Growing up in the 80s I was told traditions like the abbreviation “Xmas” took “Christ” out of Christmas, Santa was a distraction from baby Jesus, and Christmas trees were pagan symbols from hell. But I’ve found some traditions deserve to be questioned. Fatman, the 2020 Christmas film, tells the story of a non-traditional Chris Cringle played by Mel Gibson. A militarized Santa is nothing new (i.e., Scrooged, The Santa Clause, Doctor Who “Last Christmas”), but this story helps us appreciate the pursuit for truth and eternal significance that often imbue our Christmas traditions.
Fat Man and Little BoyTwo universal, and biblical, storytelling tropes of justice and the underdog are perfectly combined in Fatman. We root for depressed and weary Santa as the underdog, unaware a highly trained assassin is coming for him; yet we’re given hope through hints of his supernatural powers to fight injustice.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the plot centers around rich brat Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield) who, after receiving coal, hires a hitman (Walton Goggins1) to kill Santa. In parallel with that storyline we learn the mechanics of the Fatman universe. Writer/Director brothers Ian and Eshom Nelms were very discriminating with their Christmas traditions, including supernatural canon like Santa knowing every person (naughty or nice), having a workshop with elves, and bringing gifts on his sleigh to everyone on Christmas Eve. But for all the otherworldly tropes, Cringle is plagued by real world problems. Paying bills, the world is getting worse (i.e. fewer “good” kids), and Chris is straight up feeling old.
Alétheia Rhiza: Ignoring Spiritual Roots
We all have real world problems, but even before COVID, many of us attempted a façade of hope and goodwill during the holidays. You don’t have to be skeptical to see phrases like “believe in the magic of Christmas” and “spread holiday cheer” have as much substance of finding true happiness as planting your plastic Christmas tree in the ground. Even many nonreligious people see through the commercialism, depression, family turmoil, exhaustion, and travel nightmares that the holidays have become. The saying “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” is popular, but how is that actually applied to our holidays?
Of chief importance is truth, a recognition of the mythmaking which searches for the beauty of Jesus as well as the harmful myths which are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Are the traditions of “Xmas,” Santa, and Christmas trees evil distractions? In truth, no. The origin of using “X” in Xmas is actually the Greek transliteration of “C” standing for Christ2—it doesn’t get much more Christian than that!
Regarding the Christmas tree, many Christian and secular historians believe the tradition as we know it started in 16th century Germany “when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes.”3 Ornaments have their origin in Nativity plays that linked to the fruit in the Creation story (Genesis 2:8–9). “Thus, as part of the play for [Christmas Eve], the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a ‘paradise tree’ hung with fruit.”4 And Christmas tree lights are attributed to Martin Luther who, awed by the stars, tried to recapture the scene by putting a tree with lit candles in his living room.5 Saint Nicholas was born in Lycia, Asia Minor in 280 AD6, and became known as “the gift giver of Myra.” Desiring to help the poor as Jesus taught, bishop Nicolas gave gifts late at night to remain anonymous (Matthew 6:3-4). The Dutch pronounced Saint Nicholas as Sinterklass (Sinter Klass) which, by the 1700s, evolved into Santa Claus.7 Regardless of what he was called, at the root of the Santa Claus tradition has always been gift giving.
Tradition of Truth: Jólakötturinn in Wolves Clothing
Fatman gets back to these roots by explaining that the gift giving is what keeps Santa young. It’s not Christmas spirit or how many people believe in him. In fact, in the Fatman universe, no one even questions whether Santa is real; his existence is truth. Around the midpoint of the film, the hitman says it’s taken a lot of research and digging but credible sources have located Santa’s location.
Regardless of how much research and digging and credible sources I have on the holiday traditions of Xmas, Santa and trees, there will be unbelieving detractors. As I mentioned, questioning is crucial, especially for Christians. But America’s penchant to believe what we want to hear8, as evidenced by widespread conspiracy theories and distrust in media sources, has made Christians susceptible9 to wolves in sheep’s clothing.
If you haven’t heard of the group QAnon, which Christianity Today calls “wolves in wolves clothing,”10 it is a group of people following the anonymous “Q.” “It started on October 28, 2017, when a person identifying themselves as “Q Clearance Patriot” first appeared on a board of 4Chan…known for intentionally spreading fake news and propaganda for…amusement.”11 As Baptist News Global says, “QAnon followers suggest that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and even Pope Francis are molesting children and then killing and eating these children ‘to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood.’”12 And from personal experience, QAnon is infiltrating the Church13 and creating a new religion.14
Therefore, it has never been as important to stand on the inerrancy of the Bible as being our credible source for truth. Unlike the earlier example of planting a plastic tree, Jesus’ truth and love are solid, like a Christmas tree deeply rooted beneath the snowy surface of life. Truth reveals false conspiracy theories like Pizzagate hurt15 godly ministries like Dressember and Agape International Missions and Samaritan’s Purse16 that are actually fighting trafficking and prostitution.
