birth of the baby and told them that he was the Savior. The angel also told the shepherds that they could go to Bethlehem and see the baby Jesus for themselves, and that Jesus would be wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
The Christmas story is such an important one that we long for more details. Scholars who have studied Jewish history during the time of the Romans have given us bits of information that we've woven into the story in various ways. We've been able to make logical inferences about some parts of the story. And then we've given the whole thing a date on the calendar and added some sweet little bits like the legend of a little drummer boy who plays for the baby.
As I watched those Rankin/Bass classics with my kids this Christmas season, it occurred to me how heartwarming it is to know the "whole story" of Santa Claus. Of course we know it's just a story, albeit a sweet one. And I wondered if perhaps we forget that the story of Jesus is more than just a sweet legend. Perhaps the Christmas story is so familiar to us that we're in danger of forgetting just how amazing it is. God had many reasons for sending Jesus to live on earth. As I reflect upon the Christmas story, I find myself thinking that those who don't believe in the truth of the story might find it just as far-fetched as the Santa legends.
You know, it really is an unusual story. We tend to fancy it up a bit, but it's actually pretty earthy. I mean, if the Lord of all Creation decided to send His Son to live on earth, wouldn't he do it differently? Wouldn't a Messiah enter the world in a much grander way? The answer would seem to be yes--so much so that many people just can't believe the humility of the true story.
I wonder: have our efforts to make this story grand been a good thing? Or would we do better to admit that the story IS unusual?
This Christmas, I couldn't help but think about the fact that the whole story of Jesus is one that would be easy to disbelieve. It would be easy to dismiss it as just a sweet story: fun to sing about at Christmastime, but nothing more. And now Christmas is over for another year. Stockings have been filled and emptied; presents have been unwrapped; Christmas dinners have been eaten. Time to pack away the decorations and the holiday movies for another year.
But that baby really was the Son of God. And unlike the Santa legends, this story is true.
Believe it or not.