Among all the internet memes I’ve been bombarded with over the years, some of the most precious ones have been made by Christians about Santa. Specifically, about Saint Nicholas. A quick Google Search will yield lots of examples. And, unlike most pictures on the internet, we can actually learn quite a lot of things from these St. Nicholas memes.
Nicholas was a saint of the Early Church who lived from 270 to 343, and was the Bishop of Myra, now a small town in southwestern Turkey. He lived in a rough period of history: Christianity was transitioning from an illegal government-persecuted movement to a somewhat-tolerated religion, and some major heretical versions of Christianity were running rampant. One of the most famous and numerous of those heresies was Arianism, the belief that Jesus was not really God, but just a specially divine human, or perhaps a demigod, created by God. The drafting of the Nicene Creed was intended to correct this fatal theological mistake (among others), and Bishop Nicholas of Myra was part of that council at Nicea, writing that Creed.
The story goes that Nicholas was so zealous in the debate that he actually struck Arius (the champion of the Jesus-is-not-God heresy). The Christian internet community today particularly enjoys this little factoid of history, and several memes focus on this, for example:
(based on the tune Santa Claus is coming to town)
Of course, St. Nicholas did many other positive noteworthy things – he paid ransoms to save young women from slavery, he gave presents and gold to poor families, and he especially cared for children. Even though he had the far-reaching ministry of a Bishop, he still remembered his pastoral calling of a priest and a deacon, and became a wonderful example of Christian charity. The legend of Santa Claus, secretly giving presents to children, is inspired largely by the reality of St. Nicholas.
I’ve come across multiple ways people approach the modern Santa Claus traditions. One pastor I know allows his children to believe in Santa Claus, and never plans to tell them that he’s made-up, because he wants to encourage a healthy imagination, nurture the identification of good and decent heroes, and emphasize the continuation of St. Nicholas’ ministry through others, currently personified in the legendary figure of Santa.
J.R.R. Tolkein, of Lord of the Rings fame, wrote letters to his children from Fr. Christmas, whose first name was Nicholas, and lived at the North Pole. These letters are now published together in a fantastic children’s book Letters From Father Christmas, and also prominently feature a fantastic imagination which encouraged his children to seek beauty and fun and goodness in the world long after they stopped believing in an actual man living at the north pole.
Thirdly, one of my professors in college, the director of the marching band, had a saying. “There are three phases in life: first you believe in Santa, then you don’t believe in Santa, then you become Santa.” This, I think, captures really well the point of the whole Santa thing – as a child it’s fun to receive presents from a secret benefactor. As a teenager, it’s uncool to have an imagination. But part of growing up is re-claiming that childhood magic – not by denying reality, but by choosing to make reality a better place. By giving presents to our children, or giving alms to the poor, or other acts of kindness, we demonstrate and communicate the love of Christ.
St. Nicholas’ story is just one of many. Santa Claus is just one legend among many. But they both point us to one of the basic elements of being a Christian: standing up for the Truth of Christ and kneeling down to show the Love of Christ can and should go together.
So on this feast day of Saint Nicholas (December 6th), I wish you a blessed Advent that at the end of this nearly-four-week journey you may also have a truly merry Christmas.