The tradition of Santa Claus is a rich and storied one. Many countries have their own version, but the American tradition began with an idea that came across the ocean with 17th-century Dutch immigrants. They were moving to New York and brought with them a story of a kind benefactor known as “Sinter Klaas.” Author Washington Irving wrote about the Dutch version of St. Nicholas in 1809, who was said to arrive on horseback every year on the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas to distribute presents in the villages.
The Dutch-American St. Nick was immortalized in Clement Clark Moore’s poem published in 1823 entitled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
The St. Nicholas legend stems from a real third-century A.D. monk named Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna (Izmir). He was a wealthy man who delighted in throwing presents to poor children through the windows of their homes. He traveled the country giving away all of his wealth and helping the poor and the sick.
The Catholic Church honored St. Nicholas as the patron saint of children and seafarers. In England, the tradition of Father Christmas has been observed for centuries, and the French have their own Pere Noel.
What all of these variations of Santas have in common is a reputation for giving to the poor, showing compassion to the marginalized, focusing on the needs of the children, and assisting those who have very little. Sounds just like Jesus.
Santa, in essence, is a giver, with his roots in the sacred traditions.
Isaiah 58 (NIV)
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
And in turn, WE respond, here I am Lord. Send me. I have no proof, but I imagine that the original St. Nicholas said exactly that when God called him to a life of generosity. In doing so, he evolved into a secular icon that speaks of the sacredness of giving. We have to give Santa his due, as he points to the generosity of spirit and kindness to all.
Perhaps the best way to honor the tradition of St. Nicholas is to do what Isaiah is calling us to do: share our food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, clothe the naked, and especially to not turn away from our own family members.
How will you respond? Where is God calling you to give of yourself in a new and fresh way this Advent season?
Whatever it is, DO IT. God promises to be your rear guard, and your light will break forth in your generosity. And that light, like the light of Christ himself, dispels all the darkness of the world.
My uncle has been blessed with a pure white beard, a jolly temperament, and a particular call to exemplify the compassion and generosity of Santa. He has worked for years as a professional Santa, which comes with a lot of guidelines. For example, Santa can’t promise anything, but must respond with “I’ll put it on my list” when a child asks for something. Uncle Chuck tells of some sad moments in his career, such as the time when a little girl sat on his lap and asked only for a new pair of shoes. His greatest joy in this role is that it has allowed him to be “the spirit of love and compassion.”
Isn’t that what all of us should be doing this season?
Embodying the love of God and the compassion of the babe in the manger is a job of Santa-like proportions. Where is God calling you to embody that spirit today?
See the Santa? Be the Santa.