As we approach the season of Advent, I have been thinking, as I do each year, about how my family and I will celebrate Christmas. Perhaps this doesn’t need to be said, but just in case: Advent is obviously not Christmas, but like the Lenten period leading up to Easter (but without the fasting!), Advent is a time of preparation. Now is the time to contemplate and prepare for Christmas, and given the way our culture has misappropriated Christmas, this is a more urgent task than ever.
One of the most treasured books from my childhood, Letters from Father Christmas, is a collection of letters J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his children over the course of about twenty years, under the guise of “Father Christmas”. They are wonderful and hilarious stories about life at the North Pole, and include a whole host of strange characters, such as the Christmas’ family pet Polar Bear, Red Gnomes, living Snow-men, Cave-bears, evil Goblins, and Polar Bears’ nephews, Pasku and Valkotukka, who come to visit Father Christmas’ house one year and never leave. Tolkien would write these and leave them for his children to find on Christmas morning. All the letters were written using pen and ink, and included fabulous hand-drawn images - as well as an invented language (this is Tolkien after all)! These precious letters from an imagined world show that Tolkien, who was a devout Catholic, understood something about the ‘magic of Christmas’ that we evangelicals can sometimes forget: our imaginations are a gift from God and it is perfectly OK to use them!
But when it comes to Christmas, how far do we let our imaginations run in regards to Santa Claus? I have been asked this many times over the years, and it runs something along the lines of: “As a pastor, do you include Santa Claus in Christmas celebrations with your family?” Regardless of the suggestive “As a pastor...”, my answer is simple: “No... and yes.” First of all, I do my best to discourage the veneration of “Santa Claus” in my household, by which I mean the Santa of the modern western Christmas, who is completely disconnected from, nay, completely at odds with the Biblical promise of the Incarnation and is a consumeristic and sentimentalised travesty of epic proportions. Don’t agree? Watch the movie Elf, starring Will Farrell, and then we’ll talk.
It is easy to despair that one is fighting against the wind when it comes to Santa. The cultural appropriation of the Santa Claus myth, having expunged it of anything to do with Jesus, has turned Christmas into a celebration of self-centred wish fulfillment. Yes, of course the advertisements still extol the virtue of giving, but that’s obviously just so they can sell you more stuff. Some have suggested that the modern approach to Christmas - let alone Santa Claus - is now so unmoored from its Biblical foundations it is irredeemable. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we reject the whole thing out of hand? It's a valid point: when do we say enough is enough?
As much as I can sympathise with that view, I believe there is a better way. We could instead choose to take the road of Tolkien and C.S Lewis (with his surprising and creative appropriation of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) and attempt to reignite our imaginations with something more creative than rejection. Rejection is easy, and yes, sometimes necessary, as some believe is the case with Halloween. But unlike Halloween, Christmas is one of the most important moments in the Biblical story, the birth of the Incarnate One, Immanuel: the Saviour of the world! I think we owe it to God and to ourselves, and for the sake of our witness in the world, to re-imagine how we might celebrate Christmas in a counter-cultural way, which will not only transform how we respond to the ‘reason for the season’, but it may lead to cultural transformation as well. I think a good place to begin this kind of work is with Santa Claus.
So my “Yes” to the “As a pastor...” question, is this: instead of fighting a war against the culture, let’s start remembering and reimagining our own stories as God’s people. Which did not end at the “Amen” of Revelation 22:21, but have carried on long since, encompassing the lives and deeds of millions of people for the last 2000-odd years. And one shining example among this great mass of people is Saint Nicholas of Lycia.
Father Richard John Neuhaus, in the book God With Us, writes:
“Saint Nicholas has come a long way: from being a fourth century bishop in the distant Roman province of Lycia (in modern Turkey), through innumerable pious legends, until he became ‘Sinter Klaas’, which is older Dutch for Saint Nicholas, and finally in our day Americans have turned him into Santa Claus, patron saint of the seasonal commandment to shop ‘till you drop. What should Christians do about Santa Claus? Reject him or reclaim him? I suggest we reclaim him.”
Of course, the real Santa Claus - Saint Nicholas, please - certainly did not live at the North Pole, although whether he wore red, had a full white beard, and was a jolly fat man is up for debate. His transformation from Saint Nicholas to Father Christmas to the Americanised Santa Claus is quite a story, but is a topic for another day. The point is, there actually isn’t a whole lot we know about the actual Saint Nicholas, except for a variety of legends passed down to us through the centuries. He wrote nothing down, or if he did, none of his writings survive to this day. However, he was present at the council of Nicaea held in 325, which was one of the most important events in the history of the church. It was reported that during the council, Nicholas became so upset with the heretic Arias, who was teaching that Christ was not fully divine, that he leaped up and punched Arias in the face. Nicholas ended up spending the night in prison for this crime, where it is said he had a vision of Jesus.
Regardless of whether this actually happened, it does serve to make the point that Saint Nicholas passionately believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ! And based on what we do know about his life, Nicholas devoted himself to proclaiming the gospel, in both word and deed, as the following story - one of the most famous about Saint Nicholas - shows.
According to this legend (which I've slightly adapted from the account on the Saint Nicholas Centre website), a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in the absence of any other possible employment, end up becoming slaves or prostitutes (which in the ancient world, meant much the same thing: slaves were slaves in every sense of the word). Hearing of the girls' plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but to save the family the humiliation of accepting charity, he went to the house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through a window opening into the house. Some stories put it as a single gold ball, about the size of an orange, which is the origin of the tradition of giving oranges on Christmas day.
Another version of the story has Nicholas giving the purses over a period of years, each time the night before one of the daughters came of age. Invariably, the third time the father lay in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the mysterious gift-giver, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan to discover his identity, and dropped the last bag down the chimney instead. As it happened, the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and the last bag of gold fell into her stocking.
It is because of these actions (and others) that Saint Nicholas eventually became known as the 'Patron Saint of Prostitutes'. I’m sure Jesus would approve (he was labeled with much the same thing in his own time).
It’s easy to see how this legend has become the source of many important Christmas traditions. Whether those traditions emerge from the story itself or whether we’ve read them back into it, doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that it is the work of a holy imagination, which is not simply about ‘making things up’, but about inspiring us to imagine a better world, a world filled with what is good. This is why we call Nicholas a “Saint”, because he was a holy man, a man who lived the goodness he believed in, the goodness he had experienced in Jesus Christ. We cannot act upon what we do not see, and the ability to imagine something other than what is immediately before our eyes or experience, to envision a better future, even in very small pedestrian things, is a holy task, and an important step toward ‘sainthood’ – to living holy lives.
Surely the stories about Saint Nicholas can help and inspire us toward this as we imagine and rehearse his acts of generosity, kindness, and grace – which is surely what we do when we give gifts to one another. But there can be so much more, like opening up our homes to give hospitality to the lonely and the stranger. That is what I hope to inspire in my children (and in myself!) when I remember and retell and hopefully re-enact these stories. And as a starting point, one surely can’t go wrong with the example of Saint Nicholas.
Part two coming next week: some thoughts and examples about how we might celebrate Christmas differently this year.