Will the Real Santa Please Stand?
Inviting Saint Nicholas Into Our Christmas
by Daria Gray and Jan Bear
Every year, Christian parents face a dilemma: what to do about Santa Claus.
He's everywhere, that "jolly old elf," hawking tires, toys, and Playboy magazine, sitting in shopping malls taking orders for the latest batteries-not-included whizbang. Although movies about him portray him as someone concerned about the left-out child, his hymnography (think about the words to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town!") carries a theology of vengeful justice that is strange to be associated with One who said, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance" (Luke 5:32).
As a matter of fact, this Santa Claus is not associated with Christ. He may be appropriate to affluent Victorian Christmases with huge candle-laden Christmas trees and middle-class American living rooms (with or without chimneys) where a snack awaits near the comfy chair. But in a stable with the Infant Jesus? They're from different worlds.
Even the Supreme Court acknowledged the anomaly in Lynch vs. Donnelly (1984), when it ruled that Santa Claus and other secular symbols overcome the religious connection of a crèche in a public display. Santa may have his good points, but he has become our society's way of keeping a happy winter holiday without facing up to the reality of Christ. So, cut off from the Triune God, the basis of all good, the "good" of Santa is defined by the movies, books, and advertisements that characterize him, and this good is ultimately answerable only to conventional morality. In a commercial society, it's a commercial "good."
Another dilemma that parents may find more immediately painful is that every year brings a new decision—whether to maintain the lie of Santa's existence or to tell children the truth, at the risk of imitating that bah-humbugging (and also fictional) Christmas character, Scrooge.
There is an answer, though: Saint Nicholas, the real Saint Nicholas, a bishop of Myra in Lycia, who died around AD 350.
South of the North Pole
No, Myra wasn't located at the North Pole. It was an important seaport of the early Christian centuries, situated in what is now known as Turkey. Nicholas, a wealthy young man brought up in a godly home, gave away his inheritance to the needy. The young Bishop Nicholas was imprisoned for his faith during the persecutions under the Roman emperor Diocletian, and he was set free when Constantine released the religious prisoners.
One of the most famous legends about his life tells of a poor man who was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters. If he couldn't get them married, he'd have to sell them into slavery. Hearing of the family's predicament, Nicholas took a bag (or a sock, as some versions have it) of gold, enough for a dowry, and tossed it into the family's house through the window (or down the chimney). He repeated his anonymous gift for each of the daughters, enabling the girls to marry.
Another legend says that Saint Nicholas participated in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea. He was so incensed at some remark of the heretic Arius about Christ and the Theotokos that he punched Arius in the nose. That was considered an inappropriate debating technique, even in that distant time when theology was important enough to fight about, and the leaders of the council took away Nicholas' bishopric and put him in prison.
Christ and His mother appeared to those leaders, one bearing Nicholas' omophorion (the stole marked with crosses that he and other bishops of that period wear in iconographic depictions), and the other the book of the Gospel. Taking their meaning, Nicholas' fellow bishops set him free and returned him to office.
"Saint Nicholas, Hold the Tiller!"
There are many early legends about the miraculous interventions of Saint Nicholas in the lives of those in peril. In one, Bishop Nicholas helped three prisoners wrongly condemned to death. Coming to the scene of their execution, he stopped the executioner and berated the governor until he repented of having taken a bribe to have them killed. Three imperial officers passing through the area learned of these events.
Later, back in Constantinople, these three officers were themselves imprisoned and sentenced to death because of the intrigues of an official in Constantine's court. Remembering Nicholas' mercy, the officers prayed to God that through the bishop's intercession they might be saved. That night, both the unjust official and Constantine himself received a very early visit from Bishop Nicholas, in a dream. The next morning, Constantine and the official agreed to set the officers free.
When sailors in the Christian East bless each other with the words, "May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller!" they are alluding to a story of sailors caught in a terrible storm. Having heard of the holiness and power of the bishop of Myra, these sailors called on his intercession. Nicholas came to them in a vision and took the helm himself and guided the ship into port. When the sailors reached Myra, they went to the Church, where they recognized their mysterious pilot.
Another time, a famine hit Lycea, and ships loaded with wheat came into the harbor on the way from Alexandria to Constantinople. Bishop Nicholas asked the crews to leave some of the wheat for his starving people. The sailors refused at first, afraid of arriving at their destination with less than a full load. At Nicholas' promise that there would be no trouble, the sailors relented. And even though they left two years' supply in Myra, the ships were full when they arrived in Constantinople.
These and many other acts of virtue (some, indeed, more credible than others) have become Saint Nicholas' legacy to the Church. His feast day, December 6, goes far back in Christian history—at least to the ninth century, and very likely further than that. And the Church has celebrated his memory in many ways: in processions, in pageants, with special foods—some of which have become American Christmas customs without our even realizing it.
