Oy. Santa Claus.
He’s pretty much the center of the commercialization of Christmas in America.
He’s also the center of controversy among many Christian parents, who in their zeal to keep Christ the sole focus of Christmas, defensively board up their chimney’s during the holiday season. I grew up in a strong-Christian home where Santy Claus came to visit every Christmas Eve, although he wasn’t over-emphasized. But recently, my own family has shied away from the jolly ole’ elf for fear of losing the joy of the gospel.
But does it really have to be Santa vs. Jesus?
With the Feast of St. Nicholas upon us (Dec. 6th), I read an enjoyable little book this week that shed some new light on the age-old tension between the reason for Christmas – the gospel – with one of its most-popular manifestations.
In his book, The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas, New York Times Bestselling Author William J. Bennett aims to “put Saint Nicholas back in Christmas,” by revealing how the real-life figure of ole’ St. Nick can help parents demonstrate Christ’s love to their children.
His book is divided into three sections:
- In Part I: Life of Nicholas
Bennett tells the little-known and inspiring story of the historic figure of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myrna.
- In Part 2: Legends of Nicholas
Bennett outlines the fantastical tales woven about St. Nicholas as a “wonder worker” who protected, healed, and saved individuals – supposedly even after his own death! He also traces the spread of his fame across the globe from the Mediterranean to the United States. (Dutch immigrants brought their own Christmas figure of Sinterklaas to New Amsterdam – present day New York).
- In Part 3: Legacy of Nicholas
Bennett outlines how this 4th century bishop of a Grecian port became an transcontinental and trans-cultural phenomenon who brings gifts to good little children each year.
Here’s a few facts taken from his book that you might not know about the historical figure St. Nicholas:
–> St. Nicholas modeled himself after Polycarp of Smyrna and aided and served the poor and persecuted with great boldness and at great personal cost.
—> St. Nicholas led the Christian Church during the Great Persecution under Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284) and was imprisoned and tortured by Roman guards.
—> St. Nicholas supposedly slapped the heretical bishop Arius in the face at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) for doubting the divinity of Christ. (Whaaat? That’s crazy!)
Considering the larger-than-life tales about St. Nick’s generosity and biblical fidelity, Bennett urges believers to consider reinstating the ‘real-life’ St. Nicholas into family Christmas celebrations – with moderation, of course.
So, how can believers incorporate St. Nick into Christmas without capitulating to secular culture? Here are a few of my own ideas:
1. Don’t lie to your kids about Santa Claus!
If you’re weaving fantastic tales to your children about how all those presents get under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, you might have crossed the line of moderation. Every parent should ask themselves how their Christmas traditions can and should highlight the story of the gospel rather than legends or untruths.
2. Don’t make Christmas gifts contingent on good behavior.
If the true ‘reason for the season’ is that the birth of a baby sets men free from works, then it is spiritually confusing to teach children that Christmas is about what they do or don’t do. Even ole’ St. Nick would appreciate the irony that in some homes, Christmas is no longer about gifts given without expectation of reward or merit.
Instead, teach children that the tradition of gift-giving is accomplished because of and out of the love of Christ. Use the example of the historical St. Nicholas to demonstrate how Christ-centered service and giving can be accomplished without the expectation of receiving anything in return.
3. Don’t equalize Santa with Christ.
As Bennett points out in his book, many of the legends regarding St. Nicholas impart to him qualities of divinity. To tell your children that “Santa is watching you,” or “Santa knows when you’ve been bad or good,” is to insinuate that Santa is omniscient and even omnipresent.
Obviously, those are attributes that belong solely to the Triune God-head. This isn’t just a matter of poor word choice; it’s a matter of poor theology that can lead children to embrace an even poorer view of God in adulthood.
4. Teach your children about the real-life person of St. Nicholas.
Tell them stories about the bishop from Myrna who stood up for the gospel and gave gifts at great personal cost because of the great gift he was given in Christ. Participate with your children on top-secret service projects like those endeavored by the historic St. Nicholas. Buy books about the historical figure rather than the commercialized jolly elf who crosses the globe on Christmas Eve.
This year, I bought Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend by Julie Stiegemeyer. It’s realistic illustrations and beautiful tale of generosity help point children to the person of Jesus over the commercialized version of Santa.
A glossary in the back of the book defines terms such as ‘saint’ and ‘Asia Minor,’ making it a great gift for children ages 5 and older. Although my preschoolers squirmed a bit through the story, it’s a book I know we’ll grow into and use every year.
Do you incorporate this Christmas Legend into your family’s Christmas celebrations? What difficulties have you encountered trying to moderate Santa during the holidays? Share your thoughts in the comments!