I was reminded by my pastor that today, December 6th, is St. Nicholas Day… the actual day the Catholic and Orthodox Churches set aside to honor the man upon whom the Western concept of Santa Claus is (loosely) based.
St. Nicholas of Myra is said to have come from a wealthy family, and upon the death of his parents, Nicholas took seriously Jesus’ word to sell everything and give to the poor… The legends of Nicholas’ generosity to the poor, protection of children, and suffering for the sake of Jesus grew and grew such that the saint was venerated and celebrated all over Europe (in both Catholic and Orthodox contexts) with the tradition of exchanging gifts in honor of his legend observed on December 6. During the Reformation, the diminishment of the saints led to the change of the gift-giving practice from the 6th to the 25th in honor of Jesus during the celebration of his birth.
Yet, the various poems, songs, and artistic representations of St. Nicholas or Santa Claus remained and grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in America leading to the “jolly old elf” we have today.
We did not do the “Santa Claus” thing when I was a kid. There was never a time when I believed Santa actually came down a chimney or rode in a sleigh with reindeer or lived in the North Pole. When I was 13 and living in Italy during the Christmas season, I actually visited the relic of St. Nicholas in Bari, and today Jules and I don’t do the “Santa Claus” thing with our kids… (we have Christmas decorations with Santa Claus and we watch Santa Claus movies, but we don’t write to Santa Claus, perpetuate the idea that Santa Claus brings gifts, etc…)
On occasion I get asked why… isn’t Santa Claus part of the fun of Christmas, the magic of the season.
For me the reason comes down to a few things: 1) We try to keep Jesus at the center of the season and everything else on the periphery… Some people will go so far as to say, “We ONLY celebrate Jesus, Santa is an anagram of Satan, blah, blah, blah…” We don’t do that… and we try to use the Santa Claus story (the ones about St. Nicholas) among the other traditional stories as an opportunities to talk to our kids about generosity and remembering those who often get forgotten and the example of Jesus’ sacrifice lived out in the Saint. 2) The story of Jesus’ birth is pretty fantastical as it is… flying reindeer and a fat guy stuffing himself down chimneys has nothing on a virgin birth, angelic appearances, extended journeys, and cosmic birthmarks. That’s not to mention that the gift of Jesus is based on grace and mercy not merit, and the Western view of Santa Claus is all about “being good for goodness’ sake.” Grace is truly spectacular and merit-based gifts are no gifts at all… they are earned… 3) If you know me and my family, we LOVE Christmas. We decorate everything… even my office at church as two mini-trees, tartan-based garland, and twinkly lights abound… This season is glorious and deserves the decoration and pomp because of the incarnation and the reminder of love and generosity we are shown in a manger in Bethlehem… an example of which was played out in the life of the real St. Nicholas and which we are called to follow.
That’s just us… Whatever your traditions, let’s focus on the love of God shown to the world in Jesus and remember we are to demonstrate love, kindness, and sacrifice to others – especially the “least of these.” St. Nicholas followed that example and so can we.
One great resource to talk to kids about the various images and traditions surrounding modern day Christmas celebrations is from a program called Buck Denver asks, “What’s in the Bible?” from Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer. The program talks about Christmas trees, why Christmas was set to December 25, Santa Claus, among other topics.