A Tradition-ful Advent:
A Little History:
Most children around the world believe that there is someone special who brings gifts at Christmas. You may hear him called St. Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas. (Interestingly, in Germany they believe that it is the Christkind, in Spain they believe it is the Wise Men and in Italy they believe it is an old lady called Befana.) Well, Santa Claus and Father Christmas both come from the story of Saint Nicholas, so that is the story I want you to hear today. St. Nicholas was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century in a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). He was a very rich man because his parents died when he was young and left him a lot of money. He was also a very kind man and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it. He preferred to remain anonymous when giving gifts, and he had a reputation of leaving coins in the shoes of people who needed it when they left their shoes out at night. So stories began circulating that any gifts given in secret were from Bishop Nicholas. Nicholas was exiled from Myra and later put in prison during the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian. (That was a time of terrible persecution for anyone who followed “the way”, and it is likely St. Nicholas suffered a great deal while in prison because of his faith.) Later during the reign of Emperor Constantine, Bishop Nicholas attended the First Council of Nicea and there signed the Nicene Creed (you can read it here) which stands as a defining moment in Christian theology to this day. No one really knows exactly when or how Bishop Nicholas died, but it was on December 6th in either 345 or 352. Because of his kindness Nicholas was canonized as a Saint, which is why we now call him Saint Nicholas.
The anniversary of his death, December 6th (today!), became St. Nicholas’ Day. To remember him, gifts were given in his memory and the tradition began of leaving shoes out for “coins from St. Nicholas”. Children would leave out their shoes at night, and in the morning coins would have magically appeared in them. (Children in Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic and some other European countries still open some presents on Dec 6th and leave out their shoes for this reason). In the 16th Century in northern Europe, after the reformation, the stories about St. Nicholas became unpopular because people didn’t want their children to celebrate him as a saint. However, the traditions couldn’t be changed, and gifts were still “appearing”, so they just changed his name instead! In the UK, particularly in England, he became ‘Father Christmas’ or ‘Old Man Christmas’, which was an old character from stories played during the middle ages in the UK and parts of northern Europe. In France, he was then known as ‘Père Nöel’ in Germany, the ‘Christ Kind’. In the early USA his name was ‘Kris Kringle’. Later, Dutch settlers in the USA took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle became ‘Sinterklaas’ … or as we now say ‘Santa Claus’!
St. Nicholas became popular again in the Victorian era when writers, poets and artists rediscovered the old stories. In 1823 the famous poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ or ‘T’was the Night before Christmas’, was published. In 1863, the magazine Harper’s Weekly published the first illustration of St Nicholas/St Nick by Thomas Nast. Over the next 20 years Thomas Nast continued to draw Santa every Christmas and his works were very popular. Nast designed Santa’s look on some historical information about “Santa” (the red coat was reminiscent of the red robe the bishops wore in the time of St. Nicholas) and the poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’, which gave him his big tummy, an arm full of toys and smoking a pipe! From there the stories took off, and eventually became what we know today as Santa Claus complete with his flying sleigh, the North Pole and even Rudolph.
There is so much we can learn from Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, as we know him now. We must remember that Santa Claus, the legend, the stories, the magic and the fun… they are all from a real man, Saint Nicholas, who loved God with all of his heart and devoted his life to serving Jesus. His generosity and his kindness is because of his FAITH. When we know how much God loves us, we want to show that love to other people. It overflows out of us. Santa Claus hows us the giving heart of God who desires to give good gifts to his children. He also encourages us to live a life that pleases God, to honor our Father and Mother, to be good… or else there are consequences, like no gifts or coal in your stocking.
St. Nicholas was a wealthy man, but he used his wealth to bless others, considering it of more value to build up treasures in heaven. He reminds us of Jesus’ command to take care of the poor, the orphan and the widow, and to give gifts in secret because we know that our reward will come from our Father in Heaven, the original Father Christmas.
It can be hard to decide what to tell your kids about Santa Claus when you are fighting for the real meaning of Christmas. The thin line of encouraging imagination, creativity and fun without taking away from truth, necessary maturity and the validity of your own word can seem tricky at times… so I say this with out yet having figured it out myself. I have hinged on the side of down playing Santa in years past, however, this year I had a new thought that I’m exploring and I’d love to hear your feedback. Imagination, creativity, playing in a make-believe world – children’s brains are wired for this, whether that’s Mickey Mouse, Elsa or Santa Claus. God gave us our imaginations for a reason, and I have come to see it as an incredible asset to our faith. I think adults might do better to have a little more of it on occasion. Our God is bigger than our understanding, beyond our scope of imagination, and more powerful than we can comprehend. Sometimes, our imagination can be a beautiful form of worship.
So, is Santa Claus real? Well Saint Nicholas was. So the question I guess is whether or not he is still alive and if he flies around from house to house in one night delivering gifts. Well, God made time. So that’s not an issue. He made it, so he can do what he wants with it. God can raise people from the dead, and he can surely sustain them as long as he wants. Jesus ascended to heaven, that’s kind of like flying. So I’m not saying if Santa’s real or not real, but aren’t ALL THINGS POSSIBLE for God? What a great opportunity to talk with our children about that… that we serve the one and only true God who is bigger than our imagination and can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. We can look at Santa and be reminded that we need to come to Jesus with the faith of a child. That doesn’t mean naive or unstudied, it means fully trusting and believing. It means believing that our truth is defined by the word of God, not by our experience, our knowledge, or what the world says. The biggest faith comes out of the smallest people and God does the most incredible things with great faith. Just food for thought. I’m still digesting it, but I found it something interesting to chew on. Thoughts?
Verse(s) to Remember:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:2-4
Ideas to Make it Stick:
- Clean out your own toys, closet or pantry and take donations to a local shelter, orphan care organization, or food pantry.
- Organize a neighborhood gift drive for one of these organizations
- Color a picture of Santa
- Go visit a local Santa Claus & get pictures taken
- Read The Legend of St. Nicholas
Please feel free to share with friends and leave comments… Do you have other connections between the tradition and the heart of the holiday? Creative ideas to make it stick? I’d love to know what you and your family do with this!