People take Santa very, very personally. For some folks, if you mess with Santa, you’re messing with Christmas, family, childhood itself. So don’t worry, I’m going to tread very lightly on this one. Santa is as personal as what kind of deodorant you buy: Kirkland big box or hemp and tea tree, you do you. You can’t judge people openly for how they do it, but let’s not all pretend that in civilized society, it’s not a thing.
Thus, this being Dec. 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas on the Christian calendar, I thought it fitting to reflect on who this Santa guy is to me. To celebrate the real St. Nick as well as to examine the legacy left on our cultural consciousness by that “right jolly old elf” whose beard and belly loom large over this season. And over every Costco display, in blow-up form.
Confession: in our house, we don’t really Do Santa. I mean, we enjoy the Santa stories (“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” is a favorite); we have all the requisite Santa ornaments and even a dancing Santa (that Peter hates); we stopped and said hi to the Santa at the Home Depot (or I did, as the kids stared open-mouthed). But he doesn’t particularly dominate the season in our house – we’ve never bought gifts “from Santa” or left cookies out for him (read: ourselves) to eat.
Okay, maybe you think we’re lame. It’s cool, maybe we are. Maybe we’re avoiding the string of increasingly detailed questions from our five-year-old about the science of chimneys. Maybe we’re running out of room for more toys around here. Maybe it’s on principle, as we’re pretty transparent about things with the kids. And maybe I just don’t think we could keep up with such an elaborate ruse. (I mean, I can barely commit to a Mad Libs during a road trip, and now I have to continue to make stuff up for years?)
Maybe we’re a little lucky too, because Sam is still in preschool. As far as I know, none of his classmates are hardcore Santa evangelists nor demythologizers, and our kids aren’t particularly interested in joining either camp. I think the question of “believing in Santa”has honestly never occurred to them; it would be like asking, “Do you believe in Mickey Mouse?” As of right now and until they learn otherwise, Santa has become part of general Christmas lore, along with the Grinch and the Nutcracker and those festive fellows. A fun story, but nobody’s dying on that snowy hill.
That said, when we do talk at length about Santa, we’ve found it helpful to bring in the true story of the real St. Nicholas of Myra. Veggie Tales has a decent telling of it (though maybe a little difficult for young ones, as the young Nicholas is orphaned). The resource I suggest is this book, Santa, Are You For Real?, given to us by my mother-in-law.
The book begins with an all-too-familiar scene of a little boy being teased by the bigger kids for believing in Santa. The kid’s big sister then comes to comfort him, and they go home to talk to their dad, who tells them the story of the real St. Nick.
The beauty of this book is that it works on so many levels. One, it brings hope to the child who’s facing disillusionment of dreams and even cruelty from others. Two, it teaches older children how to treat younger ones in that situation – it offers a “Don’t” (teasing is never okay – don’t use your knowledge as a power trip) and a “Do” (have compassion and find an adult if you need to). Third, it tells the fascinating story of the real St. Nicholas and illuminates the saint’s motivation for giving: to follow the way of Jesus. Fourth, it models for the parent a loving and really beautiful way to respond to this child’s crisis: by empowering him with knowledge, and pointing him to Jesus, too. Fifth, the images run the gamut of Santa in the historical imagination, from cartoon to Americana to iconography; refreshing when what we mostly see is the apple-cheeked Santa of the Coca Cola ad.
It turns out that the real St. Nick was actually pretty amazing. He was a Jesus-follower who helped the poor; one story passed down is it that when a family with three daughters was too poor to pay dowry – to the point where one sister almost sold herself so her sisters could marry they men they loved – St. Nick came by at night to throw some gold coins into their window. Some landed in a stocking being hung to dry and thus the tale of Santa Claus was born. He then became a bishop who told others about Jesus and was even jailed for it. Needless to say, he was sainted. Pretty serious man of faith there.
Regardless of the accuracy of some of these details, the spirit rings true: Christmas is about sacrificial giving. If you really think about it, there are some radical things going on in this story. St. Nicholas follows the way of Jesus even though it cost him big. Even the women in the story are willing to put themselves on the line for each other, and they empower themselves however they can, in a time and place that treated them as commodities.
Oh, and by the way, St. Nicholas was born in what is now Turkey… so when we pulled up a Google image of what scholars think the real St. Nick looked like, he didn’t look like that Nordic jolly old elf at all. Pretty hopeful for ethnic minority kids to know that hey, the real Santa was… brown. And I thought his list only included white people’s names like Parker and Griswold.
The hands-down coolest thing, though, is that the true story of St. Nick points us all to Jesus. St. Nicholas of Myra did what he did because he was a lover of Jesus. And it thus invites us to ask: how can we follow the way of Jesus, at Christmastime and beyond?
Telling the true story of St Nick cuts through the question of “to Santa or not to Santa” and says, Sure! And then Jesus. And I think that’s the mark of a pretty good story.
Childhood is a time for believing in fairy-tales, for possibility, for flights of pure imagination. However parents choose to nurture those imaginations at Christmastime, whether with cookie crumbs and “From Santa” tags in the morning, we all just want to give our kids the most magical Christmas possible. But on top of our family tradition, what would it be like if we populated our children’s imagination with stories of true heroism, inspiring them to create the magic we want to see in the world? What kind of stories could they tell us then? What kinds of stories could they find themselves in? Now, that would be something to believe in.