Finally, dear readers, we return to the promised reflections on Saint Nicholas and his modern alter-ego Santa Claus. This will be less ‘practical’ than I had promised at the conclusion of part 1, but I felt there were a few more things that needed to be said about Saint Nicholas‘ life and witness, especially in the light of our present experience of the Christmas season. But first, a little bit of history:
Saint Nicholas lived during a time of particularly severe persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Christians were being blamed for the decline of the empire, and Diocletian, a hard-bitten ex-General from the brutal Roman frontier, saw it as his specific calling to restore the glory of the empire by reviving the worship of the old Roman gods. This required ridding the empire of the rapidly expanding Christian population who had abandoned the old religions, and he went about this in four ways. At first Diocletian attempted to stamp our Christianity with an edict in 303 AD requiring all church buildings to be destroyed and all copies of the Scriptures publicly burned. When that failed, Diocletian decreed that Christians would lose their civil status and the protection of the law. Following that, he went after the leaders and officials of the church, arresting and imprisoning them. Finally, Diocletian invited all Christians to repent or face death. It is said that during this wave of persecution, the roster of martyrs was so swollen that eventually the officials stopped counting.
This was a world about as far removed from a Thomas Kincaid Christmas scene as one can imagine. At a time when it was deadly to be a Christian, Saint Nicholas remained faithful to Christ though he was exiled, and eventually imprisoned and tortured. It is said that this depth of devotion to Christ started early. He was still young when his wealthy parents died in an epidemic and he inherited their estate. Nicholas, who had been raised as a Christian, took seriously Jesus' instruction to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," and used his inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering in his community. He carried this attitude with him throughout his life and today Saint Nicholas is remembered for his tireless generosity, in particular his care for destitute children.
In my last post I referred to the famous tale of St Nicholas anonymously providing three poor young girls gold for their dowries, to save them from the fate of slavery or prostitution. But my favourite story by far is a rather macabre one about three boys who were killed by a butcher during a time of famine (or as some versions have it, simply because he hated children); the butcher then mutilated and preserved their remains in a pickle barrel, presumably to sell later as ‘meat’. Upon learning of this horror in a dream, Saint Nicholas prayed for the boys and they were raised back to life emerging from the barrel whole in body and singing praises to God. This story is still celebrated in some European countries, and the character of the butcher is now known as (the very politically incorrect) Black Pete in the Netherlands, Pere Fouettard in the French tradition, and as the nightmarish Krampus in Germany, each one - depending on the country, of course - accompanying Sinterklaas on his rounds on the the 6th of December (St Nicholas’ Day), placing lumps of coal into the boots of naughty children or taking them off into the Black Forest for an unknown - though one suspects rather tragic - fate in the case of the sinister Krampus.
Although no doubt the weirdest of all traditions emerging from this story is The Christmas Pickle.
As such stories prove, the Saintly Nicholas: miracle worker, protector of children, seeker of justice, and slapper of heretics, has come a long way in his transmogrification to the modern Santa Claus. To return to the question I avoided in the last post: how are we to account for this change? The most likely scenario is that the European Sinterklaas traditions found their way to North America along with the Dutch, German, and Scandinavian immigrants who have settled in the United States and Canada over the last 200-odd years. However, as the forces of consumption and convenience have come to dominate life in North America, St Nicholas’ Day and Christmas Day were eventually conflated, probably for practical reasons, and the result is what we have now - essentially two holidays rolled into one. With a little assistance from Coca-Cola, Disney, a number of other companies, and especially from the American cartoonist Thomas Nast who first drew the ‘jolly red Santa Claus’ we all know today, Sinterklaas/Santa Claus was eventually co-opted as a Christmas mascot to sell products. Add some help from the strange mythology that developed about his life: his home at the North Pole, toy making elves, the magic flying reindeer drawn sleigh, the epic Christmas eve present delivery, the many songs and poems: and Santa’s place in our Christmas celebrations has come to easily outstrip those associated with Jesus.
