Let’s face it, these days many Christians are down on Santa Claus, associating him with the mind-numbing commercialization that threatens to engulf Christmas. As for me, I don’t mind when he shows up at church events. He showed up at our Advent workshop and was very well-behaved, much to the delight of our children.
One thing about Santa does creep me out a bit. Have you ever heard Santa do this riff on children where he lifts his eyebrows, peers over his glasses, and says, “Have you all been good boys and girls this year?” This gets oft repeated. Bruce Springsteen works this in his version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” In the modern, ubiquitous A Christmas Story, the Darren McGavin Dad pulls this shtick on Ralphie and Randy. “Santa knows….he knows everything….better watch out.”
I remember that very question posed to me as a child on Santa’s behalf. When an adult asked me if I had been good or bad, I thought that adult must be pretty slow. Of course, I hadn’t been good. I disappointed my mother. I fought with my brothers. I hadn’t nearly lived up to what my teacher expected of me. Was I good enough to stack up on Santa’s naughty and nice list? I harbored serious doubts.
Imagine, a Christmas where only the pure, noble and good children get presents. That pretty much drains the grace of God out of the equation, which is the whole point. When Jesus arrived, the earth languished. Israel was spiritually tone deaf. Jesus came because Israel was unequal to their many lofty promises back to the Lord God through Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. None of us deserved him.
What helps me with Santa is getting behind the one Thomas Nast invented as an illustrator in 1866 or the Coca Cola swilling Santa drawn to drive sales in the 30s. I saw Orthodox icons of Nicholas of Myra when in Greece and learned about him. When his wealthy parents died, Nicholas of Myra donated the entire fortune and gave his life over to the Church. As a bishop, he acquired a reputation for being generous to the poor. As he gave to the poor, he sought to preserve their dignity. At night he lowered gifts through holes in ceilings venting household smoke (no chimneys!) to surprise families rather than make these families feel like beggars. After Nicholas died on 6 Dec. 354, his fame spread beyond what is now Turkey.
But the truth is the kind, generous bishop was also a harsh, fierce bishop. Once jailed for his faith, he hit back after as hard as he was hit, persecuting pagans and repressing heretics. Life is never as simple as how we dream life should be. Like all of us, St Nicholas was a mix of utmost kindness and overzealous ferocity, passions sweet and severe. He was a flawed man in a flawed world, like all of us.
So if we were hoping for some squeaky pure version of Christmas in this season of high expectation–without defect, contradiction or disappointment–we might do better pondering a higher form of mercy and grace than you and I are capable of. Jesus entered a complicated world we want to smooth out and loved us to death.