Thursday, December 4, 2014

Thoughtful About . . . Santa Claus and Giving

I admit it. Readily. I have occasionally had issue with the Santa question. I have friends who never introduced the concept, and part of me always wished I had put my foot down on it too. Because I never really introduced it. I just let it creep in. Whenever my kids would ask, I would say, "Well, what do you think?"

And I was about to pull the plug. Then . . . then I looked it up. I looked up the true history of St. Nicholas, and how he became Santa Claus. And you know what I discovered? That of all the many Christmas gift-giving traditions, this is actually the only one I feel has its roots in the right place.

Nicholas was from a city in the Byzantine empire, born in the late 200s and living through the mid 300s. From his youth, he was always given to matters of God. His parents died when he was young, leaving him a very wealthy boy. But rather than live in style, he was raised by his uncle, a priest, and soon followed in his footsteps. (Sorry--no Mrs. Claus.)

Even as a boy, he was known as the wonder-worker. He healed people of things like withered hands and illnesses with simple prayers. He calmed storms. He worked miracles. And he's still hugely remembered for those things in Europe, where you'll be hard pressed to find a town without a church dedicated to St. Nicholas. But do you know what else he's remembered for?

His anonymous generosity. 

See, he had all this money . . . but a heart for the Lord. So what did he do? Well, whenever he saw the needs of someone in his community, he quietly met them. He threw gold through windows. Down chimneys . . . and on occasion, it's reported that some of this gold landed in a stocking left to dry over the banked fire.

Sound familiar? For hundreds of years, Christmas stockings always had gold--or a golden fruit, like an orange--in the bottom, to recall this story.

But the beauty of the thing is that Nicholas never claimed to be the gift-giver. More, when someone caught him at it, he would beg them not to disclose the secret, not so long as he lived. Because Christ charged us to give in secret.

After his death on December 6th, however, the stories came out. Story upon story about the generosity and gift-giving of Nicholas, who was soon named a saint and whose feast day was established as December 6th. So a new tradition was born. Whenever an anonymous gift was given, and especially on his feast day, it was said to be given in the name of St. Nick. 

Anonymously--because that's what Christ charged us to do.

Isn't that actually what gift-giving should be about?? Not the glory of saying, "Look, I bought you something you'll love!" but the knowledge that we're bringing joy to someone--better still, meeting the need of someone--without expecting anything in return. Even the joy of seeing their faces when they open it.

That is true giving. And that's what St. Nicholas represents.

So how did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus? Well, because of the proximity of St. Nicholas's feast day to Christmas, the two holidays eventually merged. But not right away. For hundreds of years, the gifts were given on December 6, and December 25 was reserved as a day of worshiping the Christ Child.

Then Martin Luther revolutionized the church and tried to do away with the saints' days altogether. He was the one who said we oughtn't to expect gifts from St. Nicholas. Instead, we ought to be grateful for the gift of the Christ Child. But in rather typical fashion, people weren't willing to give up all their old they just changed the name and began saying the gifts were from the Christ-kindl (German/Dutch for Christ Child). Which Americans later heard and thought was Kris Kringle. Which is how it became, ironically, another name for Santa. (Also note that Santa Claus is directly from the Dutch words for saint and Nicholas, Claus being a nickname for the latter and "sinta" the word for the former.)

So you see what happened? In effort to change a tradition, all we succeeded in doing was losing its meaning. Santa became a symbol of greed to many, when that's the last thing he ever was in reality. He became a symbol of Christmas-when-you-take-Christ-out-of-it, when his life was dedicated to putting Christ in everything.

When I read all this history, I was inspired (hello, future novel!), and I was also saddened. Because one of the most honorable traditions surrounding gift-giving is the one so often hated by the Church. Oh, we're happy to give gifts...but we don't want to lie to our kids. (And let's face it--we don't want to share the glory when we find that perfect something for them.)

Well, I'm not going to lie to my kids. Instead, I'm going to teach them who St. Nicholas was. More, why he did the things he did. And I'm going to hammer home that the beauty of the thing is the anonymity. Who leaves those presents? Well, that's for you and your faith and your logic to decide. But the most important thing as a receiver of said gifts is knowing they're given from love--not just the love of a friend or the love of a parent or the love of any other family.

These gifts represent the love of God. The love of Christ. Embodied by the anonymous generosity of man...a man like St. Nick.

I'm not going to lie to my kids. I'm going to explain that St. Nick is a real person, who did indeed appear miraculously to many people. That's it's not about's about miracles. That believing God can do the impossible is part of faith. And that another part is being His hands and feet. Being His vehicle.

Being St. Nick. Not just on Christmas--in fact, we're going to try to get away from making the day set aside for Christ being Present Day. But we're going to give gifts. We're just going to change up how we do it.

My challenge to you this year is to start taking yourself out of gift-giving. Start signing gifts "Anonymous"--or, as the case may be, "St. Nicholas." Start leaving them for people to find and never know they're from you.

