Now that he's come and gone, leaving only a few cinders behind, here's a real bah, humbug confession.
I've had it with Santa Claus. He's ruining Christmas -- more accurately, he's misappropriating Christmas. He's just about succeeded in transforming Christmas into his story instead of the infinitely more compelling original.
It's probably Clement C. Moore's fault. Moore, you will remember, was the author of that infernally popular poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," that created the present Santa myth: that beneficent bestower of gifts who gives you everything you want. From the time Moore's famous opening lines, "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house . . . , " were first published two days before Christmas in 1823, the annual arrival of the jolly old elf with his bag full of toys has become Christmas -- and has become, increasingly year after year, a symbol of acquisitiveness. With our Santa, it's all get instead of give.
Get yours, that is.
The ancient Kris Kringle of legend was not at all like the Moore invention. He was a stern, Jehovah-like creature, who punished severely as well as rewarded. Moore took him and made him into -- well, into the first Yuppie, the satisfier of all one's selfish materialistic desires.
What prompted Moore to transform the formidable old St. Nick into our saccharine Santa Claus I have no idea. Perhaps he was merely expressing his own secret yearnings or frustrations. He was, after all, an obscure professor of biblical learning in upstate New York when his poem was first published, anonymously, in the Troy Sentinel.
In any event, Christmas has never been the same since. Moore gave the merchants an irresistible year-end gift. In the process, he diverted attention from the meaning of the far richer Christmas story, one that remains infinitely contemporary.
It was about the burdens of taxation.
Luke: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . . . . And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem . . . , to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child."
It was about privation and homeless people. "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."
It was about cruelty, duplicity, murderous intent, secret missions, pitting the powerful against the powerless, a king's obsession of being supplanted by a brighter, better light.
Matthew: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the day of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him?' When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto them, 'In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: 'And thou, Bethlehem . . . for out thee shall come a governor that shall rule my people Israel.'
"Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, 'Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.'"
That was not true. Herodhad a more evil intent.
The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him: "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word; for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him."
Herod, thwarted, reacted with murderous rage: He "sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under," fulfilling a dreadful prophecy: "In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not."
It was, in the enduring end, about faith and hope for peace on earth, good will toward men.
The message of that timeless Christmas story is the opposite of the Santa Claus one: You achieve that goal not by what you get for yourself but what you give to others. So when it comes to Christmas, thank you, I'll take the Luke and Matthew simple, stark version over Moore's Yuppie Claus any time.