Jim Shore Santa Claus Figurine: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0054F1J9W/?tag=tinselb-20
The Living Santa is the Santa who lives in the imaginations of children. He is as real to them, if not more, than the living Christ or the living Buddha. In certain moments of their lives, around Christmastime, he shines forth in especially delightful ways, prompted by figurines, stories, and music. His love is not entirely unconditional; when he comes to town he has checked his list to see who's been naughty and nice. Still, he is generally a very likeable figure, as are his elves, both imaginary and human, like the "elf Louise" I describe below. I offer a process reflection on Santa and his Elves, with special appreciation for Louise Locker.
- Jay McDaniel, December, 2020
In some circumstances in some children’s lives, images appear in their imaginations that are, for them, emissaries of something in the universe, joyously caring, that seeks to give them presents or blessings. Scholars may consider some of these images “folkloric,” and well they may be. They may be partly a product of the human imagination, and some would say totally a product.
Nevertheless, in a spirit of love, their parents and grandparents may encourage them to take these images both literally and seriously. And their parents may likewise take the images seriously if not literally, because they know the images provide a spark to life, a sense of joy, for their children. Images of saints, of bodhisattvas, of Jesus, of Mary. Images of Santa Claus.
Enter process theology. If there truly is a great compassion at work in the universe - a cosmic Bodhisattva or a truly loving God who seeks the well-being of each and all, and who delights in the joy of innocents - then these images in the home can function as sacraments in the child’s imagination: that is, ways in which he or she feels the presence of this universal compassion.
Over time, the parents may let their children in on a little secret. They may tell them that they themselves are Santa Claus. But the truth is that this is not the whole story. If there is a great compassion, then the very image of Santa Claus is, or can be, one its icons. And if the parents or grandparents haven’t the money or means to respond to embody its love in their children’s lives, then elves are needed. Real human beings who get the job done. Enter Louise Locker. *
I am from San Antonio, Texas, and I went to school with one of its most famous citizens. She is a strong, optimistic, tender-hearted friend who doesn’t like to be in the limelight and would never think of herself as famous, even though she is. I know her as Louise Locker, but the citizens of San Antonio know her as “Elf Louise.”
Louise retired this year from the project she started, and I want to celebrate an aspect of her work that seems especially important today: faith in the goodness of strangers. This faith is an act of love in its own right. It is a faith that people you don't know - strangers - carry within their hearts a desire to do good in the world, to help others, to volunteer their time and energy to help bring joy to others, if given the opportunity.
What is this desire to do good in the world? Buddhists speak of it as the Bodhisattva spirit. A Bodhisattva is someone who refuses to enter final nirvana until all living beings can join him or her. She may be a human being on earth, or a spirit working from another dimension of the cosmos, or a heavenly being. Those of us who are Jewish or Muslim or Christian - and who believe that the very essence of God is love -- may well envision God as a celestial Bodhisattva, everywhere at once, who has this desire. As a process theologian, that's the way I think of God. I see the living presence of this celestial Bodhisattva in other people who, like Louise, seek to help others; and also in images they carry in their imaginations that inspire such care. One of those images, to many around the world, is Santa Claus. Louise has that faith and provided people with that opportunity for fifty years. I'm sure she'll do the same in years to come in different ways. May we, too, live with such faith, becoming elves in our own right, for the greater good of the world.
-- Jay McDaniel, August 2, 2020
A Note from Elf Louise
I’ve always known that we need to believe in possibilities, in what we are able to do collectively, in the potential for goodness in everyone and in the magic or miracles of soulful connections.
For the longest time, my Christmas magic making was a secret to everyone except those who were joining in spreading the love and joy. My desire to give my dolls secretly to one little girl was really a desire to heal my heart after my dad’s sudden death. To give in secret was the ultimate in magic and the ultimate in giving as it was anonymous. As the giving grew year by year, a reporter dubbed me Elf Louise after I’d been turned down for a news story 20 plus times because we had no “name”. I didn’t like the focus on me, even just my first name, so I thought we should call ourselves Santa Claus Anonymous. We did for one year until the phones jammed with children wanting to speak to Santa.
I will never forget a t-shirt we created that had Santa holding a protest sign that said, “How would you feel if I didn’t believe in you?”We all need to believe in ourselves and believe in others maybe even more so. When someone believes in us, as my mama so solidly believed in me, it can fuel the possibilities in our hearts of wanting to bring a bit of heaven down to earth. It can add to our desire to not only think about it but act on it.
Everyone begins life with hopes and dreams, and, if they are fortunate enough, a belief in magic. To believe in magic is to know that anything is possible and that the world can be a rich and generous place.
