Advent and the onset of Christmas always brings on memories of times past and the omnipresent figure of Santa Claus. Now, do not misunderstand me — I am all too aware (and have written about) the de-Christianisation of Christmas and its detachment from religion for the purposes of commerce. No one laughs harder than me at the meme showing Santa Claus being arrested for identity theft while St. Nicholas is told by a policeman that “we got the man….” As Brother André in his latest “Holiday” outing quoted from Fr. Feeney:
I do not know what Christmas in the United States is going to be like from now on. I frankly do not! I have seen how it has deteriorated in the past twenty-five years. I know the deceivers and haters of Jesus and Mary, across the street at Harvard College, will go through this Christmas religiously as fraudulently as they went through the last one. There will be red lights blinking on Christmas trees, this year the same as last year. Light, revealing nothing! Light, meant to be the means of making things visible, with nothing to show!
Undoubtedly, somebody like Theodore Spencer, of Harvard — who called Jesus a “myth,” before he died — will get up and read Dickens’ Christmas Carol. That is supposed to be very Christmasy! Some noted actor, if he is able, will do a little Christmas barking on the radio. Some notorious comedian will roar like Santa Claus!
All undoubtedly and horrifically true. But I have to admit that I was born into a household where there was a bit of mixture. The Nativity Set was prominent, Midnight Mass was a must, we sang Christian carols, and the tree was NEVER bought or trimmed until Christmas Eve. But my father was as adept at singing Silver Bells as Minuit, Chretiens, and Santa Claus was coming on that magical night.
The truth is, I really loved — and bought into — the whole Santa mythos. The old gentleman himself, his workshop at the North pole, his elves, legion of anonymous “helpers,” sleigh and reindeer (especially Rudolph), Frosty the Snowman, and all the rest, I fervently believed in. At an early age, of course, I was aware — thanks to “Twas the Night before Christmas” and “Up on the Housetop” — that Santa Claus was somehow connected to a Saint called Nicholas.
Now, in my defence, I was born in 1960, and spent the first few years in of my life in New York City and environs — and New York is certainly the centre and citadel of the American secular Christmas. Washington Irving had helped popularise the whole concept of Christmas in the Puritan Northeast with his tales of Christmas in The Sketchbook and Bracebridge Hall; Clement Clarke Moore wrote the above-mentioned poem (and is suitably commemorated annually by the Episcopal Church of the Intercession); it was the editor of the New York Sun who had so solemnly assured little Virginia that there is indeed a Santa Claus; the annual lighting of the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Centre easily outshines even that of the White House; Macy’s Department Store Windows are legendary, as is its Thanksgiving Day Parade (at the end of which Santa arrives) — it was, after all, the setting of both versions of Miracle on 34th Street. The same churches whose well-dressed congregations are the basis of the famed Easter Parade — St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Thomas Episcopal, and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian — vie to outdo each other in Yuletide ritual.
Our removal to Hollywood did not make that much of a difference; the Santa Claus Lane Parade featured its namesake at the end of its course, and the late and much-lamented Hollywood Broadway Department Store had displays almost as good as Macy’s — and also featured one of his omnipresent helpers impersonating him (I had thus graduated so far in thinking these things through). But despite mounting evidence (and wisecracks by certain classmates), I held steadfastly on to belief in the jolly old sprite. Every Christmas the cookies, milk and carrots left for him and his antlered steeds vanished, and there were always footprints in the fireplace ashes; did not Schauffler’s book on Christmas reaffirm my belief?
But one day, the very man who had made Santa live in our home took it upon himself to end my faith in him. Dad explained to me that although he himself was responsible for the actual delivery of gifts, and the North Pole was empty of everything but Polar Bears, Santa made up in symbolic value what he and his cohorts lacked in objective reality. Moreover, he was a sort of image of a very real person, St. Nicholas. Dad then proceeded to pull out from his bookshelf the December 1960 American Heritage and opened it to an article — “A Certain Nicholas of Patara.” Thanks to my father, I shed my belief in Santa and gained instead a love of St. Nicholas.
In truth, he is an endlessly fascinating figure, as the existence of the online St. Nicholas Centre shows. His feast is observed in so many different ways by so many different peoples in testimony to the love they bear him. His reputation as a gift-giver comes from his saving three daughters of a ruined merchant from a life of infamy by flinging three bags of gold into their home on three successive nights; he is resorted to as a wonderworker both by his having revived dead boys and because of the miraculous manna that has flowed from his bones since his death — and continues to work miraculous cures.
Of course, as the inspiration of sorts for Santa Claus, children in Central Europe continue to look to him for gifts. But much as they hope for his largesse, they fear retribution for ill deeds from his far meaner companion. This dark figure varies in name and appearance from country to country. As it happens, since my best friend lives in Aachen, Germany, with his wife and children, I was treated one year to a Nikolaus-Fahrt. This is a steam train ride manned by parents and children, with non-alcoholic hot drinks for the latter, and something stronger for the former. In the midst of the journey through the snowy and picturesque countryside, the train stopped. By the side of the rail was a large horse-drawn carriage, atop which were a bishop and a mysterious hooded figure — Knecht Ruprecht! They dismounted, got on to the train, and went into each car, demanding an accounting from each child; apparently Ruprecht was denied any victims, for all the children received small gifts. How their eyes shone! A few nights later St. Nicholas arrived at my friend’s house on the actual eve of his feast, unaccompanied. He asked them the same questions, gave gifts and departed. One of the children asked his Uncle Charles from America why St. Nicholas did not remember his responses from the train; I explained that repeating a question to see if the answer changed was a typical way of finding out the truth! The tyke was satisfied.
For myself, these would be reasons enough to love him — but there are more. I love his common popularity in East and West, his half-ruined shrine in Demre, Turkey, and his current one at Bari — venerated by Catholics of all rites as well as Orthodox. The Greeks see him as the protector of sailors; the Russians as one of their national patrons — certainly, Tsar Nicholas II was devoted to his namesake. The hopes I nurture for the reconciliation of the dissident East with Rome, ala Soloviev are centred in Bari’s Saint. St. Nicholas’ famed assault upon Arius always reminds me that supreme charity must also be accompanied by strictest orthodoxy if it is to be fruitful. Yet the continued veneration of St. Nicholas by the protestant Dutch — even if only as a mythic figure, this side of Santa Claus — gives me hope that they too may one day be reconciled to the truth.
It was the Dutch, of course, who brought the image of St. Nicholas to New York (hence the name of both one of their hereditary societies and their former major church in the city); he is the patron thereby of the City and State of my birth — which is another reason why I love him. From Niagara Falls to Port Orient, Long Island, the Empire State is a world unto itself — and would be even without Gotham. As it stands, all the world in its multiplicity of cultures and races meet there; appropriate indeed for a Saint who counts among his devout clients members of so many different nationalities. To be sure, though I have wandered over a good chunk of this world, no place seems as homelike to me as the valley of the Hudson. May St. Nicholas help it rise from its current state of moral turpitude, as well as the other 49 States of the Union.
On a happier note, however, St. Nicholas will always be Christ’s second in the matter of Christmas celebration. Alongside his Divine Master, he reminds us that the gifts, the lights, the ornaments, the tree, the holly and the mistletoe, and the Christmas dinner are pointers, not ends in themselves, as we moderns tend to make them. But if we use them rightly, in the true spirit of St. Nicholas, they will bring us not merely to the sentimental joys of this Christmas, and the next, and the next — but to the Eternal Happiness of that Christmas which never ends, but always is. In that spirit, then, I wish you a very Merry and Happy Christmas, and a joyous 2019!