Sunday, December 5, 2010

Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus


December 6 is the Feast day of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. It’s celebrated in the Orthodox Church with Divine Liturgy, and in some locations also with Vespers the night before. At our parish. St. John in Memphis, we have a tradition where the teenagers put on a play about St. Nicholas after Vespers on the eve of the Feast.

If you want to know more about Saint Nicholas, and especially if you’d like some poems, stories, artwork and activities for your children, this is a great source: The St. Nicholas Center. And here’s my post about Saint Nicholas Day from last year if you’re interested. And this one, “The Real Saint Nicholas,” from 2007.

And I have no idea if this is good or not, but here’s a link to Nicholas of Myra, the movie.

Years ago when our family was part of an ultra-conservative cult-like group, we abandoned most Christmas traditions for a while, deeming them as “unchristian,” including pretending that Santa Claus brought gifts to our children. In retrospect, I think we made much too big a deal about all of that. I no longer believe that it’s harmful for our children if we “play Santa Claus” with them or have gifts left under the tree or in their stockings “from Santa Claus.” Or that it will confuse them about who the “real” Saint Nicholas was. Teach them about Saint Nicholas, but enjoy whatever “secular” activities your family wants to participate in. One doesn’t negate the other.

I was thinking about all the different names that have been given to Saint Nicholas: Santa Clause, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santa, Sinterklaas, Pere Noel. There are more as the tradition has spread throughout the world.

Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s, my brother and I always got “Santa gifts” that our parents left under the tree, unopened, for us to discover on Christmas morning. I LOVED IT. But I never believed that a pretend person left them there. It was a game we played, and it was fun.

My own family filled each other’s stockings during the Christmas season to enjoy on Christmas morning, “in memory of Saint Nicholas.” Some years the children would get an early Christmas present on December 6. And for most of their lives we would hide a “pickle” ornament in the tree and whichever child found it got an additional little gift. These are all the stuff that joyful memories are made from, and none of them, at least not in my mind, compete in any way with the “real meaning of Christmas” or with who “the real Saint Nicholas is.”

On Saturday I was in Jackson visiting my mother at Lakeland Nursing Home. I took a gift and dropped it off in the office when I first got there, for “Santa” to give Mom when he hands out gifts to all the residents during a party one day next week. Mom and another resident and I sat in the front lobby for about an hour singing Christmas carols together. Some of them were about Jesus, but some were just “fun” songs like Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Mom didn’t seem to care which ones we sang. She just had a joy and a smile that I haven’t seen on her face in a while. Alzheimer’s is eating away her memory, but it hasn’t gotten to the Christmas songs yet. I’m betting they’ll be one of the last things to go.

So, whatever your religious beliefs, I hope that you have joy in your heart when you hear someone singing, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town!”