As I read through Santa letters year after year, I felt like I was reading letters to God. And I felt like children were asking for love. Beyond children asking for toys, they’d ask for healing for a relative or for their dad to be able to come home. One family even wrote asking for the spirit of Christmas because their dad had just lost his job and even after they decorated, it didn’t “feel” like Christmas at all. To witness from the background Santa bringing presents the children asked for, albeit often used, and to surprise them with a visit after they’d written Santa was as astonishing for me as it was for them. And to hear children say loudly, “ I knew you’d come. I told you he’d come!” was to witness the power and impact of true believers.
Jay, I had not formally known about process philosophy or process theology until your wonderful introductions of late. I surely relate and I especially see the way so many things unfold when we open ourselves up, on to another, to see what we can do together. When we go into making things happen with both awe and respect , we create things that I believe we could not have done on our own. I intentionally sought out people from the most unlikely places, places where people were so intent on just attempting to do their best to survive that they’d never known the joy of giving in this way. I said to many reluctant potential Santas, just wait until you put on a Santa suit. You will be the embodiment of joy and magic and love and everyone will be a child when they see you. You just wait. One person who agreed to be one of our much needed Santas was in a half-way house. Even though he initially felt hesitant and awkward being Santa, who wouldn't for the first time, he experienced in full measure the free flow of love both given and received with the children. He told me it added to his belief that he could get on his feet and live a rich and joyful life that he had never known." I surely do believe in magic and possibilities made real and in the phenomenal way we can come together. I do believe in a great Compassion that nudges us all to go beyond our normal lives and enter into our wildest dreams to bring hope and love and goodness into this world.
As a child, Louise Locker found magic in the flight of birds, the picking of four-leaf clovers, the smell of freshly mowed grass and the twinkling of stars as her mother told stories about the constellations.
It was her mother, Anne Locker, who taught her to see magic in everything, whether it was Christmas, for which they’d prepare by making homemade decorations, or people.
When she was 7 and in the grocery store with her mother, Louise would sneak away to wander down the aisles and say hello to everyone. People would smile, wave back, talk with her.She’d tell her mother, “Can you imagine if everybody knew the potential for goodness inside of them and they acted upon it, how different the world will be?”
That faith in strangers became the foundation on which she created the Elf Louise Christmas Project to deliver Christmas gifts to children who otherwise wouldn’t receive any. It was a faith fulfilled through people who found the goodness within themselves to make it possible for 1.5 million San Antonio children to receive gifts for 50 years.
That sense of magic and faith in people Locker had at 7 is stronger now that she’s 70 and eager to pursue “new and soulful callings.” So, the woman whose name is synonymous with Christmas in San Antonio is stepping away from the nationally known organization that bears her name. In a letter sent Friday afternoon to the Elf Louise board of directors, volunteers and supporters, Locker announced her retirement.
A breast cancer survivor, Locker wants it clear her health is not the reason for her retirement. She’s in good health, and it’s the good health of the Elf Louise Christmas Project, with its 5,000 volunteers, that makes this the right time. “This project is in such good hands,” she said. “So many people have made it their own. I’m excited by the next important thing I need to be doing. There’s other things I need to do. Some I know. Some I don’t.”
A licensed therapist, Locker said her counseling has taken on deeper importance and urgency these days. Besides enjoying being a grandmother, she’s writing a memoir and working on other projects, all inspired by looking for the good in people, because “everybody’s got this potential.”
The origins of Elf Louise are San Antonio lore. Locker was a Trinity University student when, a few days before Christmas 1969, inspired by watching late night talk-show host Johnny Carson read children’s letters to Santa, she went to the post office and asked to see letters to Santa. She read through hundreds before seeing this one:
“Dear Santa,I know the only reason you’ve never visited me before is because we’ve never written. Won’t you please visit us? We’ve never had a Christmas tree. Please bring us a tree, a doll, some toy cars for my brothers and bring mom a bible and please don’t get lost.”
Virginia O’Hanlon, who inspired the famous, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” newspaper editorial in 1897, was a child needing reassurance of Santa’s existence. Anna was a child needing to reassure Santa of her existence.
Locker chose Anna’s letter and 12 others representing 65 children and 200 requests for presents.She and her mother gathered items from around their house to give, and she secured help from friends and strangers she approached in Earl Abel’s Restaurant. Media personality and Ticket 760 sports talk host Chris Duel has been friends with Locker since working on the Elf Louise Radiothon on 1200 WOAI in the mid-’90s.
“I remember being struck by her infectious positive spirit and the way she lights up a room when she walks in,” Duel said. “She represents the best each of us can be.”