And this truth gives us two currently applicable objectives. First, when enjoying media such as Fatman, or more family appropriate fare, we need to draw attention to traditions that point toward Christ, or conversely away from Him. Second, when the holidays are over, we must be aware of threats like QAnon masquerading as judges of justice and umpires of underdogs.
It’s a Wonderful Life, Planned from the Beginning
These two universal, and biblical, storytelling tropes of justice and the underdog are perfectly combined in Fatman. We root for depressed and weary Santa as the underdog, unaware a highly trained assassin is coming for him; yet we’re given hope through hints of his supernatural powers to fight injustice. What centers Gibson’s Santa, and what centers the film, is not a what but a who. Mrs. Claus, played by the incredible Marianne Jean-Baptiste, brings Santa’s only source for peace, rationale, and yet simultaneously her assurance is in the supernatural. Mrs. Claus doesn’t shy away from Santa’s problems and humanity, but by encouraging a different use for their manufacturing operation, she emphasizes the positive supernatural abilities.
In the same way, my centering doesn’t come from a what but a Who. And He is my only source for peace, rationale, yet evidence in the spiritual natural. If Cameron McAllister is right and our chronic anxiety is actually based on the myth that we are in control, then the only solution is to give up this illusion.17 It’s in difficult times like the world is in now, where we can stop thinking of God as “the big Guy in the sky,” and acknowledge Him as our omnipotent, loving Creator. I love the ancient tradition of fruit ornaments for Christmas trees. It centers us around God’s plan for eternal life from the beginning.
John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” We just covered Immanuel’s truth but what does His “fullness of grace” mean? When the Bible talks about God’s mercy and grace, I can never remember that mercy is withholding deserved punishment and grace is unmerited favor. The way I keep it straight is that Jesus’ mercy pulls us out of hell and His grace takes us up to heaven! Every person has eternal life, planned from before the Garden, but it’s an individual’s decision to accept Jesus’ sacrifice that determines where they’ll spend their eternal life.
A key part of the Santa Claus lore is that he’s been around for a long, long time, bringing the gift of love to the world. It is no surprise then that films like Fatman portray him with an almost Christlike immortality. And that is certainly a question the audience asks itself when the hitman goes to kill Chris Cringle.
Christ(mas): Neither Santa Nor Krampus
I won’t spoil anything for you on whether Gibson’s Santa can die, but I will say one of the film’s most pivotal parts is near the end when he changes tactics. No longer will he send passive messages of coal to naughty children. He will give warnings and if they aren’t heeded he will stop children from being “wicked” (although the how isn’t spelled out, I get the feeling it’s more final than jail time).
The curmudgeonly old man in me likes the idea of Santa sending (only slightly retaliatory) stronger messages of discipline. Cringle’s reckoning for those who, as he says, “live outside of morals and consequences,” reminds me of the Central European tradition of Krampus. The legends say Krampus punishes kids who misbehave, a lot like Dwight’s Belsnickel of The Office. I’d be interested in teaching a parenting class called “Indulgence of Santa vs. Discipline of Krampus.”
It’s too superficial to say Krampus represents Satan, and Santa is imagery for Jesus. Admittedly, Jesus has a special place in His heart for children. He chastised His disciples when they were too cool to bother with kids (Mark 10:14) and He vowed a child abuser would be better off with a huge stone around their neck and dropped into the ocean than what Jesus would do to them (Matthew 18:6). But that’s precisely my point: Jesus is perfectly loving, yet has perfect justice.
When we only consider baby Jesus, we see the meek and mild Lamb. Revelation 5:5–6 makes it clear Christ is 100 percent the Lamb, however He is the Lion in equal measure. As a pastor I’ve been asked, “What is more important: Christmas or Easter (i.e., the birth or death)?” I do my best Jesus impression and try not to get caught up in the question itself, but in the root of the question. Jesus’ birth and death always had one goal: His resurrection. Jesus returning from death gives us proof that His claims are true: we can join Him in Heaven. And yet, for the naughty who refuse His repeated invitations to Heaven, they have delivered themselves to Hell. To ignore that Jesus, fully God and fully Man, is the only legitimate Judge, is to seal your fate in Hell.
And yet, the “good tidings of great joy” the angels excitedly proclaimed to the shepherds is that Christ has come (Luke 2:8–16)! Yes, the world is getting darker. Sure, the imagery of an entitled kid sending a hitman to murder the presumably mythical but only righteous judge shines a light on our culture’s moral decay. And yet, Jesus has come! He is somehow perfectly truth, justice, and love. Not in an Oprah-esque, self-help, shallow, pseudo-spiritual way. But in a tangible, He’s-been-through-everything-we-have-and-is-our-only-hope kind of way.
