Santa Claus' story connects us to the Nativity more directly than Saint Nicholas' if we look for it.
When I was very young, my siblings tried to con me into believing that Santa Claus had just left the building — that I’d just missed seeing his sleigh and reindeer fly over the house at the end of our block after having delivered our Christmas swag into the basement, where he had also erected a tree since the time I’d gone to bed.
Stuff and nonsense, I knew. In my restless sleep of anticipation, I’d heard people yelling in the night about fragile glass ornaments slipping off the slender branches of a tree and shattering. Even as a kid I’d had trouble playing along with illogic.
And yet, Santa Claus plays a big role in our household each Christmas, and he always has — mostly as St. Nicholas, but also in his commercial, secular iteration as a red-suited, jolly, somewhat weight-wobbly man.
In her essay detailing why Santa has no place in her home, Anna O’Neil writes that she doesn’t wish to “dilute” the wonder and hope of the Nativity of Christ that ends our Advent of longing, and keeping watch. She writes: “[Santa] doesn’t really fit. He seems like an imposition. …the [sacred] joy, the sense of the extraordinary, the delight and anticipation is already there, in a more profound and complete way than he could ever contribute to.”
Well, of course, the coming of Christ and the great Gospel narrative that leads us so beautifully into wonder and a renewed appreciation for the gift of our salvation, is complete unto itself. But I’m not sure Santa Claus dilutes it. For one thing, St. Nicholas — and there would be no Santa without him, so he must always be part of the story — continues the two of the most wondrous themes of Christmas: generosity and service. It is awesome to contemplate how both God’s own unconditional generosity in becoming incarnate for our sakes, and his own merciful service toward his creatures (what sort of God is this?) being — centuries later — reflected in the behavior of a holy man’s own generosity to his neighbors, and his own service to both God and humanity.
To remember St. Nicholas as the inspiration for Santa Claus is to retain a memory of joy, distorted and strained through the imaginings of various cultures but still wholly focused on the child (or children) of a household — parents slogging through weather and traffic for the kids, in much the same way shepherds and kings traveled or made haste to focus on and begift the Child.
St. Teresa of Avila said, “If in all things thou seek Jesus, doubtless thou will find Jesus.” In a way, Santa Claus’ story connects us to the Nativity story even more directly than St. Nicholas’ if we look for it. All-knowing Santa does an impossible thing, and he does it for everyone who believes and is of good will, and his actions are rooted in an unreasonable love.
The story of our Salvation begins with something impossible — “Behold, a Virgin shall be with child and bear a son…” — and is rooted in an idea of an omniscient being, offering the greatest gift of all, “…on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” And peace unto Eternity, all offered through the very Source of incomprehensible love.
Perhaps some who are willfully (or ignorantly) immune to the Reality of the Nativity, might eventually find Jesus, if they begin to look for him in Santa. People have to start somewhere.
Because I believe the Holy Spirit can work God’s purposes through the most confounding people and circumstances, the fat man in the red suit will always be welcome in our home, and included in our Christmas celebrations.