St. Nicholas the Gift Giver
by the Rev. Christopher McLaren, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Advent 1 Year C
December 3, 2006
Perhaps it was seeing Santa Claus emerge from Pawn City Inc. on 4th Street this week in rush hour traffic to wave at passing cars that tipped me over the edge. But whatever it was, I just couldn’t help myself from thinking about this most beloved of figures. Now, don’t get worried, this is not a sermon about how we need to get rid of Santa Claus and return to the real “reason for the season” as true and unhelpful as that may be. I don’t want to get rid of Santa Claus. In fact, I think that we as a wonderfully playful and passionate part of the Christian Church would be better off if we took the Outward Bound approach to Santa Claus. “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”
Our modern day Santa Claus comes from an ancient and beautifully mysterious source. In the 4th Century there was a bishop named Nicholas in the area we would now call Turkey. First ordained at the tender age of 19 he became a bishop at such an early age he was known as “the boy bishop.” He was the son of a wealthy family, an only child, and he lacked for no good thing in his life. When his parents died, Nicholas became a wealthy young man through his considerable inheritance, but he never seemed to consider the money to be his own. He believed that everything on the earth and in the heavens belonged to God.
Early in his life he used his wealth to help those in need. Many stories are told of his kindness and generosity toward those who were destitute and distressed. Perhaps the best-known story of Nicholas is his compassion for three young women who lacked the resources they needed to be married. The family was so poor and desperate that the father was contemplating the terrible idea of selling his daughters into slavery. But when Nicholas heard of it, he was moved by the family’s plight and acted to save the girls from this wicked and desperate plan. Nicholas secretly went to the home at night and threw three bags of coins through an open window, one for each of the daughters. The daughters were saved and could marry. And thus we have a symbol of three golden balls or three bags of gold associated with St. Nicholas and incidentally pawn shops as well.
St. Nicholas may well be one of the most popular saints the world has ever known, whether he was ever real in history or not. His legends cannot be brushed aside as “mere” myths because they live on into the present and refuse to die. While I don’t want to get rid of Santa Claus, I do think this beloved figure, who evolved out of a very ancient St. Nicholas, could use a closer examination. As one theologian says of St. Nicholas, “A myth is an exceptionally difficult thing to kill, for it continues to be devastatingly revealing even when we have tampered with it and changed its form by our rationalizations or our moralistic applications. A figure who can survive and endure with such tenacity ever since the fourth century, and with a stunning continuity of legends and imagery in so many different places, has got to be real.”
So, I suppose it is best to come clean about my own personal struggles with Santa Claus. As a priest, a Christian and a father of three little ones I find myself deeply conflicted at times. I’m not sure what to do with this jolly old elf myself. I confess horror at the idea of spiriting my children off to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap and get their picture taken while reciting a litany of toys desired. I find myself squirming a bit when interrogated by my 4-year-old about the mysterious dynamics and whereabouts of Father Christmas. I want to be at peace about Santa Claus and to have less dissonance in my life about what I believe and what I feel I should teach my children.
I’m fairly confident that I’m not alone in my struggles. A desire to be truthful with our children has made many of us uncomfortable with one of the few myths retained in our cultic celebrations at Christmas time. On one hand we know in our very bones the power and magic of this figure, but on the other hand, we aren’t sure how long we can or should allow our children to believe in him or what it is that they should believe. And many a thoughtful Christian has worried themselves into a eggnog stupor over the question, “What do we do with Santa Claus so that he doesn’t upstage our celebration of the birth of the Holy Child of God?”
Well, I believe that there is hope for us. Embrace is often a better solution than rejection. Santa Claus is the father figure we all dream about and share in our collective unconscious. He is a type of God the Father, primal and powerful and, yes, real. St. Nicholas inhabits a world of mythic power. Myth is a way of saying something that is too deep for words. As one child told a psychologist, “Myths are stories that aren’t true on the outside but they are true on the inside.”
St. Nicholas is the manifestation of a great inner truth. He was a protector of the poor, a generous heart, a wonder-worker and advocate for justice. We do not lie when we share this sort of truth with our children, so long as we share with integrity to the degree that we ourselves believe it.
I like what Gertrude Mueller Nelson says about this: “We cannot apply to our children what we are not willing to ‘believe in’ ourselves. And if we separate ourselves so far from the inner truth that we no longer believe, then our attempt to make our children believe is an exercise in our own sentimentality. And sentimentality is a lie.”
Sentimentality is the emotion we feel when we scoop off a part of the truth, that part we are willing to accept, and slather it like syrup to cover what we do not want to see. A half-truth is a dangerous truth because it is a lie. We all know about sentimentality. Our Santa Claus is besieged by sentimentality. This powerful mythic figure is often reduced and distorted to a father image without dignity or authority or mystery. The photo op Santa, safe, innocuous and passively listening to grocery lists of toys, does not honor the real myth at work. We would do well to consider what we mean when we say that Santa Claus is a God-the-Father figure.
