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That evil exists as an objective reality, we know only too well – the human-generated horrors of the 20th Century (the most appalling one in the history of mankind, hallmarked with Auschwitz and Hiroshima) put paid to any illusions that anyone could have had on that score.
Purely for the sake of argument, let us assume that all evil has a specific source of inspiration in the form of the Devil, who is at least a useful metaphor for the mysterious phenomenon of pure wickedness, even if we do not believe in his existence as a concrete physical or spiritual entity (although, as C. S. Lewis wisely pointed out, it suits the Devil equally that we should be either fascinated by or totally unaware of him).
If there were a Devil, clearly one of his principal goals in all the cultures and civilizations originally rooted in Christianity would be to suppress everything that serves to remind people of Jesus, God who made himself human to share our condition, take upon himself all the sins of mankind, offer us redemption and salvation, and urge us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Even if you don’t literally believe in this story, it is at least movingly beautiful, uplifting and morally beneficial.
However, as we say in Spanish, “el Diablo sabe mucho por ser Diablo, pero más sabe por ser viejo.” (“The Devil knows a lot because he’s the Devil, but even more because he’s so old.”) The Devil would be only too aware of how the occasionally systematic (depending on who was in power) but always ruthless persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire backfired. For reasons fair or foul, owing to saintliness or perversity, as the case may be, human beings tend to cling tenaciously to all that is forbidden; prohibition and censorship serve only to whet their appetite for whatever is branded as a taboo. Our hypothetical Prince of Darkness is far too astute and experienced to imagine that he could eradicate interest in Christ through mere repression.
Far cleverer, then, to foster the commemoration of Jesus’ birth by stealthily blurring its focus and gradually turning it into a mega-celebration of nothing in particular. However, since people still crave some central symbol or figure, let’s first take a fairly obscure saint from European folklore – Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, in Dutch) – and then let’s subtly strip him of all religious or spiritual associations by corrupting his name into “Santa Claus” (a grotesque linguistic concoction that has nevertheless spread like wildfire throughout the world, since he is thereby divested of any ethnocentric, politically incorrect associations, not to mention undertones of genuine piety or moral earnestness), and finally – the stroke of genius – let’s get Coca Cola, a purely commercial, profit-centred concern, to determine his definitive traits and disseminate them far and wide. (The Coca-Cola Company proudly boasts of its 89-year-old role in annihilating the original Saint Nicholas and replacing him with the spiritually vacuous, hollowly jolly, overweight, red-and-white standard-bearer of frenetic hedonism who relentlessly assaults our senses everywhere on this planet from early November onwards. Una santa barbuda y obesa, as one might define him – or her – in Spanish).
You’d think that somewhere there was a master-plan to fuel the celebration of Christmas into an orgy of “getting and spending” (as Wordsworth puts it in “The World Is Too Much with Us”), whilst simultaneously playing down and eventually eliminating altogether any reference to Christ, so that we end up linguistically with limp salutations such as “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” – a vacuous and tautological celebration of celebration. Visually we are besieged with irrelevant, fatuous displays of fairy-lights, decorated pine trees, dwarves, gnomes, elves, snowmen, penguins, polar bears, reindeer, gingerbread men, striped stick-candy – anything, anything at all except a crib or maternity scene, which might hypothetically offend the religious or non-religious sensibilities of others, even in countries whose Christian culture goes back over one and a half thousand years: this then, would be the great Machiavellian triumph of Satan (interestingly enough, an anagram of “Santa”); if he exists, that is.
It’s almost worse for us if he doesn’t, because then it’s entirely our own greedy, materialistic, obsessively sensual stupidity and short-sightedness that has brought us to this pretty pass. And rarely is it even “pretty”, for that matter – the Lord of the Flies, or our own increasingly decadent taste, is making sure that each year it becomes more garish, meretricious, trivial and plainly absurd. In the midst of this mindless, amoral display, scarcely a thought is spared for what matters most: reaching out to those who are lonely, marginalized and in need.
I loathe Santa Claus. And to make matters worse, the sonofabitch didn’t even bring me anything last night.