In the early years, Locker tried to be anonymous. A newspaper reporter dubbed her “Elf Louise.” She’s now one of the city’s most iconic figures, used to adults telling her she came to their houses when they were children.
In 2018, I drove her to Port San Antonio, where volunteers came to collect the toys they would later deliver. She wanted to hear stories without anyone knowing who she was. But while talking to members of Guardians of the Children, a motorcycle club protecting victims of child abuse, a passerby shouted out her name.
The biker she was talking to asked, “You’re Elf Louise? THE Elf Louise?”
When Locker smiled and nodded, all the bikers wanted their pictures taken with her. It was like that all morning.
For more than 50 years, she’s used the magic of Christmas to remind us of our capacity to do good. Christmas isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Elf Louise. She’ll be using other forms of magic to discover, in her words, “Whose heart is open? Whose heart is touched?”
The Salvation of Santa Claus
by Jay McDaniel
Does Santa Claus need saving? Yes, he does.
He needs to be saved from people who might think that he is “only” a myth in the childish imagination, and who thereby demean the power of myth. He needs to be saved from people who cynically dismiss the whole idea of Christmas presents for poor children because it amounts to “mere” charity when what is really needed are structural changes in society as a whole, such that there aren’t poor children in the first place. He needs to be saved from Christians who reject the idea of any salvific figure who can fly through the sky except their own favored savior. He needs to be saved from atheists who reject the idea of God by falsely declaring “it’s like believing in Santa Claus.” He needs to be saved from secular mechanists who reduce reality to lifeless matter in motion and quickly reject the idea that there might be something magical in reality, too. He needs to be saved from people who think that, just because something is real in the imagination it isn’t “really” real. Yes, he needs saving from all of these people.
My friend Louise Locker helped save Santa Claus in the city of San Antonio by starting the Elf Louise Christmas project, which is now in its 50th year. She helped the people of San Antonio recognize the power of myth; understand that one-on-one acts of love are as important as structural changes (which are also important); to appreciate the fact that Jesus is not the only loving figure in the sky who reaches out with hands of kindness to help others (Santa does it, too, as do countless other celestial Bodhisattvas); to see past the rhetoric of atheists who dismiss the whole idea of a great Compassion embracing all of us by demeaning one example thereof, namely Santa; and to move beyond the mechanist image of reality into a more enchanted understanding of life, appreciating the power of imagination to give us realities that are 'real' if not also actual.
And there’s still another way she helped save Santa Claus. Sometimes people dismiss Santa Claus because he is so generous, so eager to help others, albeit with the help of elves; and they don’t like this idea. Perhaps they’ve been harmed by life, but for one reason or another they want to think that selfishness and the will-to-power, not goodness and generosity, are the bottom lines in the human heart and, for that matter, in the cosmos as a whole. The Elf Louise initiative raised, and still raises, an alternative view: namely that something like goodness and generosity may dwell in the human heart and perhaps, as symbolized by Santa, in the universe as a whole.
For my part as a process theologian, I believe this to be true. I suspect that Louise Locker does, too. I believe in a great compassion who encircles with universe with love, whose spirit of goodness is in each heart, and who needs elves. This great and divine compassion is a bit like Santa Claus, albeit with consciousness of its own. She – or he, if you prefer – is everywhere at once (at one level) even as beyond time and space (at another level.) We experience the presence of this compassion as an inclusive love that cares for all in an understanding way and that offers fresh possibilities for each and all, moment by moment, for responding to the situation at hand in a good way. It was this great compassion that inspired Anna to write her letter and Louise Locker to respond.
But make no mistake. The great compassion is on this adventure with us. The future is not known in advance, not even by the great compassion. We ourselves can be the hands and feet of that compassion; the compassion needs us in order for her will to be done on earth as is it in heaven. This will, this desire on the part of the Holy One, includes structural changes as well as individual acts of love. Indeed, the deepest hope we feel from this compassion is that we create communities that are compassionate, participatory, inclusive, diverse, humane to animals, and good for the earth -- with no one left behind. In the world of process theology, we speak of these as ecological civilizations.
Here's the point: We are called to be elves to one another and to the larger web of life. The Elf Louise Christmas project has been an invitation to elfhood, to have faith in ourselves and faith in strangers. In our time we need this faith, only if the size of a mustard seed. And we can be thankful to the good folks at the project, Louise Locker much included, for inspiring us toward this end. What her future holds, we don’t know. It’s between her and the great compassion. But what we know is that the compassion calls us to walk with her into that open future, one step and one gift at a time, in service to kindness, beauty, and the magic of brightened eyes.