My favorite thing about Christmas is the waiting. It wasn’t always that way: When I was a kid, my favorite thing was opening my presents. (We didn’t do Santa, so the presents came from mom and dad.) As I grow older, though, I could sit with the waiting for what feels like forever—because I know for a certainty that the waiting will pay off. The seasonal anticipation builds to a climax that happened in history more than 2,000 years ago.
This is the irony of Advent: Every year, the church waits again for something that has already happened. It’s a waiting described by Isaac Wimberly in one of my favorite Christmas tracks as a “groaning… growing generation after generation.” He continues:
They longed for him, they yearned for him, they waited for him on the edge of their seats. On the edge of where excitement and containment meet, they waited. Like a child watches out the window for a father to return from work, they waited. Like a groom stares at the double doors at the back of the church, they waited… they waited.
I never waited for Christmas like that.
Sure, I wanted the toys and the presents. Sure, I fell asleep at night wondering what my stocking would hold in the morning. But waiting like that? A longing? A yearning? No, that didn’t happen until, at almost 30 years old, I read the Bible chronologically, in the order that the events took place through history instead of the order that Crossway prints it. The narrative arc was smooth and steady, moving from beginning to end in a time-bound, historical progression.
And while I can’t pretend to know the Israelites’ anticipation as they waited and prayed for the promised messiah, about three-quarters of the way through I began to feel for the first time something of their longing. I couldn’t wait for Christ to enter the story. I began to understand in a new way their cries: How long, O Lord? How long? How long? How long? Over and over and over again, waiting for the promise to come. If I didn’t already know how the story ends, the suspense would’ve killed me. It was the first time I truly yearned for Christmas.
But my kids? My kids wait like that. They anticipate Christmas in a way that they won’t otherwise know until they’re old enough to grasp everything Christmas means—the depths of their own sin, their offense before a holy God, and their insurmountable need for the Savior who was this night born into the world to die on their behalf.
Their waiting is real, in other words, even if the object isn’t. The magic is real, even if Santa Claus is just a cut-rate stage show illusionist. Santa provides a taste of the anticipation and fulfillment of Christmas—cheap and artificial, to be sure, but a taste—before my children are old enough to genuinely understand the deeper magic of Bethlehem and Calvary.
It’s a little bit like sipping brown bottle root beer before drinking proper ale, like soap and water in a bubble pipe before savoring a bowlful of Old Toby. It’s a wobbly ride on training wheels to the neighbor’s driveway before careening down that hill with a blind drive and a patch of gravel on the curve at the bottom.
Like Beowulf and St. George and Bilbo Baggins and Lucy Pevensie, Santa Claus is a hardworking plowman who turns the soil of my children’s imaginations. When G.K. Chesterton was a child, he believed that Santa Claus filled his stockings during the night. Years later, he wrote:
I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea. Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.
The secret that Chesterton discovered, and taught me, is that Santa is a story that prepares our hearts and imaginations for the magic and the glory and the unbelievable truth of Christ and the world he created. He may not give my boys their presents, but Santa does give them the gifts of wonder and awe and excitement and anticipation and waiting fulfilled.
To be sure, there are a lot of things that are untrue about the Santa story, and these are the things Santa naysayers get quite right. Santa Claus doesn’t really exist, for example.
But here’s something deeply true about the Santa story: Magic happened on that long-ago night, and magic still happens—on Christmas night and on all nights, every time a life is born and born again, made and made new.
And this: On one night millennia past, all the children of the world woke up and rubbed the sleep from their eyes and stumbled downstairs to find they had been given an undeserved, immeasurable gift.
On that night, a joy was birthed into the world that I’m afraid most grownups have largely forgotten. In fact, I’d venture to say that we haven’t felt that kind of joy since we were, oh, about 7 years old.