A Fraud of a Santa

by Jay Akasie, the New York Sun

December 7, 2007

St. Nicholas at Rockefeller Center
The real St. Nicholas visits New York City's Rockefeller Center
Photo: Episcopal Life
Used by permission

This newspaper's "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus," which appeared in 1897, is the most reproduced editorial of all time. It's difficult for anyone at The New York Sun to take lightly the matter of St. Nick.

A young girl wrote in to ask The Sun's editor about the existence of the man from the north on the sleigh. The Sun's editorial writer at the time, the former Civil War correspondent Francis Church, replied, urging the young Virginia O'Hanlon not to be swayed by the "skepticism of a skeptical age."

Yet, today, Santa Claus seems more like a rep for toy companies than much else. And he represents the ultimate in consumption and entitlement: You tell him what you want, not with hope, but with the expectation that he comes through with the prize. Moreover, America's version of Santa Claus, in line with the way the nation is growing as well, seems to be getting fatter by the minute. A case in point: One of the more hyped movies of the season, "Fred Claus," is a story about Santa's deadbeat younger brother. We're supposed to be entertained by the fact that Fred falls into debt after years of gambling and booze, and attempts to work off the $50,000 he owes his brother, who apparently is an enabler, by making toys at Santa's North Pole workshop.

Now is the perfect time of year to take another look at St. Nick, even past Virginia, and see if we can't all appreciate the original qualities that made him a celebrity in the first place.

St. Nicholas is best known for his status as patron saint of children. But he's also the patron saint of seafarers and sailors. Many countries and kingdoms have chosen Nicholas as their patron saint. In England, there are some 400 churches dedicated to this 4th century bishop. In Manhattan alone, there are several churches named after him.

Nicholas became one of the world's best-known figures by the life he led and the examples he set. He lived back in 4th century in what used to be called Asia Minor and now is Turkey. His affluent parents died when he was just a boy. In an extraordinary move, Nicholas gave away his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside collecting alms for the poor. Popular saints usually attain sainthood by standing boldly in the face of against-all-odds persecution, and Nicholas was no exception. He was a bishop of the early church back when Roman emperors were still throwing Christians to the lions.

Getting mad and getting even is a big theme of the video games that Nick will be handing out this Christmas. But Nicholas himself did not do that. The man forgave his Roman persecutors. By most accounts, the horrific experience served only to deepen his resolve to help the sick and destitute in his midst. Word of Nicholas traveled relatively fast, and a couple centuries after his death Emperor Justinian put him on the track to sainthood. For the last 15 centuries, many church calendars have set aside December 6th as St. Nicholas Day.

St. Nicholas didn't accomplish anything by posing as a jolly old man dressed in an ermine-trimmed red ski suit. And it's clear he never encountered reindeer, flying or otherwise, in the sun drenched Mediterranean shore town of Myra, Nick's hometown.

He dedicated his life not to conspicuous self-consumption, but to compassion. It turns out that for those willing to listen, the life story of St. Nicholas has more relevance today than ever before.

"Understanding St. Nicholas encourages giving rather than getting," the founder and director of the non-profit St. Nicholas Center, Carol Myers, said. "He lived a life for others, showing concern for the most vulnerable: children, women, and those in need. He points beyond himself, and instead to God, and shows us how to live faithfully."

Apologies to Francis Church, but skepticism concerning the cult of Santa Claus wouldn't hurt a bit. At least not if it helps the examples set by the real St. Nicholas to define the season.

By Jay Akasie, New York Sun, December 7, 2007, courtesy of the New York Sun.

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