Let's start giving for the right reasons. And let's give some credit to the memory of a man who always, always did. Santa isn't a symptom of the evils of a commercialized nation--we are. Our attitudes are. Santa, if you dig back to the history, is the memory of a man who knew how to do things right. And I bet if Nicholas of Myra could see how his image has been changed over the years, and even hated by some Christians, he would weep. Because all he ever wanted to do was show Christ's love to his flock. He would want us, just like I firmly believe God does, to get back to the roots of that.

Will this be hard? Absolutely. Why? Because of expectation. Because we'll feel cheap if we show up without something in hand and don't reveal we've already given something. But that's a symptom of the problem, isn't it? Giving shouldn't be about our pride.

Let me say that again:

Giving should be about Him.

Not me.


Not you.


If we're giving in our own name...well, then who's the gift about? Makes you think, doesn't it? Or at least, it made me think. Because giving gifts has always been, to me, about (a) the recipient and (b) my joy in giving it. Not really about God at all. And you know, maybe that's fine on a birthday.

But on Jesus's? I don't think it is. I really don't. And so I'm going to accept the challenge to myself. I'm going to figure out how to glorify the Lord and honor Christ on His day--on every day. And I'm never going to sell St. Nicholas short again. Because he understood all his life what it's taken me a lot of years to figure out.


  1. We struggled against the Santa tradition our parents carried on. One thing we decided early on was not to lie to the kids about the tooth fairy or Easter Bunny or Santa. We always want them to believe the things we say and not mislead them. So, to protect others who don't feel the same, we told them it was like a story, and some other parents like to pretend and they shouldn't correct their friends. As for the other characters in American life: My kids, through their teeth losing days (one's still in those days) would put their teeth under their pillow and say, "Mom, does the tooth fairy have any money?" They know I'm often cash-poor in our debit-card carrying world. But it was a game. But Santa? No. No Santa decor, no Santa ornaments, no Santa gift-wrap. Because HE is not the St. Nicholas we should remember. We don't pretend THAT. Finding cards without Santa is getting to be near impossible, but we manage every year. I just don't think Jesus should compete with anyone...not even the jolly man in red :)

    1. I don't mind fun tales--but this year I'm definitely making a point of unraveling truth from fiction for the kids. And living with a storyteller as they do, they readily accept as I dig through things and reply with, "Well, this is the TRUE story. The rest has just snowballed over the years."

      The most important thing they're grasping this year is that it's not about magic--it's about faith and miracles, and the fact that God can do way more impressive things than squeeze down a chimney. That St. Nicholas was a pretty darn cool guy, but he'd be the first to say he wasn't as cool as Jesus. ;-)

    2. Roseanna, so how did that go with your kids?

    3. Really well, Sascha! They love the idea of "being" St. Nick and leaving gifts to be found. We didn't have time to fully do it in 2014, but they had a blast with what we DID manage. We did our family presents on Christmas Eve after church, which they also thought was AWESOME, and then Christmas morning we spent talking about the first Christmas, asking and answering questions, etc. It was so much fun, relaxing, and set the tone for the rest of the day.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Suzie. We're been putting sooooo much thought into this!

  3. I have actually never heard the story of Saint Nicolas and agree that it is so inspiring! What a sad thing that the tradition was lost along the way with the change! I'm going to pray myself and ask God to change my giving this year. I have to admit that I always feel like I HAVE to get my family something since my Grandma goes all out for all of her family. I have to admit that usually when giving her a gift it's not always out of thankfulness for what she has done for us, but because I feel have to do it (I know not very thankful or Christ-like, but a sad reality I just realized when reading this). Thank you for sharing your thoughts because I have a lot to reflect on today!

    1. I think the obligation affects a lot of people...and that really shouldn't be what Jesus's birthday is about either, should it? It's a reality far too often though. And will continue to be unless we all decide to follow our own hearts and consciences on it.

  4. We grew up knowing about Santa Claus, but it was just a story - no presents from Santa or anything. But St. Nicholas himself was actually more real, for a few years anyway, before we learned they were basically the same person: In elementary school, we'd set our shoes out in the hallway on St. Nicholas Day (Dec 6th), and at some point we could go fetch them and they each had a candy cane (which we promptly devoured, never mind it had been in our smelly shoes). I vaguely remember being told about St Nicholas and that he gave to the poor, but, not surprisingly, the shoes and candy were what stuck. Thanks for sharing about the real man and applying it!

    1. I basically just learned as a kid that Jolly Old St. Nick and Santa Claus were one and the same...which is both true and not. But yeah, obviously the candy is what stuck with you, LOL.

  5. Factoid (or legend) I learned the other day: apparently, when St. Nicholas encountered the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicea, he slapped him in the face. Given the all the trouble Arius and his followers caused, jolly old St. Nick probably felt he deserved it. ;-)

    1. Yep, I read that too! Well actually, that some hold this story as fact and others claim he wasn't at Nicea...but regardless, he was definitely a big opponent to Arius!

    2. Early church stuff is pretty awesome. It's my husband's field of study. Actually, I should send you the syllabus from the Church Fathers class he taught last yea, just because---it was a very St. John's type of class, right up your alley.

    3. Yes, it's so much fun!! And studying up on it definitely took me back to Sophomore seminar. =) Would love to see that syllabus!