Do We Know Who Jesus Is?

by the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C.

Christmas Day, December 25, 2005
Text: Luke 2.1–20

German Holy Card
Artist: R. Margreiter
Holy Card, Germany, 1932
St Nicholas Center Collection

I love Santa Claus. I'll admit it unabashedly. One of my favorite memories as a child—and even a teenager—was listening to my mother read that wonderful poem: "On the night before Christmas when all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse. . . ." OK . . . so I was uncertain about what a kerchief was or sugar plums . . . but I got the point. The story was about Santa. And Santa is magical and jolly and altogether wondrous and good. Another favorite Christmas memory is of my grandfather, my Pa, reading aloud the Christmas story from the Gospel according to Luke. This story, too, is wondrous and filled with a warmth and love that—even as a child—I "got." Even if I couldn't understand all the details, I got the point. The story is about a good God and God's love for me. It's about God's being with me in a new way.

Throughout my life these two stories (Santa and Jesus) have lived together in harmony—two narratives of a magical time of the year. I suspect that this is true for many of us. However, I understand the concerns of some that the Santa story sometimes overshadows the God story, the Jesus story. Certainly, the business interests—which are powerful in our day—count on our devotion to the jolly man in the red suit for their year-end profits. And even I—a great devotee of Santa—worry sometimes that Jesus gets eclipsed by the glitz and glitter and excess that has become dominant for so many at this time of year.

But in order to remain faithful as Christians it's not necessary to shun Santa Claus. Many of you may know that the name "Santa Claus" comes from the dutch nickname for a Christian saint, Saint Nicholas. The dutch name was "Sinter Klaas" (a shortened version of Sint Nikolaas). Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop who served back in the 4th century in a seaside town in Turkey called Demre. After his death, Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors, barrel-makers, small children, and Russians. For years, Russian tourists visited the town to pay their respects to their patron saint, and about five years ago a Russian sculptor donated a bronze statue of Nicholas to be displayed in the center of town. But then, on February 3, 2005, the Demre City Council voted unanimously to erect a statue of Santa Claus on the town square, a plaster-of-paris image of the jolly man in the red suit. The elegant bronze statue of Saint Nicholas was taken down. In this Turkish town, Santa rules. "This is the one everyone knows," said the mayor of Demre to the Washington Post (March 24, 2005). He figured that the Santa statue was a better fit with the business interests of this little "Christmas land."

Here is an example of the God story being overshadowed by the "Santa" story. But, again, it doesn't have to be that way for us. The mayor says, "This (meaning "secular Santa") is the one everyone knows." But we know the other one—or should.

Sinter Klaas, Saint Nicholas, attempted to follow the Christ Child by serving others in whatever way he could. He was born to wealthy parents, and was in line to enjoy the glory of earthly prosperity and achievement. But he heard the challenge of Jesus to "Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor" (Luke. 18.22), so he used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering. He was made a bishop of the church while still a young man, and became known for his love of children and his generosity to those in need. On three different occasions, he gave bags of gold to poor girls needing dowries, and by doing this he saved them from being sold into slavery. He became well-known for his goodness, his compassion and his generosity, and was famous for doing whatever he could to protect people who were in danger—especially children and sailors. He did many of these things in secret—the truth being told only by those who'd been recipients of his kindness. THIS is who St. Nick, Santa Claus, really is. One who offers gifts of love and generosity in secret—bringing joy and hope into the world.

So, even if we didn't know before, we now know who Santa Claus is. But for us gathered here today, the more important question is: Do we know who Jesus is?

Because of the witness of this Christian saint, we are assured that Nicholas knew who Jesus was. Nicholas understood that the glory of God spoken about by the angels was not the "glory" we speak of so crassly these days—glorious accomplishments, vacations, dream homes. . . . Rather, Nicholas knew that the greatest honor, praise and distinction of all time goes to a child who will never achieve material prosperity, a life of leisure, or any of the marks of worldly accomplishment. Instead, Jesus is given glory because he will grow up to become a servant leader, and be the Savior of all the world.

Sinter Klaas lived his life as a servant leader in the image of the Christ Child and because of his love and servant leadership, he is revered through the ages. Some, like the leaders of Demre, may have forgotten. But we can remember.

On this day when the Christian and secular worlds overlap, we would do well to remember who Santa Claus really is—and also to realize that the way Santa has been characterized over the years leaves us with a story of someone who checks his list —twice!—to find out who is naughty or nice. Santa, these days, only gives gifts to those who are "good."

The Christ Child that the real St. Nick worshiped and served—Jesus—offers the gift of unconditional love and forgiveness to ALL people—no matter the sin, no matter the naughtiness.

In order to truly honor this holy day, all we need to do is open our eyes to see who Jesus really is and what Jesus calls us to do: we are invited to participate in the real glory of God which is service, generosity, and love. We don't have to give up Santa. We just have to live like him. Not just on this day, but all the days of the year.

By the grace of God we will do it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Three Faces of Nicholas: Who is he in his hometown?

By the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C., December 25, 2005. Used by permission.

back to top