Has Saint Nick become Saint No? A New Jersey substitute teacher recently took it upon herself to tell her first-grade class there is no Santa Claus. At a Texas mall, a Christian pastor shouted at a line of children and families waiting for a picture with a mall Santa, “Kids, there is no Santa! Santa’s not real! Your parents are lying to you! Don’t believe it! Have a nice day.” These two beauties are not alone.
Now, of course, the thoroughly Christian holiday (holy day) of Christmas (it has Christ in the word) continues to be diluted and diminished by secular cultural consumerism, but that is a topic for another column. Right now, I am concerned about jolly ‘ol Saint Nick. Too many Christians now think the way to reclaim Jesus as the reason for the season is to throw out Santa like a stale piece of fruitcake. After all, Santa is an anagram of Satan!
However, before our anger at Santa takes off like eight tiny reindeer, let’s give a pause for Santa Claus. Perhaps the choice is not between embracing the secular Santa cult or closing the chimney forever to his presence. Maybe there is another way besides throwing Santa out with the Easter Bunny (who should go away forever, but that, too, is a topic for another column). What if, as Christians, we re-embrace the REAL St. Nick?
All the names Santa Claus (from Dutch Sinterklaas), Kris Kringle (from German Kristkindl meaning Christ Child), and Father Christmas (from England) find their roots in the real Nicholas of Myra, Saint Nicholas, who died Dec. 6, 343. Nicholas, like Saint Francis of Assisi, was raised in a family of privilege but quickly preferred the more austere life of the church. A devoted disciple from a young age, Nicholas was raised by his Uncle Nicholas (Bishop of Patara in Lycia) after his parents died. Having received a large inheritance, Nicholas became well-known for giving gifts of money to the needy and especially to children.
Eventually becoming Bishop of Myra (now Turkey), dressed in the traditional red and white bishop’s robe and sporting a long beard, Nicholas was said to have dropped a bag of money in the window (or chimney) of a family to help pay a daughter’s dowry. Without such a gift, she likely would not have been able to marry and may have ended up in a disreputable profession.
Legends and folk tales regularly develop around historical figures, yet these stories can still be indicative of the essential character of the real person. Whether George Washington actually confessed to cutting down a cherry tree is less important than what the story says about the true character of the man.
Most aspects of Santa have their roots in the truths and essential character of Saint Nicholas, who eventually became the Patron Saint of Children. His memorable kindness, generosity, love of children, and most importantly, his tireless devotion to Jesus Christ remain at the core of Nicholas of Myra and at the core of our Santa tradition.
Clearly, and largely due to the well-known poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “’Twas the Night Before Christmas), our Santa traditions have become quite fanciful. But instead of defaming Santa, try reclaiming him. Go ahead and celebrate the Santa tradition (within reason), but make sure to also refer to him as Saint Nicholas.
Then when children are old enough, explain to them that Saint Nicholas of Myra was a real person whose legacy we remember and celebrate with our Santa traditions. Tell them the stories of the real man who was a real and dedicated Christian who devoted his life to serving others. Although not a Saint (with a capital S) in all Christian traditions, Nicholas was man devoted to Jesus and one who still serves as an abiding inspiration to us all.
“And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight.’” Thanks, Santa! I mean, Saint Nick!