St. Nick is not the problem; the problem is how we use him.
Like most children, every Christmas Eve we would put out cookies and a Coke for Santa to have a snack when he visited our house. On Christmas morning, I would take a sip of Coke, then lukewarm after sitting out all night, but it had a special taste. And eating off the same cookie as Santa, that was a gift to add to the ones under the tree. I really didn’t want my mother to throw the leftover Coke and cookie away.
We almost had a crisis one year. I went to the tree and my snow sled was not there. The details are hazy now, but I remember later that morning a sled appeared. My parents reported that my father met one of Santa’s elves at the drugstore just down the street and picked up the sled. I was impressed that an elf had time to meet my dad on Christmas Day.
Were my experiences bad? Well, some people think so. Santa has crowded out the Christ Child. Children who focus on Santa are crippled with a “me first” mentality. Our selfishness and the commercialization of the season feed on each other. Santa becomes the genie who grants our every wish and desire. Yes, it can happen.
Worse than succumbing to the secularization of Christmas is our theological heresy, according to some Santa critics. One independent Baptist declared, “A child who is taught that both Santa and Christ are real is in danger of rejecting both when he learns that at least one is a fairy tale. Furthermore, Santa Claus is a blasphemous false Christ. He claims to know what all children are doing, whether good or bad …This false Santa Claus is preferred by many because he is a jolly god who does not punish sin.”
Whew. How do we respond to this broadside?
Perhaps Christians need to remember that Santa has another name—St. Nick. Little historical information is known about St. Nicholas, (probably) a fourth-century bishop of Myra (modern Turkey). According to the most famous story, Nicholas learned of a poor family that had three daughters who couldn’t afford to pay the dowries needed for marriage.
Consequently, the girls were likely destined for prostitution and shame, until Nicholas interceded. He dropped three bags of gold down the family’s chimney (or threw the bags through the window), and each one “miraculously” landed in one of the daughter’s stockings, which had been hung by the fire.
Oral tradition and other legends developed throughout the medieval era that ultimately gave inspiration to the identity of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children, and Dec. 6 (the date of his death) became a festival day to his memory on the Christian calendar. People began giving gifts in his honor. Almost 400 churches were dedicated to him in England alone during the late Middle Ages.
Protestant Reformers condemned Catholic feast days, including the Feast of St. Nicholas, but the legend of the kind and compassionate bishop persisted, especially among the Dutch, whose Sinterklass filled Dutch children’s shoes with nuts and candies. He also possessed the ability to know whether children had been good or bad.
Immigrants from Germany and Holland (and other places) brought the story of St. Nick to America. Our jolly-cheeked Santa was heavily influenced by the 1822 children’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” written (ironically) by Clement Clarke Moore, a professor from Union Theological Seminary. As the celebration of Christmas became an American institution in the 20th century, Santa’s popularity grew even beyond his belt size.
Of course the commercialization of Christmas can rob our celebration of its proper focus on the birth of Jesus. Of course we can project our selfishness onto Santa so we can obtain all of our materialistic desires. But I must confess to being a Santa heretic. St. Nick is not the problem; the problem is how we use him.
Santa can be an icon that points to the spirit of kindness and joy that should permeate the Christmas season. Santa, as St. Nick, loves children, and his focus is on giving them gifts, not on receiving anything himself. We can coerce Santa into being overly indulgent, but Santa’s heart is to make children feel loved.
WWJD? He would tell the overindulgent parents to remember St. Nick’s concern for others; he would tell the overcritical parents to loosen up; he would let the kids play and have fun. When they grow up, they just might know the joy of giving gifts to children so they could see them play and have fun like they used to do.
Joy, kindness, giving. Sounds pretty orthodox to me.
Doug Weaver is professor of Christianity and chair of the religion and philosophy division at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga.