A Christmas Theology of Ho! Ho!
Editor’s note: this theological observer written by longtime, and much loved, Concordia Seminary Professor Armin “Red” Moellering (1919–1998) appeared in the October 1996 issue of the Concordia Journal (vol. 22, issue 4).
Have you ever wondered why Santa always goes Ho! Ho!, never Ha! Ha! and surely not Tee! Hee!?
One recent morning while seated at the kitchen table sipping coffee, I noticed the Santa ornament my wife had put on the knob of the living room door. Under a picture of the jolly man in red was the familiar Ho! Ho! The question suddenly rose in my mind: Why does Santa always go Ho! Ho! and not Ha! Ha!? At first I felt embarrassed that in my seventies I should be asking this kind of kindergarten question. But on second thought I wondered: What’s so bad about that? Kindergartners ask some jolly good questions. Besides, Christmas celebrates a little Child, and when this Child had grown to manhood, he asked: “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise’?” (Matt 21:16). And so, maybe the question deserves an answer. Here’s mine.
Tee! Hee! is tinseled laughter. That’s gaudy and giddy. We can do without that. Santa’s rotund Ho! Ho! immediately strikes us as something more substantive. And so we summarily dismiss that bubbleheaded Tee! Hee!
When I brought up the question with one of the seminary secretaries, she astutely commented: That would be a good question to ask kindergartners. Later she told me that she had put the question to her young son. At first he just looked at her quizzically (thinking, no doubt, that his mother must have been talking with that retired professor). Then he volunteered: Santa just wants to make people happy. In my judgment—right on target!
However multiple and varied the nuances of Ho! Ho! and Ha! Ha! may be according to the dictionary, there does seem to be a basic, pervasive difference between the two. Ho! Ho! is more benign, an exclamation of joy and an invitation to rejoice. Ha! Ha! is more malicious, derisive and mocking.
Perhaps one can explain the difference by noting that Ha! Ha! goes well with Schadenfreude, whereas Ho! Ho! does not. Schadenfreude, that’s the expressive German term for pleasure at the hurt another is suffering, literally, “harm-pleasure,” that is, gloating over someone else’s misery. It is saying upon learning of another person’s misfortune, “Isn’t that too bad,” when what you really mean is, “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.” Schadenfreude, that’s faking a groan when inwardly you are smiling and secretly saying, Ha! Ha!
And even if I don’t feel any delightful twitches of Schadenfreude at my fellowman’s misfortune, there is another malady just as bad, and that is apathy. Literally the Greek behind the term means “non-suffering, a lack of sensitivity, experiencing no pain at my fellowman’s pain. There is this fellow human being, without Christ and hence without hope in the world (cf. Eph 2:12: “Having no hope and without God in the world”), and I feel no anguish at his plight.
But if I have observed correctly, Santa usually does a triple Ho!, not Ho! Ho!, but Ho! Ho! Ho! That could suggest different things to different people. To me this triad brings to mind the Holy Trinity. Behind our joy, vindicating our rejoicing, is the triune God.
In the words of Martin Luther’s hymn, the Father says:
’Tis time to have compassion.
Then go, bright Jewel of My crown,
And bring to man salvation;
From sin and sorrow set him free….
As for the Son—
The Son obeyed His Father’s will,
Was born of virgin mother,
And God’s good pleasure to fulfill,
He came to be my Brother.
As for the Holy Spirit, Jesus promises—
He shall in trouble comfort thee,
Teach thee to know and follow Me. (TLH 387 [LSB 556])
All this is not to say that there is no Ha! Ha! in the believer’s life. To be sure, no Tee! Hee! snicker at the deadliness of sin, no Ha! Ha! sneer at sinners. But because there is a Ho! Ho! for Christmas, there is a Ha! Ha! for Satan.
If the youngster was right and Santa says Ho! Ho! to make people happy, maybe that, in substance, is what the shepherds said to everyone they met after their visit to Bethlehem. And maybe that’s what we ought to be saying to each other.
H. Armin Moellering