To embrace Santa Claus as a type of God-the-Father is a way to make God more accessible, to bring God down to semi-human levels so that we can grapple with what is too large and awesome and distant a reality. Santa Claus is God on a level that we can deal with, a type of incarnation of a father figure to whom we can relate. But what kind of a father is Santa Claus? Too often the Santa we meet in our shopping malls is so emasculated as to be irrelevant. He is neither mysterious nor inspired. Any sense of the numinous or possession of deep wisdom is lost, replaced by a chuckle and that floppy red hat. Patronizingly he teaches us to beg for what we want and he will be our cosmic sugar daddy. He does not teach us anything about giving ourselves. He does not encourage and enlist us to become partners in his mission being co-givers, co-creators with him. He is a father that wants us to remain children—dependent and manipulative if we want to keep the relationship on stable footing.
But this is not the Father that St. Nicholas is intended to be. A St. Nicholas that knows if you’ve been naughty or nice is not quite the God-the-Father we address each week as we enter into worship: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the power of your Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name.
This is not a father figure that will always tell us just what is bad or good so that we never have to make up our minds and live with our own choices. This is a father figure that embraces our humanity, its goodness and its darkness; a father figure that invites us into a relationship of healing and transformation. What we need in Santa Claus is a father figure that we can look up to, a father hero that we can never outgrow. What we need from St. Nicholas is a mythic figure that invites us into a life of self-giving, of secret giving to those who are truly in need. A spiritual leader whose wisdom is found in the risk to protect the helpless, to do justice, and to give in such a way that “the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.” St. Nicholas is meant to inspire us to be “little Nicholases” ourselves.
I am reminded of something I once read of J. R. Tolkien and his dedication to the tradition of Father Christmas. Each year Tolkien wrote a substantial letter to each of his children from Father Christmas. It was a kind of letter of great love and honesty of wisdom and insight into his children’s lives. It was the kind of letter one saves and reads over and over again, mining its contents. The form allowed Tolkein to speak to his children as the wise father figure we all desire, observant and insightful and with long history that allows for deep knowledge. Through these letters he claimed the fatherly goodness of God and wielded the compassionate authority of a nurturing parent able to give challenging advice and thoughtful cautions, to identify significant changes over the year, praise growth in character and identify emerging possibilities.
With a little restoration and excavation perhaps we can recover a Santa Claus that is stronger, wiser, more dignified and mysterious, who involves us in the process of growing and changing, who invites us into participation in his mission of “making all things new.” Santa Claus is a wonderful symbol, capable, strong and inspiring if handled with care and mystery. He can be a type of God-the-Father, Creator that inspires all fatherhood and endows it with leadership, wisdom, dignity, authority and powerful creativity. We serve a God who has given us the gift of life itself, who sustains and nurtures us from endless resources, and who saves us from our inadequacies, our fallenness. A Father who also empowers us with his Holy Spirit to grow and change into the likeness of Christ, to become the fully alive human beings we are intended to be. A Father who opens our eyes to see and our hearts to feel the world as it really is, his beloved creation in need of healing and restoration. A Father who calls us into ministry to do our part.
One way to restore Santa Claus or to save him from the fate of jolly postman is to return him to his original role as saint. We have a long history of celebrating the Godliness in the person of our saints and of turning to them to inspire us and to encourage us in the direction of holiness of life.
St. Nicholas’ feast is on December 6th early in Advent. Nicholas the gift-giver, as he is often called, serves to prepare the way for another Father and his great gift at Christmas. Nicholas was a person who more than anything knew how to give. He was the ultimate gift-giver who did much of his work in secret. What I am proposing about St. Nicholas is that each of us live into his reality “on the inside” to the degree we can. The power of myth is not to tell us what was true but rather what is true.
One way to do this is to keep his celebration separate from our celebration of the birth of Christ at Christmas. Give gifts on this day, have a special family breakfast in honor of this Saint. One can teach and believe that St. Nicholas is real on the inside. For it is not foolish to believe that St. Nicholas comes back to this earth from his place in heaven to recreate his holy actions. St. Nicholas is alive in and through any person willing to continue his work of generosity, justice and creativity. St. Nicholas lives in the hearts of every mother and father who understands his mysterious ways. He lives in the hearts and actions of children who catch on to his message and embrace a life of secret giving and looking out for those who need a helping hand. Nicholas inspires us in head and heart to be God’s people here and now. He teaches us how to give in such a way and with such art and soul that the giving itself changes us from the inside out.
I want to acknowledge a great debt to Gertrude Mueller Nelson and her excellent writing on St. Nicholas in her book To Dance with God. Many of the ideas in this sermon find their origin in her work for which I am very grateful. I commend the book to all those interested in the liturgical year and its connection to community and family rituals.
By the Rev. Christopher McLaren, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Used by permission.