Most of us have a story or two of odd gifts we have received for Christmas. Mine is the bundle of green sticks I got when I was six years old. They were tied neatly with twine and set among the gift-wrapped items that had accumulated under our tree. But they were not a surprise. My dad and had I ribbed one another throughout the year about how our behavior would directly influence the presents we would reap from Santa’s benevolence. When December arrived, he joked that while I had not been bad enough to earn stockings filled with coal, I made the cut for the next worst gift—a pile of sticks. “Just wait and see,” he assured me.
But I smelled deceit. A week or so before Christmas, I went outside to play in our yard, which was furnished with a two-deck fort, a small garden, and a workshop where my dad kept his tools. Near the entrance to the shop, I happened upon a patch of grass tinged a few shades greener than the rest of the lawn. And like a hunter, I had found the scent. Trailing around the back of the shop was a faint line of dotted green splotches providing a nearly invisible trail. When I rounded the corner of the building, I saw it—a bundle of freshly painted sticks hanging from a hook to dry.
We all long to be awed and to believe in something beyond ourselves.Committed to the con, my dad had painted them green that morning, having run out of black paint, all the while thinking they were safely hidden. He was surprised, to say the least, when I proudly entered our home and presented them to him instead. To this day, it remains one of our favorite holiday memories, though it fueled my natural skepticism toward Christmas traditions. From the start, I doubted the Santa narratives, despite presents appearing mysteriously under the tree and the cookies and milk vanishing overnight, apparently consumed by Saint Nick himself. My impulse was to demystify the season—and it worked.
Granted, part of that skepticism came from my parents’ annual routine of reading the birth narrative of Jesus on Christmas morning. I understood he was the real reason for the season. But I have found that for most, our holiday fables tend to give way with age. Adulthood encourages us to demystify the celebration and become sensible instead. We do not have the energy to cultivate cute tales amidst our other responsibilities like mailing holiday cards, preparing for family visits, and responding to one too many party invitations. After all, those innocent forms of Christmas belief and wonder belong to childhood, right?
Maybe not so much, at least if we judge that question by the standard of films generated around the holiday. Many of them remain deeply counter-cultural, attempting to cling to those vestiges of magic we all once knew in our youth.
Every year, my wife and I devote the weekend after Thanksgiving to decorating for Christmas. We purchase a live tree and furnish it with two generations of ornaments, we drape icicle lights from our rooftop, and we cap off the day with a movie to inaugurate the season. This year we watched Elf, which has become a modern classic following the story of little orphan Buddy who, as a baby, crawls into Santa’s bag and hitches a ride to the North Pole and a new life.
As a result, he is raised in the company of elves, of whom he believes himself one—until adulthood, that is, when he can no longer deny his humanness. Soon after his revelation, Buddy learns that his biological father lives in New York with a wife and son and has earned a well-deserved place on the Naughty List. Determined to change that, Buddy travels to the Big Apple to reunite with his estranged father. Without question, the film owes a large part of its enduring success to Will Ferrell’s hilarious performance as Buddy. But it also comically portrays some of our deeper longings for the Christmas season.
Buddy is everything we are not. Whereas we proceed robotically throughout our daily routines—waking up in the same bed, walking along the same sidewalks, going to the same job—and find them boring and less-than magical, Buddy sees a world filled with potential and throws himself enthusiastically into it. Throughout the film, he skips from shock to awe and back again. He congratulates a run-down café for serving the “World’s Best Cup of Coffee.” He devours his weight in maple syrup covered spaghetti. He even learns the joy of saying the name Francisco.
His innocence is naïve at times, but childlike nonetheless, a stark contrast to his father, Walter, who has grown burdened by routine. For Walter, life is work and his habits have worn him down. Buddy’s presence crowds Walter’s customs with paper snowflakes and the four main elfish food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup. Walter is a realist. He does what he needs to do to keep his job, pay the bills, and little more. But it has caused him to lose much along the way.
At best, Walter’s wife and son Michael remain at an arm’s length. Walter’s work consumes his time, taking priority over all else. However, each of these exterior behaviors roots itself in a deeper malady: Walter has forgotten what it means to believe. His confidence rests in his own abilities, which distracts his attention from whatever will not intrinsically add to his position. Since relationships require effort, they drift to the side anticipating a day of ease that will never arrive on its own. Integrity also requires sacrifice, so he pockets that responsibility by shortcutting work and stealing the ideas of a competitor to keep his job.
