A Dialogue at the Tavern: Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas
It’s that time of year again: Christmas lights are going up, holiday music abounds, and children are whispering about what they’re asking Santa Claus for Christmas. A student of mine informed me in mid-November that her favorite Christmas decoration is a special phone that gives her a direct line to Santa – and to Mrs. Claus! Associating Christmas time with the jolly, red-suited, round elf in the United States is a given, but it has not always been so. Someone – a really real someone – greatly overshadowed in our modern materialism and American mythicality is St. Nicholas whose feast day is celebrated on December 6. On St. Nicholas’s feast day, Christians have traditionally put out their boots or stockings for a small treat from St. Nicholas, and this later carried over into receiving gifts from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. The stories about St. Nicholas go much further back than our tales of Santa Claus and carry much more significance and weight to contemplate as we approach the Christmas season.
There was once a time when St. Nicholas enjoyed one of the greatest and widest spread devotion of any Christian saint outside of biblical figures. It was with the dawn of the Protestant Reformation that his popularity waned, and he fell into greater obscurity in Europe. However, he remained a constant favorite in the Orthodox churches, especially in Russia. St. Nicholas was not totally absent from Americas, but he was not nearly as regarded in the burgeoning United States as he was in the East. Roughly three hundred years after the Protestant Reformation exploded throughout Europe, the myth of Santa Claus was born in the United States.
Christmas in the early 1800s was a very different affair than it is now. Many American Protestants – Puritans, Quakers, Calvinists, and the like – had ceased to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday and it had subsequently become a time of raucous revelry. Washington Irving of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame also wrote a good deal about Christmas in an effort to reclaim the holiday as a family-friendly time of gift-giving and goodwill. He was not alone. In 1821 a book titled A Children’s Friend appeared that described ‘Sante Claus’ as an elf in a reindeer-drawn sleigh who appeared on Christmas Eve rather than December 6. Two years later, the now famous poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ was published anonymously under its original title, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The Santa Claus legend developed in various stages from here, solidly taking its form as we know it today in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It has since spread from the United States to influence other nations around the world.
Apparently, the rise of the Santa Clause myth initially helped to bring the culture in America back to celebrating Christmas as a holiday. The focus became less about raucous revelry and instead shifted to gift exchanges and families spending time with one another. Over the course of the last two centuries, however, the focus has become less and less about the real reason for the season, and more and more about material gain and display. Stores begin marketing Christmas decorations in July, advertisements about Christmas gifts begin in October, and everyone associates the day after Thanksgiving with spending too much time, energy, and money on raiding Black Friday deals.
In the blur of Christmas mayhem, December 6 is treated as any other day in December – just another day in the countdown to Christmas day. In Catholic circles you will hear the debate every year (or at least I have every year since I started college at an orthodox Catholic university): should you give gifts to children on St. Nicholas’s feast day from Saint Nicholas or should children receive presents from Santa on December 25? Do you want to encourage generosity and simplicity? How do you tell kids that Santa Claus isn’t real without ruining the whimsy of childhood?
I’d like to give St. Nicholas and Santa Clause the space to speak for “themselves.” I sometimes like to amuse myself by creating dialogues in my head between people real or fictional that would never happen but would be highly diverting if they did. This is what I imagine being spoken between dear St. Nicholas and Santa Clause.
To set the scene a little, I imagine this taking place in a tavern on a dark December evening. The tavern is likely named “Red Rudolph’s” or “The Heretic’s Punch” depending on who you ask. Santa ambles in, pipe in hand, and orders a hot chocolate at the bar. He spies a man sitting at the end of the bar drinking a glass of mulled wine and reading a book.
Santa Claus: “Nicholas! Is that you? I thought you left these parts years ago!”
St. Nicholas: “Well, Santa, I never really left. You just became more popular than I was.”
Santa Claus: “I don’t know if that’s true, but there is a great belief in me out there. The books! The movies! The decorations! It can all get to a man’s head.”