No one wants to be a Grinch, but it isn’t hard to see how much the disruptive story of God incarnate, whose coming into the world as an act of judgement against the powers of death, sin, and injustice, so clearly articulated in Mary’s Magnificat, have been diverted and sentimentalised by the modern Christmas machine both in and outside the church. But as I suggested in my first post about Santa, trying to fight a culture war where we attempt to “put Christ back into Christmas” or get back to the “reason for the season” simply will not work. Without a living faith, what reason would secular Canadians have to worship Jesus, even at Christmas time? For many, Christmas is a hangover from a distant Christian past from which the culture has thankfully progressed, and rightly thrown out the unnecessary religious elements while keeping what’s really worth celebrating: family, friends, good food, gift-giving, and time off work!
I experienced this reality today, in fact, at my daughter’s school Christmas concert. Of the seven-or-so songs that were performed by the children, not a single one mentioned Jesus, even indirectly. Not that I was expecting them to - since public schools are not supposed to promote religion of any kind (exceptions will be made for the Dalai Lama). Hanukkah did make a brief appearance, so that’s something I suppose. This sort of thing used to really bother me, and I would bristle every time someone said “happy holidays!” and have to bite my lip. It’s less of an issue for me now thankfully (I’ve been getting therapy), even though I do find the ‘secular’ expression of Christmas quite honestly bizarre, and whatever the secularist pundits may say: devoutly religious. The irony of the present 'Holiday Season' is that if you look around the hallmarks of religion are everywhere, just those of a pagan rather than Christian variety. Actually, in what may seem a bit of backwards logic: I’ve come to see this as a positive thing. At least no one is pretending anymore. There’s something much, much worse than a staunchly non-Christian culture, and that’s lukewarm one of ‘cultural Christianity’ where everyone goes through the motions of faith without believing a word of it. Cultural Christianity functions like a vaccine: you get just enough of it to inoculate your soul against catching the real thing. Thank God we’re done with that I say.
As one writer expressed it: “The Christmas story is not about the triumph of the sacred over the secular, but of the sacred incarnate as the secular—with all the messy contradictions of humanity and divinity.” God becomes flesh. The eternal becomes temporal. The divine becomes human, and with that the whole world is turned inside-out (or right-side up). God coming into a world that “did not receive him” as John 1 puts it, is - like it or not - an essential part of the Christmas story. Christ was not welcome here, and we drove the point home with nails and a cross. Jesus came into this world as an exile, and to follow him is to join him in his experience of the world. Saint Nicholas likewise lived in a world that was hostile to his faith, yet he remained true to Christ. Our own culture is becoming more hostile to the Christian faith. We are exiles in this world, and we always have been; there should be no illusions about this. The incarnation is a stark reminder of this fact. And like the settlers who clung to their Sinterklaas traditions because it reminded them of their homelands, remembering and celebrating the life of Saint Nicholas will help us remember who we are and where our true home resides.
Now some may complain that this seems like a ‘veneration of the saints’, but I’m not suggesting we worship Saint Nicholas! The point of remembering the life of the saints is to encourage us in our own discipleship. As we consider how others have ‘put flesh on their faith’ and followed Jesus amidst the unique challenges of their own time and place, we will often find wisdom (and challenge!) for our own. Following Jesus is hard work, and this is why we must be discipled. We are not meant to do it alone, and God did not leave it to us to figure out on our own. He has given us the witness of the Spirit, the witness of Scriptures, the witness of the church, and finally: “the great cloud of witnesses” (both living and dead) to spur us on in a life of love and good deeds. When we compare the witness of Santa Claus with the witness of Saint Nicholas, for example, the differences stand in stark relief.
Dallas Willard once said that the task of discipleship is to learn to “live my life as Jesus would live life if he were I.” It is something we learn much as an apprentice learns a trade: from others who know how to do it. Saint Nicholas is an excellent place to begin such a task, I think, not only because of his existing connection to Christmas, but also because Nicholas was a man who, despite his wealth, exemplified the generosity of God, and by whose gifts enabled others to find freedom from poverty and desperation. Instead of setting his heart on self-gratification and comfort, Nicholas took up his cross during a time of great persecution and demonstrated the boldness and patient endurance in suffering that should mark us all as the followers of Jesus. Which is not your typical Christmas pageant message perhaps, but the true “spirit of Christmas” nonetheless.