Daddy! Daddy! Read the story. Please. “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…”
Before long he got to the part where the round and rather elfish fellow in the red suit slides down the chimney and leaves the presents. The best part for me was not the presents. It was decorating the tree and laying the fire – which never hurt Santa – and pretending to be sitting next to him while we shared the milk and cookies that were always left for him. It was the essence of family in my imagination. It was a warm and wonderful fantasy, and when my parents told me there was no Santa I just kept imagining the Christmas scene anyway. It was too wonderful to let go.
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Trouble is – if you want to call it trouble – there really is a Santa. His real name is Nicholas and he lived in the city of Myra in what is now called Turkey. He was a bishop in the Catholic Church in a time when there was only one Church. He served during a time of savage persecution of Christians; he was arrested and tortured for his faith, although he did not die of it. He was one of the leaders participating in the Council of Nicea, called by Emperor Constantine after legalization of the faith, and he had a hand in composing the (still) only universal summary statement of the Faith. He was designated a saint following earthly death and hence the Santa joins the Claus in his name.
The most amazing news about Nicholas is that – amid all he suffered and labored and tended to in his life and ministry – he found great joy traveling the streets of his city and leaving coins in the shoes children placed on their window sills at the end of day. He had a special heart for sailors as well as for children, and he may even be the left-handed source of the proverb that God takes care of sailors and children. His concern for the poor was both real and poignant, yet he is remembered not just as a man of compassion, but of compassion laced with whimsy. Reminiscent of the God He served so well.
In our time we are much more attuned to a fat man in a red suit who will give us anything we ask for – and especially a new boy or girlfriend for Christmas if the seasonal movies tell us anything – than to the child of a carpenter born to die for us in a shabby manger located in a small cave in a forgotten town in Judea where all they produce are the lambs to be ceremonially killed in the capitol city. The fat man requires nothing of us but a willingness to be dazzled by fantasies like my five-year-old Christmas scene; the child wants our whole life to be given over to Him as He gives His for us. On top of that, the child insists on meeting our needs rather than our wants. The trouble is, what powers the fat man’s generosity is the child’s sacrificial reality. Nobody is more aware of that than a fat man who gave his heart and his body in gratitude for the Child.
When I was a parish priest we observed a Christmas custom in each church I led. I had long since replaced cookies and milk with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper on Christmas Eve, although God knows to this day I still love the Christmas scene I cherished when I get home from church. At the church we would have one of our members dress as Santa and enter the nave or sanctuary just as I prepared to pray over the Supper. I would catch sight of him and greet him from my station behind the altar. I would acknowledge the pleasure of seeing him, with all the work he had ahead of him this night. He would tell me he wanted to do first things first – on this night of all nights – and that meant worshipping the living Reason for the Season. He would then come forward to receive Communion with the church’s children in tow, and all of us would receive a joy-filled and much needed adjustment to our perspective.
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Santa Claus is real, a servant of God and no substitute for Him. Nobody is clearer than St. Nicholas on the nature of the relationship. He is first to say, “Jim, your idea of Christmas as a child comes true only because another child was born, lived and died for you. First things first.”
James A. Wilson is the author of Living As Ambassadors of Relationships and The Holy Spirit and the End Times – available at local bookstores or by e-mailing him [email protected]
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