St. Nicholas: “Yes, there’s a lot of material with your name on it. How did you come by your name? Where did you come from? Who were your parents?”
Santa Claus: “I live at the North Pole! I’m a jolly old elf. Does it matter where I got my name? I’m as old as the hills. Who can even remember where I came from. What about you? Who gave you the name Nicholas?”
St. Nicholas: “My good parents did, a long time ago, in the late third century. We lived in what is now Turkey, although we spoke Greek. They taught me faith in Jesus Christ, Our Lord, and died in an epidemic when I was still a youth. Do you believe in Jesus, Santa?”
Santa Claus: “I believe in the goodness of spreading Christmas cheer!”
St. Nicholas: “Well, I dedicated my life to spreading the gospel. Somehow in God’s providence, I became a priest and a bishop. I served my people by defending the truth, which was not always legal in the Roman Empire. I know what it is to be persecuted and imprisoned for serving the Lord. What do you serve: mammon or God?”
Santa Claus: “I serve the children of the whole world! I bring them all gifts from the North Pole to spread Christmas cheer.”
St. Nicholas: “How do you get the materials to make all of those toys at the North Pole? Nothing really lives or grows up there, and it must be awfully hard for boats to come through.”
Santa Claus: “What do you mean? Magic provides the materials I need to make all the toys in my workshop! I have heard that you were also generous in your time, although on a less – ahem – global scale. The story I heard was that there was once a man who became impoverished and could not provide money for dowries for his three daughters. The daughters resolved to give themselves up to lives of prostitution. To save them from that terrible fate, you anonymously gave them enough money for each of the girls to have dowries.”
St. Nicholas: “Some of the stories about me are true. Others were invented or enlarged over time. I only know what generosity is because of the goodness of my Savior, Jesus Christ. Though he was God, he came to earth as man, impoverishing himself, and handing over his life for the salvation of men. He is the true man of generosity and love.”
Santa Claus: “Love! Oh, the greatest magic of all is love, of course. Mrs. Claus and I share a great love. And we love the elves who help us make the toys. And the children! It is love for the children of the world that inspires us to do what we do.”
St. Nicholas: “Is it totally beneficent love that inspires you? What made you first think of making a toy to give to one child, much less every single child around the world in one night?”
Santa Claus: “Well, children love toys! It brings us joy to bring them joy. I don’t remember how I even got into the toy making business, but here we are! And we can’t disappoint the children now.”
St. Nicholas: “That’s nice, but I don’t really see why you do it. The love that inspires me is Love himself: God is Love. Everything that I have done in my life was done for the Lord. I see him face to face in the Beatific Vision. I spend my time in Heaven giving the greatest gift I can give: my prayers for all the people of the world. Not for humanitarian or philanthropic reasons, and not because I want them to have more material things that will someday turn to dust, but because I want them to know God’s goodness, truth, and beauty. I want them to join me in seeing him face to face.”
St. Nicholas finishes his mulled wine, picks up his copy of the four gospels in Greek, leaves a generous tip, and walks out of the door. Santa stares at his mug of hot chocolate and perhaps has an existential crisis.
All imagined conversations aside, St. Nicholas is a model of Christian generosity and devotion to the Lord. He may or may not have done all the things the stories about him say he did. He may or may not have been at the Council of Nicaea and slapped Arius (probably not). He may or may not make a big comeback as the main figure of gift-giving during the Christmas season over the mythical Santa Claus. What we do know is that Nicholas loved the Lord and gave his life to serve Christ and his Church. We know that he is remembered and celebrated as a saint which means that he enjoys eternal friendship with God and that he is praying for us all here still earthside. So put out your boots for St. Nicholas’s feast day, or put a present under the tree from Santa Claus, but above all, do not forget the most perfect model gift-giving: Jesus Christ, the Word of God who became man and gave us himself. St. Nicholas made Jesus the center of his life, and so should we. St. Nicholas, pray for us!