by Nicholas Frankovich
Ghent, Belgium, 1991
St. Nicholas Center Collection
David Mills sees in Santa Claus a confusion of two things "that ought never to be confused or blended," Christmas as a secular holiday and Christmas as a Christian holy day. To honor that distinction, he would abandon to the secular side of Christmas the most famous icon of Saint Nicholas, because the secular side has defaced it. It has painted over his features to make them into something more in its own image, the figure we now know as Santa Claus. Even the name has been painted over, although thinly. Is there anyone who really needs to be reminded what the etymology of Santa Claus is?
I say let's scrape the paint off and take the icon back. Let's restore it.
Maybe my loyalty to my patron saint predisposes me to see him in Santa Claus when other people no longer do. I love Saint Nicholas. He used to be venerated more than he is now. It's been said that in medieval art he shows up more often than any other saint except Mary.
Where did he go? Think about it. In our time, is there a saint whose image is more common than that of Santa Claus? Mary again, as in the Middle Ages, is the only one you could plausibly argue outranks him in that category.
There is something about Saint Nicholas that makes people want to depict him. In a post-Christian society, he's made to wear a secular disguise. So let's remove it and substitute the man for the myth, the historical reality for the fictional character. Let's say to the "modern literalist," as C. S. Lewis called him, "Of course you're right about Santa Claus. What an unconvincing portrait of the man it was once supposed to represent. Here's a better one."
When I was a child, I loved both my uncle and Santa Claus, who came to visit me every Christmas Eve at my grandmother's house. And I loved both of them more, my uncle and Santa Claus, when I learned that the latter was a character whose portrayal the former poured his soul into for my benefit.
If the world can suck the true meaning out of Nicholas's image, why shouldn't Christians try to breathe it back in? Because it's too hard? Because the corruption of the image is too far gone? Saint Nicholas, you were stouthearted in your life here on earth. Pray for us, that we be stouthearted now on your behalf. The pope in the seventh century consecrated the Pantheon when it didn't even have any explicitly Christian history. Santa Claus does. He needs to be reconsecrated.
The campaign to resist the secularization of Christmas is already well established. The campaign to resist the secularization of Saint Nicholas is not. Have I found my cause?
From First Things, December 29, 2010. Used by permission.