All of that begins to change when he meets Buddy. The two personalities grate in relational conflict throughout the film, culminating in Walter disowning Buddy after he interrupts a meeting that stands to make or break Walter’s career. It is at this point that Walter begins to recognize the cost of his selfishness. Faced with the decision to keep his career at the expense of both of his sons, he chooses to believe.
In the turning point of the film, Walter and Buddy meet in Central Park where they find Santa’s sleigh stranded, having lost its engine and lacking enough Christmas spirit in New York to fuel the remainder of its journey. Together, they work to set Santa back on his way. By the end of the film, Buddy’s kindness and charity has managed to transform both the North Pole and a small family in New York for the better. The childlike adult dressed as an elf emerges as the hero of his own tale.
Elf is counter-cultural in that it encourages a cultivation of that old magic we once knew as children. There is no better season than Christmas for demonstrating the human desire for wonder and belief. We long to be awed and to believe in something beyond ourselves. When we cheer for Buddy, our enthusiasm sprouts from the well-tended soil of that primal spirit. Despite the fact that the film portrays nothing explicitly religious, it illustrates themes inherently spiritual that pluck at our deepest desires. No matter our age, we never outgrow that yearning for childlike innocence, for the freedom to wonder and believe.
S. Lewis wrote, “Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” As the holidays approach, our homes will soon be filled with family and friends, some who walk with Christ and others who do not. Regardless, whoever steps through our doors brings a longing for wonder and belief. Like Walter, we all long for happiness, and we have all sought to find it from founts other than God.
But only God can satisfy our created desire for such ends. When we search for wonder in anything else, we set our sights too low. In doing so, the ordinary makes us weary. Without realizing it, we get swept up in the grind and our habits numb our senses to the beauty of life. Some view monotony as death. For one reason or another, we can grow old and lose the ability to see the world like Buddy the Elf. Schedules, debt, heartbreak, grief, and purposelessness can rob us of childlikeness.
In his work Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton devotes a lengthy section to the beauty of monotony, which he believes ought to enliven our wonder daily. Using the example of young children, he points to their simple joy as a demonstration of freedom. They cry, “Do it again!” not because of immaturity, but because of a giddy eagerness we lose when we abandon childlikeness.
The reason for this is because children, like adults, are made in the image of a God who takes delight in every detail of his creation. Chesterton writes, “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” If nothing else, the incarnation of the Savior, Jesus Christ, demonstrates the truth of God’s care for what appears ordinary.
Rather than take on the kingly robes of an empire, the Messiah entered the world in a manger, cared for by a teenage mother and an artisan father. Nearly 30 years of his life passed in relative obscurity and ordinary days before his ministry began. Jesus joined himself to that earthly monotony. Yet, even in the ordinary life of Jesus, there is great mystery, as if to remind us that God has not tired of habit. Perhaps we have simply grown too old or too jaded to see the way we ought. We have forgotten the wonder of life, the wonder of God’s handiwork.
We were also made to believe. Few holidays boast a history of legends like Christmas. Though Santa Claus retains some remnant of connection to the fourth century bishop Saint Nicholas, on whom he is based, most of his tale has become clouded in fable. Nonetheless, it illustrates our nature as people. All of us want to believe and the Christmas season encourages us to do so, though deficiently. In Elf, Santa’s sleigh runs on belief, but belief in what? Christmas spirit? Goodwill? Generosity? All of these are good in principle, but they prove unsatisfactory in their ability to quench our need to believe. They are simply too small.
It is easy to dismiss Buddy’s belief in altruistic motives and unassuming antics as childish. These are not infantile because Buddy lacks maturity, but because he aims his enthusiasm too low, upon the things of earth. Our hearts long to believe in something greater. Belief beckons us especially at Christmas—even through a movie such as Elf—because we were made to aim our sights heavenward toward eternity.
Christmas holds a unique place in the Christian faith. For us, the season marks our celebration of Christ’s birth, the Savior of the world. Some see the more secular additions to the season as a negative—even a movie like Elf, with its vague focus on goodwill and Christmas spirit.
But here’s the thing: Santa Claus may not be true, but that does not mean he is false. He is merely incomplete, pointing to that greater gift-giver. The human yearnings for wonder and belief, even those prompted by Buddy the Elf, provide us with opportunities for connection among those who do not yet know our King. Rather than decry those traditions of the season that lack explicit connection with Jesus, we can stand on common ground as we wonder and celebrate together the common graces God has given to us all. Then we can point others to the greater things of faith and grace and mercy found in the Messiah, born on Christmas Day. This is why we need such stories to gather around: Christmas urges us to embrace again the magic of wonder and belief we were never meant to age beyond.