Who wins at Christmas?

  • November 28, 2008

In far-away Turkey, in a certain village, two different images of a gift-giver had a kind of cage-match, and one of them won mightily. 

In Demre, near the ancient city of Myra, a bronze statue was donated and set up in the town square. It was a likeness of an ancient bishop, a man of compassion and wisdom. The bishop was St. Nicholas, because Myra was his see in the fourth century, when he is thought to have lived. He stood on top of the world, this lover of the poor, his feet mounted on a globe. Recently, he was taken from this prominent place and put in a back courtyard. Atop a pedestal, in his place, was put a jolly red Santa statue. Apparently the change was made because Santa is more popular and better-known than St Nicholas, his forerunner.

Not only in Turkey did Santa win this cage-match. He’s the solid victor right here in Canada year after year. Just last month, in my city, thousands assembled for a parade downtown to watch him ho-ho-ho. No St. Nicholas parade. How many churches, even, will have a special celebration on his feast day, Dec. 6? How many schools, including Christian-based schools, as they hold their concerts, parties, plays and feasts in honour of Santa, will give a moment to St. Nicholas — or his Master?

Why is Santa so much easier to acclaim than St. Nicholas? Nicholas personally assisted those in difficulty. Sometimes he gave needed things, such as golden coins to the poor children in his diocese — the remote origin of our stocking-stuffing. Or by powerful works of mercy: in time of famine, he persuaded visiting ships to give some of their grain to the townspeople. The sailors were reluctant because they needed their quota to sell; Nicholas’ promise that they would find the grain undiminished when they reached their destination, the story says, was fulfilled. He advocated for social justice, visiting the emperor Constantine to urge him to lower taxes for his impoverished people. He was cagey, too. He was able to persuade the emperor, not by drawing on Constantine’s sense of justice, but by finding a way to communicate instantly to his people, before Constantine had a chance to change his mind. This awed the emperor and made him bow to Nicholas’ power.

Santa gives toys to happy children who already have plenty. He used to discipline them (coal instead of toys), but even that legend is gone. Now he seems ready to lavish expensive gifts on whoever is willing to buy them. He’s also skilled at getting his flock to pay for certain movies, purchase certain clothes and other goods, line up at selected malls, and feel guilty if they don’t spend enough as “the holiday season” approaches.

Santa’s name is invoked for works of mercy, it’s true, such as Santa Claus drives to donate money so that gifts can be given to poor children. But he does not ask us to meet those children ourselves, to go to the dark places where poverty is born, where human injustice creates anguish. St. Nicholas does, urging us to go to the hard places and there bring God’s mercy. His Master does, asking us to travel with Him to a place of outcast, poverty and need, at His own birth, and there witness to glory, as did both the lowly (the shepherds) and the mighty (the magi). 

The followers of Santa are even able to bring sweet baby Jesus along on their parade, using his picture to evoke sentimental, nostalgic family feelings that might loosen our purse-strings. They are less ready to assist us when family is a place of sadness or absence, or when the inner longing they touch needs a response not of commerce but of self-giving love.

Most noteworthy of all, Santa never, ever demands us to turn to the silence and stillness, the unknown shadows, of our own hearts. St. Nicholas, feted in the midst of Advent as the church puts on sombre colours and turns to repentance, offers to accompany us on the inner journey.  It’s no accident that our Santa society makes it harder and harder to take this journey; lights, glitter, noise, activity, chatter, scurrying, hurrying, worrying, are Santa’s elves, while St. Nicholas’ helpers must work hard to protect places of stillness and to light candles in the darkness.

It may be that even Santa, put in his proper place, could not fail but point to the One to whom all good roads lead. 

Not being the mayor of Demre, I can’t change the statues. As mayor of my own life and my own way of reaching towards Christmas, perhaps I’ll be asked to see what needs to be moved around in my heart.

St. Nicholas of Myra is also known as St. Nicholas of Bari (in Italy, to where his bones were translated) or St. Nicholas the Wonderworker.  Feast day Dec. 6 (Dec. 19, Julian Calendar).