Me and Santa Claus

Teaching Sanskrit in the winter sun at SRSG.

Ever since I arrived at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama ashram a couple of months ago, people have been suggesting that I take the role of Santa Claus in the annual Christmas celebrations.

Now it is a strange fact, perhaps mostly due to the presence of numerous American and European residents here that Christmas is probably the most celebrated festival on the calendar. Deepavali, Janmasthami, Shivaratri and other important holidays do not go unnoticed, but Christmas is celebrated with a tree and many other familiar trapping, as well as a kind of "talent" night with different ashramites putting on performances of various types.

In past years I have participated. One year I told the Dickens' story "A Christmas Carol" in Hindi, another time I attempted to tell O.Henry's "A Gift of the Magi," with much less success. But the groundswell of requests to have me play Santa this year made me progressively uneasy. Perhaps the five years I have been in India, especially the last two in Vrindavan, have changed me to such an extent that the very memory of the treacly carols that bombard the average Canadian for the two months from Halloween to Christmas day give me a feeling of nausea..

Finally I wrote the following on Facebook:

Dear friends as SRSG. I know I have grown a big white beard, but that does not mean I am Santa Claus. I refuse to play the role of the incarnation of Western Consumer Culture. I came to India to get away from Christmas. Whoever St. Nicolas may have been originally, or even as recently as a generation ago, to me he is no longer a saint. I see him as a symbol for the root problem of modern civilization. I will not play along. Sorry.
I do not doubt that the Santa symbol has many positive aspects, and I certainly can sympathize with the highest ideals of Christianity, but I felt and still feel that dressing up as Santa is not my role.

At one point I had been thinking that perhaps I could dress up as jolly old Saint Nick, and put on some kind of one-man play about how he had been transformed from a kindly saint giving to the poor into the poster boy for conspicuous consumption. But I quickly realized that dampening others' innocent fun is not my style either.

Although many people understood and approved this comment, there were several others who found it curmudgeonly, and the usual words associated with a lack of Christmas spirit -- "humbug" and "grinch" -- were soon in appearance. But the more that others defended Santa, saying that I was being selective in my understanding, projecting my own negativity onto the symbol rather than seeing its original positive aspects and trying to redeem them, the clearer my sense of revulsion for the entire consumer culture that this figure represents sprung to my mind, and I responded that he is in fact irredeemable.

You have to look at what he represents in today's world. Practically speaking there was no Santa 100 years ago. Take a look at Dickens' Christmas Carol... there is no Santa there. Practically speaking, Christmas itself is a construct of the consumer culture. And Santa Claus was the creation of marketers and advertisers, who made use of the positive connotations of kindness and giving to sell ever more useless stuff.

At least it seems that the Jesus symbol has not been degraded to quite the same extent, even though I must say that the disfigured merciless Jesus of the Christian Right in America, the one who is barely distinguishable from Ayn Rand, may have put even him beyond redemption.

I am a Vaishnava. I left North America precisely because I rejected the the rajasik and tamasik ethic of hard work, competition and sense gratification that it idolizes. I see the Western civilization, which unfortunately is being blindly copied by the rest of the world, including India, as engaged in a helter skelter rush to destruction. I cannot support this misguided civilization and I won't put lipstick on this pig by pretending that Santa Claus represents something other than the wasteful world of modern capitalism.

The British environmentalist writer George Monbiot writes in a recent article that the level of consumption in western society has become pathological. In other words a kind of collective madness. One that has become so normalized that to oppose it is to "expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule."

But the consequences of this "collective madness" are apocalyptic. Is it not madness when an entire civilization is so convinced that insane levels of consumption are the only way that societies can progress economically?

Yet this destructive course is symbolized by Santa Claus, a harmless looking jolly elf, but whose one purpose and one purpose only is to suck you into this vortex of consumption, making you buy things nobody needs, which leads to environmental degradation, and simply supports the cycle of more and more consumption.

If you are spiritually minded in any tradition--Christian, Buddhist, bhakta, yogi, environmentalist, whatever--even if you just have a little bit of common sense, you should see through this scam and realize that it is destroying the world itself, which means it is demoniac. You may dress it up with a jolly "HO HO HO!" but that won't fool me and it should not fool you, either. It is the symbol of a progressively self-destructive, demonic world view.

You cannot separate the symbol from the symbolized. It may seem commendable to try to redeem St. Nicolas, but my position is to just say, "No more!"

Perhaps if Santa Claus did not exist, there would only be something else to take his place to push us to consume, but let us begin our revolution by removing this Santa's mask. I am pessimistic about efforts to turn back the clock on this monstrous distortion, this appropriation of religious figures to justify a demonic course for civilization, well meaning as they may be.

I favor the revolutionary approach. The situation is drastic and it is time to speak loudly against the symbols that drive the world in this direction.

Most likely we will have to wait to see what remains after the apocalypse, when the smoke has cleared and the cinders have cooled. In the meantime, I say it is time to change the gods. Silence the infernal repetition of "Santa Claus is coming to town" and chant Radhe Shyam nam.


Steve Bohlert said…
Aloha Jagat. I support your anti-consumerist refusal to play Santa. I wouldn't do it either. My wife and I celebrate a scaled down version of Christmas that tries to be in touch with the original intent and not buy into consumerism. Have a great holiday season.

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