What Would Santa Do?

Posted: December 28, 2009 by Matt Horan in ReEmergent Church
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By Matt Horan

The Council of Nicaea in 325AD was one of the most important church meetings ever.  A man named Arius had gained many followers by teaching that Jesus was a mere man, no more divine than anyone else.  A great council was called to answer the question: “Who was Jesus?”

After Arius spoke, one little-known bishop, listed as attender #151 in the roll of the council, from the poor town of Myra in present day Turkey, was so insulted by his presentation about Jesus that he walked across the room and slapped Arius right across the face.  He was immediately jailed for the outburst—stripped of the robes of his office and all of his possessions and locked in a cell.

The next morning, however, the jailer found the young bishop somehow dressed in his bishop robes and reading his Bible.  Impressed by this miracle, the Emperor, Constantine, went down to the cell to apologize to the bishop and have him freed.  The bishop returned to the council meetings, where it was agreed that Arius was mistaken, and that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine—God in the flesh.

After the Council of Nicaea, Bishop #151 returned to Myra where he served faithfully for many years.  It was his passion for the cause of Christ, as well as his reputation for generosity to those in need, that saw the bishop, named Nicholas, officially declared a saint of the church in 340AD.

It’s interesting to hear where St. Nicholas came from, isn’t it?  I was invigorated to discover that Santa Claus was thrown in jail for his passion about who Jesus is.

So how did this guy go from a Roman jail cell to the jolly, red-suited character that we have today?  He was indeed generous according to every account of St. Nicholas’ ministry in Myra.  He would stealthily deliver gifts to the poor without taking credit for it.  Since shoes were usually left outside at night, this gave him ample opportunity to place small coins into the shoes of poor children—a forerunner to the tradition of “stockings hung with care”?

His example was so moving that the nuns in Myra, after his death, carried on his practice of gift and coin-giving, leaving notes behind that said, “From Father Nicholas.”  The tradition spread across Europe over the next several hundred years, and his legend grew.  Arriving in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas became “Santa Claus.” Hundreds more years passed, and his legend grew even more.  It’s hard to track down the origins of elements like elves, a north pole workshop, or flying reindeer; but at the “World of Coke” in Atlanta, GA, the Coca-Cola Company takes credit for Santa’s first appearance in his red and white suit—in a published Coke advertisement.  Seems that the present day legend had many contributors!

However today’s Santa Claus became the jolly old soul that he is, he has become a central part of the “magic” of Christmas.  As a parent of two little girls, this magic has become serious fun.  They put out milk and cookies every Christmas Eve to keep Santa well fed for his big journey.  They stand in the front lawn scanning the skies, looking for evidence that something flying overhead just might be a “miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.”  They concoct plans every year for sleeping next to the Christmas tree in order to catch the big man in action, but every year the rule that “Santa won’t come unless you’re asleep in your bed” wins out.  Heck, nowadays they can watch the NORAD Santa tracker on the  internet!  I love magical things, things that give our girls a sense of wonder, that stoke their imagination.  Frankly, Santa just makes the whole thing fun.

I wish I could leave it at that.  I wish I could just leave the magic alone and enjoy it, ignoring the meddlesome elements of my conscience when I deflect the questions that the girls have when they need explanations of certain inconsistencies about Santa.  I wish that the Coca-Cola Santa Claus was a satisfying replacement for the original “I’d rather be thrown in jail than believe Jesus was a sham” St. Nicholas.  But there are some things that just bother me.  There are some things that make me wish that we’d just let St. Nick be all he ever wanted to be—generous to the poor and a teacher about Jesus—rather than the reindeer riding arbiter of naughty or niceness.

When I was maybe six or seven years old, we visited my cousins in New Jersey right after Christmas.  My five-year-old cousin, after seeing a massive haul of gifts that Santa had brought his next-door-neighbor’s five-year-old, came home and said, “I must not have been very good this year.”  I know that Santa gives parents some ammunition to motivate our kids to be good every winter  with his list that he makes and checks twice, but by that count it seems that kids from the suburbs sure are nice, and kids in the projects sure are naughty.  (It’s a good thing that they go to different schools, or else they might really put two and two together.)  And kids from the Sudan?  Don’t even get me started on those bad seeds.

Frankly, when my kids ask me why they got a trampoline for Christmas and why our friends who’s parents were laid off just got a couple of small gifts, what’s the best answer?  “Santa Claus works in mysterious ways”?  Maybe, when your kids are old enough to ask questions like that, it’s time to tell them the truth—I don’t know.  If the reason is economic distress, then perhaps we can talk as a family about how we can help others by our generosity.  If the reason is that Santa brought more gifts for some kids than others—what can we do about that?

Anyway, that’s where I am on the whole Santa Claus issue these days.  St. Nicholas had a good thing going.  I wonder if, a thousand years later, we’ve made him something that, while the Beatles might have welcomed it, he never would have wanted to be—bigger than Jesus.

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