Many of the fun activities that we now associate with the holidays arise from commemorations of Saint Nicholas. Our practice of giving gifts at Christmas time came from the commemoration of the dowries, as well as the gifts of the Magi. The foil-covered chocolate coins that find their way into Christmas stockings are reminiscent of the dowries, as are the stockings themselves. And when we awake to find gifts that arrived anonymously in the night, we can recall the socks full of gold that came through the chimney (or the window) to save the lives of the three young women.
Our hooked candy canes are symbols of the bishop's crosier. And, early in their history, gingerbread men wore bishops' robes. The image of Saint Nicholas appeared on Byzantine seals more often than the image of any other person, and stamps are still available to imprint the seal of Saint Nicholas on cookies and other baked goods.
The Spirit of Saint Nicholas
These merriments can save our religious life from a dreary solemnity, but if they're the whole focus, we've missed the point. The more important lesson of Saint Nicholas' miracles is that he sacrificed to help people in need. And if we look carefully at those miracles, we see that people like the ones he helped are still with us today: The young women about to be sold into slavery? Our cities are full of young people enslaved to drugs, prostitution, and violence. The prisoners? Penitentiary inmates and their families have many needs, which translate into opportunities to serve. The drowning sailors? In many parts of the country, nonprofit organizations provide equipment and rescue teams to save drowning boaters, lost hikers, and snowed-in skiers. The famine in Lycia? We can find hungry people from the downtown of our nearest city to the most remote place in the world.
The more we understand the spirit of Saint Nicholas—the real man behind the myth—the more we can begin to pattern our lives after his godly example. Why should our children's only glimpse of this saint be that of a phony dime-store Santa with a fake beard, before whom they must wait in line for the opportunity to rehearse their list of Christmas "gimmees?" The real Saint Nicholas has so many wonderful traits around which we all could be patterning our lives.
Instead of spending hours thinking up new and expensive gifts for "Santa" to bring them, many children could clean out their closets of toys they've outgrown or grown tired of, passing them on to other children who would be overjoyed to get them. Many adults could do the same with coats and clothes and blankets, sporting goods and books.
Some families might want to return to the ancient practice of giving modest gifts on Saint Nicholas' feast day, and celebrating Christmas in ways that don't require a garbage-truckload of wrapping paper. One family we know of anonymously gives five percent of their December income to a needy family. To make the feast of Saint Nicholas a special day, their children give puppet shows with home-made stocking puppets. The parents tell stories about Saint Nicholas to the children and discuss why he is worth imitating. They celebrate December 6 with a festive dinner and decorations.
Some families may wish to give up giving each other gifts altogether for Christmas. Others, though, remembering the model of the Magi and Saint Nicholas, may want to continue to give Christmas gifts, to honor the image of Christ that everyone bears. Remembrance is the key.
Teaching Our Children
We Americans often lament our lack of roots, the absence of tradition in our lives. And it's truly a poverty—but it can also be an opportunity. We can look at Saint Nicholas (and other heroes of the faith) and ask, "How can we make this image of Christ tangible to ourselves and our children?" A suburban family will find a different answer than a rural one.
It will take creativity to bring Saint Nicholas to our time, but that can be fun. With a little imagination (and the help of someone who can sew), Dad can trade in that moth-eaten Santa suit for a Saint Nicholas outfit. Families in some places may be able to take a boat ride on the ocean, where the salt air and the swells, even on a calm day, can make it easy to imagine being a frightened sailor with a worthy pilot at the helm. Families or church youth groups can put on plays to illustrate stories of Saint Nicholas' life.
Children can make a Saint Nicholas bank on his feast day, then collect coins throughout the Nativity fast and feast and give the money to charity.
Or they can make a "wheat candle," a candle set in a tiny wheat field in a margarine tub, which grows up during the Nativity fast. This little garden commemorates both Saint Nicholas' response to the famine in Myra and the light and new life in Christ.
These crafts link the Feast of Saint Nicholas and the Nativity of Christ in such a way that each infuses the other with meaning. The ways we find to kindle our children's imagination today are tomorrow's traditions—as today's children, in turn, call the Wonderworker of Myra in Lycia to remembrance for their children.
Choosing the Real Santa
Unlike the mythical Santa running a toy shop far off at the North Pole, Saint Nicholas presents us with an authentic witness of Christian virtue. Instead of beckoning us to join the holiday rat-race, Saint Nicholas calls us to run the great race of faith (II Timothy 4:7). The Church's traditions can make us aware of this reality by making it tangible, like the twelve stones of Joshua, pointing to the power of God (Joshua 4).
So it's appropriate, in a way, that the Feast of Saint Nicholas and the Feast of the Nativity have come together in our culture. The Incarnation was God's arrival among humanity, and Saint Nicholas witnesses to His continued presence among us.
NOTE from the Authors
For more information about alternative Christmas traditions, read the Sherer family's Goodbye Santa! Hello St. Nick!
By Jan Bear, a news editor and freelance writer, and Daria Gray, both members of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Portland, OR., from Again Magazine, Vol. 13, Issue 4, pp. 13-15. Used by permission.