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Jan Egeland, modern Santa

In Christian circles, Santa is often seen as an interloper. He steals space that belongs to Jesus. But Norway the story is more complex. There Christians originally invited Santa Claus in.

Julnissa, the Norse Santa, was originally an elf, one of the original cultivators of family land, who came out to drink at the Jul celebrations. Jul (Yuletide) was a festival marking the transition from winter to spring. In the tenth century, King Haakon 1 of Norway moved the celebration of Jul to December 25. Elements of the older mythology survived, including the Julnissa who later incorporated St. Nicholas and his red and white hat.

When we think of the rise and rise of Santa Claus, we might ask whether King Haakon was bringing a Trojan horse into the Christian camp when he brought Yuletide into Christmas. But he had good precedents. When remembering the birth of Jesus, even the Gospel writers felt the need to include figures who did not share the faith their readers’ faith. Although Matthew does not describe the religion of the wise men led by a star, they were certainly not Jews. Their cultural and religious difference brings out the universal significance of Christ’s birth. Luke, too, presents Simeon as a devout Jew. His religious practice was no longer normative for Luke’s readers. But Luke uses his difference to ground the continuity of faith in Jesus with the best of Jewish tradition.

Outsiders continue to be important in retelling the Christmas story. If God’s loves and values all human beings enough to be present in Jesus, human goodness must extend beyond the circle of believers. Outsiders also point to the distinctive qualities of Jesus Christ. They enable Christians to understand better their own faith and its implications. Like the wise men, the Julnissa came bringing gifts to Christmas in Norway.

This Christmas, another figure from Norway illuminates the meaning of the feast. Jan Egeland steps down as head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Egeland’s great gift has been for honest and passionate words that strip away partisan cant. One of the few heartening images of the recent destruction of Lebanon was his outraged condemnation of the use of cluster bombs. He was equally forthright in condemning the Hezebollah use of civilians as human shields. Earlier, after the tsunami, he said, ‘Christmas time should remind many Western countries how rich we have become, and if actually the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of their gross national income, I think that is stingy, really.’

Egeland’s responses are notable because he always places human beings at the centre, and never allows the conventions of diplomacy to displace human dignity. He has learned much from his long involvement in Amnesty International.

What he has learned has also made him an effective negotiator. His work has had an enormous effect on suffering people. When he was working in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he coordinated the Norwegian initiative that led to the Oslo agreement in 1992 between Israel and the PLO, and facilitated the agreement between the Government of Guatemala and the guerillas in 1996. He also led the Norwegian delegation at Oslo when landmines were banned. No doubt some powerful and partisan people will be glad to see the end of his work at the United Nations. The powerless will thank God for his presence.

The Christmas story naturally invites such people as Jan Egeland into its re-telling. It needs them if the implications of God’s humanity are to be understood properly. They are those who make a straight path in the desert, who take human beings seriously, and insist that this dignity be respected.

Norway’s latest gift to Christmas may make us see Santa in a new light. If Santa Claus seems out of place at Christmas, it is not because he is not Christian, but because he has become purely decorative. He discloses little that is of human value. Jan Egeland blesses the celebration of Christmas because his words and commitments have declared uncompromisingly the value of the humanity to which God came.



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Existing comments

In his "retirement", may God bless him with plenty of good works he can do while sleeping in his family home.

Michael Grounds | 21 December 2006  

This man inspired me to have a new purpose in life. May he live in the peace that he so desired others around the world to have.

Sarah Haque | 29 December 2006  

What a shame to see him go. I applaud him for his integrity, his forthright and outspoken manner which was always gentle and devoid of rant. That tsunami comment, so misrepresented throughout the media, voiced a truth that many feel but do not talk about. That he had to recant is a sorry commentary on the state of our collective value system gone wrong. He is a man truly worthy of respect for the work he has done and the ethic he espouses. The world could do with more like him.

Priya Tuli | 30 September 2007  

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