Lay-led Sermon by Dan Murphy, 24 December 1994 - Christmas Eve Service

When I was a child, I believed in Santa Claus. I just did. I knew there was a Santa Claus at the North Pole as surely as I knew there was a President in Washington or a Howdy Doody on Television. At the age of 4 or 5, the ways in which I was able to perceive and evaluate the world around me meant that all of these things were equally real.

Sometime during the year when I was six, I began to guess that there was no real Santa Claus. Before that, I had figured out that there were lots of pretend Santas -- you'd see them on the street ringing a bell next to the Salvation Army sign or in any number of other places. But I knew that the "real" Santa was the one that arrived in the Thanksgiving day parade and spent the next month at the big downtown department store in the city where I lived. That was the real Santa.

I finally asked my mother if it was true that there wasn't really a Santa Claus. I probably phrased the question in a typical child-like way. I think I said, "there's no such thing as Santa Claus, right?" She apparently decided I was ready for this piece of truth and allowed how as, no, there was no real Santa Claus. Nonetheless, for many years thereafter, we -- my parents and I -- continued the ritual where I would hang up a stocking on Christmas eve, and come Christmas morning, I would come down to find it filled with amusing if inexpensive toys and candies.

The basis for the ritual had been outgrown, but the ritual continued and provided, at minimum, a measure of anticipation and joy.

I don't recall that learning the "truth" about Santa Claus was especially traumatic, but, since I still have a distinct memory of the circumstances, it must have had some impact.

As a child and teenager, I also believed in an anthropomorphic God -- a father figure with a son in human form who concerned himself with the daily comings and goings of us humans. I believed that God would punish me if I did wrong, just as I had earlier believed that Santa Claus would withhold my stocking presents if I wasn't good.

My awareness that the god of my childhood was myth rather than fact came during my freshman year at college, and was, in retrospect, probably more traumatic than my earlier reconciliation with the matter of Santa Claus. Along with my rejection of god as a literal father figure, I rejected the organized religion that I had grown up with and which had, I felt then and long thereafter, suckered me into this package of fabrications and manipulated me with them.

Nonetheless, particularly as occasions such as Christmas came around, I found that I continued to respond viscerally to many of the rituals and patterns of my earlier religious experiences. I sang the Christmas hymns and carols, and although the words might offend my rational mind if I allowed it to dwell on them, it still felt wonderful to hear the music and listen to the familiar poetic phrases.

With the passing of time, I have come to understand and cherish this emotional and spiritual heritage from my childhood. The chords of harmony and the rituals of spoken word continue to nourish and renew the spirit, no matter that the legends on which they are based are not part of the factual world as I know it. It took a while, but I learned that the spiritual and the emotional are closely connected -- perhaps one and the same, and that my spiritual experience need not be dismissed along with the literal beliefs of my childhood.

So let the hymns ring out. Let us speak once again of the stories and of the lessons and experiences of this season. And let us surrender to the feelings born before the earliest memories of our childhood and nurtured through ritual and repetition. Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant! Welcome the spirit of connection and renewal which is our legacy and our future; both ancient and instant; our gift to create, to give, and to receive.