how we turned Saint Nicholas into a symbol of greed
by Giles Fraser
Materialism has swamped the real meaning of Advent, and transformed a fourth-century bishop into the grotesque patron saint of shopping centre grottoes
The Saint Nicholas legends—associated with gift-giving and a concern for the poor – only began to take a recognisably Santa Claus shape after the Protestant churches firmly rejected the cult of the saints and the worship of bones as medieval superstitions. As was so often the case, official Protestant rejection of popular forms of religious devotion didn’t mean these cults disappeared, it just meant that the mythology and traditions developed outside of the church and took on a more secular form.
Hence Saint Nicholas slipped his Christian moorings and took on a life of his own, with his first appearance in a sledge being in the American literature of the early 19th century. Now Santa Claus was ready to become the unofficial patron saint of the pre-Christmas period, the seedy saint who hangs around in shopping centre grottoes, blessing our over–indulgence as generosity and bouncing poor innocent children up and down on his knee. As well as being a corporate stooge, this Santa is a creep.
And from a Christian point of view, the worst thing about Santa is that the candles and fairy lights that are lit in his honour are a form of light pollution that makes invisible the sight of that one simple star that hovers over an outhouse in (Roman) occupied Bethlehem. For in that great prophecy from Isaiah, it is the people who walk in darkness that will see a great light. Those who dwell in the shadow of death, on them the light shines.
… . There are so many more weighty things to think about than what cheap perfume to get for Auntie Dot. And so many easy ways continually to distract ourselves from the important things we have to say to each other. Or the times we might sit alone, doing nothing, listening to what we really need. This is what the Advent period should be all about. Instead we are, to use the words of TS Eliot “Distracted from distraction by distraction/ Filled with fancies and empty meaning”.
Advent is the very antithesis of Santa’s secular pre-Christmas merry-go-round, because advent should release us from the obligation to be continually entertained and entertaining. Advent is not afraid of boredom as the occasional byproduct of doing little and with less, of doing without distraction. Instead, Santa wants to turbo-charge our baser instincts for more and more stuff, filling us up with costly rubbish so that we do not notice the call of that deeper lack for which there is no material consolation. But this call is the ultimate blasphemy to the creepy bearded man who listens only to the insistent nagging of our GDP, believing that growth is the only god of the season. The real Saint Nicholas of Myra, if he ever existed, would have been thoroughly ashamed of what his name has come to stand for.
Excerpted from “Bad Santa: how we turned Saint Nicholas into a symbol of greed” by Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge, St Mary Newington (Elephant and Castle), London, The Guardian, December 7, 2017. Used under Guardian Syndication Open License terms.