Who’s Playing Santa?
The fact that Jesus has come is the most relevant truth of our time. When media like Fatman either points toward traditions of truth or satirizes them, those traditions deserve to be talked about. Likewise, some traditions deserve to be questioned. When proclamations of truth are wolves in wolves clothing, we must also know the roots, and dialog about them.
We can get wrapped up in traditions of “we’ve always done it this way” and “it’s not Christmas without ________” because we want to emotionally enjoy the holidays. But a Christmas tradition should always point toward Jesus, never be a distraction or argument from the opportunity of lovingly sharing His truth and life. How will you play Saint Nicholas (or Senorita Nicolita) this Christmas, putting love into action, pointing toward the only immortal, way, truth and life-giving Savior, Jesus Christ?
1. After seeing The Next Karate Kid, I thought Walton was on the straight and narrow but sadly, becoming a hitman is clearly on the crooked and wide.
2. R. C Sproul, “What Does the X in Xmas Mean?” Ligonier Ministries, https://www.ligonier.org/blog/why-is-x-used-when-it-replaces-christ-in-christmas/, 12/20/19; Brandon Ambrosino, “The X in Xmas Literally Means Christ. Here’s the History Behind it,” Vox, https://www.vox.com/2014/12/14/7374401/jesus-xmas-christmas, 12/14/14 and Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/e/xmas-christogram/.
3. Editors, “History of Christmas Trees,” History.com, http://www.history.com/topics/history-of-christmas-trees.
4. Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait, “Why Do We Have Christmas Trees?,” Christianity Today, ,http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/thepastinthepresent/storybehind/whychristmastrees.html, 12/11/08.
5. Matt Soniak, “A Brief History of Christmas Tree Lights, Mental Floss, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/26585/brief-history-christmas-tree-lights, 12/9/10 and Editors, “History of Christmas Trees,” History.com, http://www.history.com/topics/history-of-christmas-trees.
6. Editors, “St. Nicholas,” Encyclopaedia Britannica.com, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Nicholas.
7. Ciska Schippers, “The Secret Dutch Side of Santa Claus,” The Dutch Review, https://dutchreview.com/culture/holidays/secret-dutch-side-santa-claus/, 12/3/20 and “St. Nicholas, Santa Claus & Father Christmas,” https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/fatherchristmas.shtml.
8. Richard Hofstadter in Luke Seminara’s article, “What Q Tells – Society,” Columbia Political Review, http://www.cpreview.org/blog/2020/10/what-q-tells-us-conspiracy-theories-and-american-civil-society, 10/6/20.
9. Andrew Gardner’s, “Why are Christians so Susceptible to Conspiracy?” Baptist News Global, https://baptistnews.com/article/why-are-christians-so-susceptible-to-conspiracy/, 8/31/20 and Dawn Araujo-Hawkins, “The making of the QAnon Conspiracy Cult,” The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/news/making-qanon-conspiracy-cult, 11/30/20.
10. Bonnie Kristian, “QAnon Is a Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing,” Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/august-web-only/qanon-is-wolf-in-wolfs-clothing.html, 8/26/20.
11. Joe Carter, “The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About QAnon,” The Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-faqs-what-christians-should-know-about-qanon/, 5/20/20.
12. Andrew Gardner, “Why are Christians so Susceptible to Conspiracy?” Baptist News Global, https://baptistnews.com/article/why-are-christians-so-susceptible-to-conspiracy/, 8/31/20.
13. Katelyn Beaty, “QAnon: The alternative religion that’s coming to your church,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2020/08/17/qanon-the-alternative-religion-thats-coming-to-your-church/, 8/17/20.
14. Eric Zach, “The Church of QAnon: Will conspiracy theories form the basis of a new religious movement?” https://theconversation.com/the-church-of-qanon-will-conspiracy-theories-form-the-basis-of-a-new-religious-movement-137859, 5/18/20.
15. Allison Nipert and Sammie Wicks, “QAnon and Human Trafficking Conspiracy Theories Are Causing More Harm Than Good,” https://combathumantrafficking.org/2020/09/qanon/, 9/4/20; and see the article “Fact or Conspiracy Theory? How the Spread of Misinformation Threatens Effective Solutions That Address Child Sex Trafficking”
16. And many more like The Exodus Road and Covenant House and A21, just make sure to double check organizations through someone like Charity Navigator for financial accountability. And see the article “7 Ways Everyday People Can Help End Human Trafficking.”
17. Cameron McAllister, “Vital Signs with Cameron McAllister,” Episode: “Why Are We So Anxious? Pt. 1,” RZIM Ministries Podcasts, https://www.rzim.org/listen/vital-signs/why-are-we-so-anxious-pt-1, 9/7/2020.