We don't have to choose and we can make a connection between these two legends.
Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, which can only mean one thing – check your shoes for chocolate coins. Don’t settle for anything less. No oranges. No dried fruit. No mixed nut samplers. As far as I’m concerned, it’s chocolate coins or nothing. Growing up, my family never celebrated the whole St. Nick tradition, but now that I have children of my own, my wife and I are all in on it. We love the extra opportunity to make the season festive.
Every year as a family we try to give the season of Advent the respect it deserves and not jump straight to Christmas. When we first started, it was tough. Everyone else on the planet seems to move to Christmas so quickly and Advent is so subdued that it’s difficult to not feel like curmudgeons by insisting on putting off Christmas. Then we discovered the treasures of Advent – St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucy Day, the Rorate Caeli Mass, the O Antiphons – and suddenly Advent became far more joyful and easy to celebrate.
St. Nicholas arrives towards the beginning of Advent, on December 6. As a child, I had only a vague idea of who St. Nicholas was. I’d occasionally heard the name in connection with Santa – Jolly Old Saint Nick – but I didn’t know the name was a reference to a historical figure, a bishop of the Church whose real-life actions formed the basis for the Christmas gift-giving tradition.
My parents didn’t specifically have it out for St. Nicholas. They weren’t all that into Santa, either. It was always made clear to us from a young age that Santa is a fun part of Christmas, but he’s pretend. We were strenuously warned to not break the news to our friends. Each year, the secret became more difficult to keep.
The fact is, though, that the legend of Santa Claus and the historical life of St. Nicholas have become hopelessly intertwined. Nicholas is the saint who has always been associated with gift-giving and protecting children. In the centuries after his death, his popularity continued to increase throughout Europe and he eventually came to resemble less a 4th-century Catholic bishop from Turkey and more a European man with a large white beard – the typical iconography for a holy, fatherly patriarch. Over time, St. Nicholas was buried in layers of legend and fairy tale. The real man receded and the magical, north-pole-dwelling, elvish Santa Claus was born.
This is where the whole connection between St. Nicholas and Santa becomes tricky – one is real and the other is a fairy tale. How can we celebrate and enjoy both while at the same time not confusing our children? In the end, I think there are a number of ways to approach it, and like most family traditions, we don’t all have to end up in the same place. The discussion isn’t about what the “right” answer is — and it’s probably more important that we take up our family traditions intentionally. There’s always more depth and meaning when family traditions have a firm foundation.
Here’s how I’ve come to think about it.
My wife and I didn’t want our children to confuse the two and lose sight of the real-life saint. I think it’s possible for children to both believe in Santa and St. Nicholas. It would be a shame, though, to allow the fantastical Santa legends take over so that they forget about St. Nicholas, the man who lived an interesting and heroically generous life. Children can know about both. In our family, we chose to make a distinction – St. Nicholas is real and Santa is make-believe. We just found it easier that way and the kids are fine with it. We still like Santa.
Without confusing the two, we still wanted them to see the connection. It’s really cool that a single man, just by being generous, changed the entire world. Santa is an homage to St. Nicholas, and the attributes of Santa that we love the best – his generosity, the miraculous nature of his gifts, the way he takes children seriously — all come directly from Nicholas.
We didn’t want to turn our kids against Santa, so while we emphasize that St. Nicholas really is the best, that doesn’t mean we have a war between pro-Nicholas and pro-Santa factions. Santa, in his own way, can be the best, too. Nicholas is a strong enough personality to be appealing all on his own. We don’t have to talk Santa down to get them to like Nicholas.
I suppose there are lots of ways to approach the question, but hopefully none of us lose sleep over it. After all, Christmas is a time of generosity. We can make room in our hearts for both. Today, in our household we celebrate St. Nicholas and feast on chocolate coins. Later in the month, we’ll decorate the living room with our Nativity set, add our O Antiphon ornaments to the Christmas tree, and yes, get out the dancing Santa doll.