Dec. 6th is the anniversary of the death of Nicholas, Bishop of Myrna, canonized for his heroism, his charity, and his kindness to children. The Roman Catholic Church, in its infinite wisdom, desanctified Nicholas, along with some other popular saints (notably Christopher and Valentine) in 1962 in a document called Vatican II.
Orphaned at an early age, but wealthy, he vowed to live a life of charity, particularly to orphaned children like himself. He traveled about the Mediterranean region spreading the Gospel of Jesus. During his travels, he rescued some sailors from drowning, fed a town that was in the midst of famine, saved some boys from calculating butcher, and provided the dowry for three girls whose father was about to sell them into slavery (prostitution).
All this, he did in the name of Jesus Christ. He lived to quite an old age and made it known that he didn’t want to be buried in Myrna because the Muslims were taking over Turkey and he didn’t want his grave to be defiled. His followers stole his body and buried him in Italy. Other followers took a portion of his relics, legend says, and buried him in Ireland.
A contemporary exhumation of his tomb revealed that Nicholas was about five feet tall when he died. There’s your little elf. Whether he was merry or not, it’s hard to say. If you’re dealing with children, you should be. But this was the 4th Century when rules for children were quite different.
Saint Nicholas made quite a transformation from a Mediterranean bishop, living in a warm climate to the fat, red-robed, bearded, snow-suited, reindeer-riding figure he has become, a beloved figure to some children, a terrifying spectacle to others (as any Santa photographer can attest).
As long as he’s the merchandise-toting, toy salesman, secular society has no problem with him. Like the Christmas tree – excuse me, the holiday tree – we’ve completely forgotten his religious roots. The Christmas tree is not rooted (if you’ll pardon the expression) in Christianity but paganism. The Pagans want their tree back and fundamentalist Christians are only too happy to comply, regarding Christmas trees and Santa Claus as idol worship.
The Pagans recognize nothing of value in Christianity; they regard Christianity as a “myth.” The Fundamentalists refuse to worship Christ on a pagan holiday of drunkenness and sexual revelry. He wasn’t even born on Dec. 25th. Some experts say he was born in the Spring, others in the Fall.
The Catholic Church had its reasons for celebrating deaths rather than births. By someone’s death, you know what they’ve done for good or ill and can celebrate, mourn or scold accordingly. Think of all the famous people whose death dates we know, but not their birthdates: JFK, FDR and now Nelson Mandela. Who’s going to remember when Mandela was born? Who can name the date off the top of their heads?
Fundamentalists believe we should only be worshipping Christ. Christ believed we should only be worshipping God. What does God, the dispenser of eternal rewards and punishments think regarding Saint Nicholas?
We can’t ask him, so let’s take a guess. We have here a mortal man who did many good things for others in live, especially for children. He was a believer in Jesus Christ and not only followed Christ’s teachings but taught them. He spread the word of God all over Europe and the Orient. He became a legend in northern Europe, particularly Holland, where he was made over in a winter suit of red fur with white trim, resembling the red and white of his priestly vestments, the red robe and the white alb/cassock. Possibly mistranslating the Greek word alb, northern European children soon assigned elves to Santa Claus, who helped him make the toys.
Seeing Black Peter, Nicholas’ page and assistant whom he adopted along with some orphaned boys from an orphanage in Italy, the children were probably confused by the description of a white alb and his black elf (supposedly Nicholas, who was a holy man not a toymaker, adopted Peter for his generosity in making wooden toys for children orphanage, part of his apprenticeship for when he entered the working world).
BP, whom tales say originally came from Morocco and was converted to Christianity by the orphanage, was also supposedly noticed by Nicholas for his protection of younger children and beating off their assailants. His assignment, according to the Dutch custom, is to punish naughty children. Political correctness and other issues have kept Black Peter in Europe.
In God’s eyes then, one could suppose that Nicholas was a good sort of chap. He served the Lord Jesus faithfully and reverently. What better way to spend Eternity than as the symbol of true Christmas, a Christmas of love, charity, generosity, and kindness? To serve as a lesson to small children the joy of receiving unconditional love and grown-up children the blessing of giving. What better way to spread the message of Jesus that it is better to give than to receive.
Jesus gave us the greatest gift of all – eternal life – by giving His life for us. God rewarded Nicholas of Myrna for his charity and kindness by assigning him the eternal job of heralding in the Christmas season, making the longest, darkest (in some places) night of the year the brightest day, transforming a day of pagan sinfulness, gluttony and drunkenness into a celebration of the birth of His son, Jesus Christ. For those in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the longest day transformed into an eternal day which will never know a sunset.
Atheists and pagans would dismiss Santa Claus and Christmas as humbug. Fundamentalist Christians would claim that Jesus would regard Christmas as an undignified celebration unworthy of His Holy Name. Still, even the Herald Angels, visiting the shepherds in the fields on that night (it must have been during a warmer season before the sheep had been sheared, which rules out December) told them shepherds to rejoice, for their savior had been born.
Does God mind the Christmas tree and Santa Claus? One would guess as long as they’re just decorations and not idols to worship that it’s harmless enough. He’s probably more dismayed at the commercialism and the unseemly side of human nature that this time of year seems to inspire in some. Door-busting. Temper tantrums (adults as well as children). Depression. Anger. Family quarrels. Fatigue. Loneliness. Disillusionment. Greed. Selfishness. Drinking parties. Sounds more like Saturnalia, complete with the hangover after a three-day splurge (Saturnalia begins on Dec. 21st).
That was the problem with celebrating Christ’s birth during Saturnalia. Early Christians did so because the punishment for practicing Christianity and worse, spreading it, was imprisonment or death. The early Christians would not have reveled the way we do, still being haunted as they were by the manner of His death and the consequent loss of their leader.
Christmas is supposed to be a merry time of joy. The closer we keep our celebrations aligned with the “reason for the season” the more joyful we will be on Christmas. Presents under the tree are for children (and rightly so). The present under the Cross is for the rest of us. But that’s somber, Easter kind of thinking. On Christmas, we are grateful for Christ’s birth.
Psalm 98: Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
2 The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
4 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
5 Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!
7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
8 Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
9 before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity
And, “Santa Claus is coming to town!”