In Ancient Rome, Was Zeus Sorta Like Santa Claus?

A post on the parenting site Cafe Mom poses the one verboten question regarding  the Christmas season’s favorite scarlet-suited chimera: when should you expect your kids to stop believing in Santa Claus?

(Actually, tons of mommy boards take up this issue; I like the Cafe Mom one best because of the exuberant fonts and GIFs)

crying

As one of the as-yet-non-childed, I sympathize with parents who are having an epistemological struggle with this question. How can I expect my children to trust me when I’m feeding them a lie? And not just a one-off, but a lie built over years, supported by a full-on government conspiracy to boot. Why do we cling to silly children’s stories and help a large part of society build itself around them? 

Santa Claus is a sort of cultural idiom, a bit of our collective understanding that, on its face, makes no literal sense, but the jolly old elf is just too permanently ingrained. Santa is the embodiment of the phrase from Voltaire, “If he didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

But Voltaire was not talking about Santa when he said that; he was talking about God. For a certain set of believers, the two remain very much alike. There are still people who believe in a Zeus-like God who, like Santa, is a humanoid superman who miraculously aids true believers. Thankfully, throughout history there have been a few more critically-minded theologians. One of the first was Saint Augustine of Hippo. 

One of the questions on Augustine’s mind in his famous Confessions is how do you get people to stop believing in a being like Zeus or Santa Claus and start believing in the God of the Gospels?

But woe is thee, thou torrent of human custom! …Did not I read in thee of Jove the thunderer and the adulterer? both, doubtless, he could not be; but so the feigned thunder might countenance and pander to real adultery. And now which of our gowned masters lends a sober ear to one who from their own school cries out, “These were Homer’s fictions, transferring things human to the gods; would he had brought down things divine to us!” Yet more truly had he said, “These are indeed his fictions; but attributing a divine nature to wicked men, that crimes might be no longer crimes, and whoso commits them might seem to imitate not abandoned men, but the celestial gods.” 

Augustine is the first theologian to seriously compare ideas about God from Greek philosophy and the New Testament. To a man like him, the gods of Olympus could not possibly be divine because they were wracked by human faults. If Zeus cheats on his wife than why shouldn’t we? Augustine thought he had found the right response to paganism in Christianity. One problem he faced was that believing in the simplistic Zeus (or Jupiter as he was called in Rome) was both more fun and more profitable than believing in Jesus Christ. Zeus encourages us to eat and drink, sleep around, and get rich. Jesus wants us to live as apologetic beggars. Obviously Christianity fought an uphill battle.

Born in 354, Augustine sits on a tipping point of world history, between the mythology-rich Classical Age and the Middle Ages that birthed the ascetic practices of tonsured monks and scholars. Throughout his  youth he was exposed to the many roiling religious factions that were fighting it out in the wake of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Soon the Hellenistic polytheism that had been a part of Roman life for a thousand years was being persecuted by the Emperors. But unlike Christianity, which had thrived amid persecution, the Roman gods were quickly abandoned.

Why? Perhaps it all goes back to Santa Claus. In Rome, the gods were more like celebrity mascots than anything else. There were gods to help move along commerce, stabilize the army, sustain farmers and politicians. But when Zeus is no longer good for business, he stops getting prayers and sacrifices pretty quick. The Christianity of the Early Church was certainly not practiced because it helped your bottom line. You believed to your death. Did Romans have the same fealty for Venus and Apollo? Not so much. I imagine that, should Santa stop bringing presents every year, his devout cult of five-year-olds would dry up just as fast.

Augustine and his fellow Church fathers were able to convert a continent because the God they described to the people made sense in good times and in bad. God expects humility, he expects sacrifice, and he makes no promise of wealth and glory. This life is a narrow passage that ends inevitably in suffering and death, but it leads to heaven. When the icon of a religion is God incarnate dying on a cross it’s easy to realize that its believers were prepared to endure a lot of hardship in the name of faith. As the Roman Empire collapsed in the decades that followed Augustine’s publication of the Confessions, Christianity started to make a lot more sense. It became the religion of a people with their eye on the long-term. That’s something for adults, not children. And just as Augustine graduated from his delightfully debauched youth, so too does the Western World depart Rome at this moment for more sober days.

In closing, all I can say in defense of Santa (and Zeus for that matter) is that, despite their failings they stick with us. Maybe, after all the serious theological discussion, they remain for good reason. They may not be icons of a greater truth, but they sure are fun.

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