Will the Real St. Nicholas Please Stand Up?

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As you may or may not be surprised to learn, Santa Claus is an American. That is, he was born on American soil in 1823 and his poetic father was Mr. Clement Clarke Moore, who in that year published a poem (anonymously) entitled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. (He ‘fessed up to the authorship in 1837.) Until that time mention of St. Nicholas conjured up the Real Episcopal McCoy, the sainted archbishop of Myra in the Roman province of Lycia. After Mr. Moore’s poem became popular, St. Nicholas was increasingly viewed in American culture as the “right jolly old elf” who “came down the chimney” with “a bound” and “filled all the stockings” which had been “hung by the chimney with care”. He travelled in a sleigh, pulled by the now-famous “eight tiny reindeer”. (Rudolph was nowhere in sight in 1823; he would not be recruited to take his place in Christmas mythology until 1939.) Mr. Moore’s St. Nicholas didn’t arouse much feeling of veneration: when his St. Nicholas got to work, he “look’d like a pedlar just opening his pack”, pedlars with packs not being then highly regarded. That and the fact that his “little round belly shook when he laugh’d like a bowl full of jelly” could be why the householder in the poem laughed himself when he saw him, in spite of himself. Not a very respectful response to an archbishop’s arrival. Bread and salt constitute the preferred welcome nowadays.

Up until Mr. Moore gave the fourth century saint a total American make-over, St. Nicholas was associated with the festivities of Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve. As the Wikipedia article tells it, “At the time Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year’s Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants—who saw Christmas as the result of ‘Catholic ignorance and deception’—still had reservations. By having St. Nicholas arrive the night before, Moore ‘deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations’. As a result, New Yorkers embraced Moore’s child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.” Why the saint’s actual feast day of December 6 never entered the picture is left unexplained. But ever since 1823, St. Nicholas has been coming down our chimneys before Christmas Day dawns and leaving gifts. The actual St. Nicholas has thus been effectively transmogrified into Santa Claus. Just add a Christmas tree, a long wish-list, obligatory gift-giving, along with Black Friday and you have our present state of affairs. In fairness to Mr. Moore, he could hardly have foreseen what would happen to his version of St. Nicholas.

It is worth meditating a bit on the differences between the two rival St. Nicholases, and not just because Mr. Moore’s version makes such an easy target, but because a comparison of the two illustrates well the difference between worldly and Christian cultures, and we are called to live in the latter for all twelve months of the year. The main differences between the elf and the bishop are threefold: what each one looks like, what each one carries, and what each one says.

St. Nicholas the jolly old elf is, well, fat, while the real St. Nicholas looks as if he knew what it was to fast, which of course he did. The abundant girth of the jolly old elf witnesses to our culture’s obsession with self-indulgence. Our rule of “eat, drink, and be merry” is perennially observed, not just at Christmas time. All through December the World feasts and gorges (all to the tune of atrocious Christmas music assaulting us in the mall), and then collapses in a stupefied heap on December 25, forgetting all about Christmas on Boxing Day while reaching for the Alka-Seltzer.   By contrast, the Church during that month fasts until Christmas, and then feasts from Christmas to Theophany. The Church and the World thus form mirror images and opposites of each other throughout the month of December. Looking at the World, it is clear that our culture has deified pleasure, and has a corresponding horror of fasting and asceticism. Dietary self-control and asceticism are acceptable if the goal is to fit into a bikini, but less so if the goal is holiness. The different girths of the two St. Nicholases illustrate the two rival approaches to asceticism and fasting.

Secondly, we note that the elf carries a bag full of toys, while the bishop carries a Gospel Book. The former illustrates our culture’s preoccupation with entertainment and acquisition, as if we really believed the bumper sticker which proclaims “He who dies with the most toys wins”. That is why the question asked after December 25 is “what did you get for Christmas?”, not “what did you give for Christmas?” The important thing, apparently, is the getting. The bishop’s Gospel Book tells us that on the contrary “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Joy and lasting happiness come from an abundance of the Holy Spirit, not an abundance of stuff, and we are reminded that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Note: not just “better to give”, but “more blessed to give”—i.e. the blessing of God descends upon our lives when we give, not when we get.   The obsession with acquiring does not lead to a more blessed life of joy and fulfillment.

Finally, we note that the characteristic utterance of the one who bounds down the chimney is “ho-ho-ho”. The bishop, by contrast, is more likely to say something like “Glory to Jesus Christ”. In the former utterance we can discern our culture’s superficiality, its allergy to serious thought about ultimate things. We do not value sustained deep thinking, which explains both the brief sound bites on the daily news, as well as almost all Facebook discussion. We are, in the words of a 1985 book of the same title, “amusing ourselves to death”. Life is too scary and complicated for most people; best to retreat into the la-la land of jokes, entertainment, and video games. Scarlett O’Hara famously put off thinking about such things until tomorrow; our culture tends to put it off entirely. It is good to have a light heart, but it can be successfully combined with a functioning (and pious) head.

None of the above reflections are meant as a war on Santa Claus, Christmas, gift-giving, or any others of the joys of the season. But we must not let our seasonal festive joy become the Trojan Horse which imports into our lives worldly attitudes and practices. We can still have the trees, the chimneys, the gift-giving, and let the air ring with our cries of “Merry Christmas”. But we should not neglect to combine it all with fasting, prayer, and generosity to the poor. That is the way to delight the heart of the real St. Nicholas.




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