In California for Thanksgiving last month, as I was helping my mother decorate for Christmas, I took this picture of my old toy Santa Claus, originally given to me by a family friend for my first Christmas in 1948. At that time, it was a new model, and it sang Jingle Bells when you turned the little handle in his back. Old now (like its owner), the handle no longer works, and Santa no longer sings Jingle Bells. But, otherwise, he seems to have held up pretty well these past 65 years!
Our familiar Santa Claus got his outfit and physical appearance from the famous 1823 poem by Clement C. Moore, A Visit From Saint Nicholas (from its opening line now more commonly called The Night Before Christmas). The familiar poem is responsible for many of our popular current conceptions of Santa Claus. But, as the poem's original title leaves no doubt, our Santa Claus is just a variant of a more ancient figure who once really lived, Saint Nicholas, whose feast day is today. The fourth-century Greek Bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey), who attended the great Council of Nicea in 325, was widely venerated for his many miracles as Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker and for his generosity and anonymous gift-giving that eventually made him the model for our Santa Claus. Devotion to Saint Nicholas spread far and wde, and he is considered the patron saint of children (and also of sailors and of Greece, among other people and places). Very popular in Eastern Orthodoxy, he was also widely venerated in the West, where he still comes to give gifts to deserving children - either on his proper day, December 6, or on Christmas. (Spain and Portugal and Latin America have a different tradition of the Three Kings coming with gifts on Epiphany. Italy has its own variant, La Befana, who brings gifts on Epiphany.)
In my 10 years as Associate Pastor at Saint Paul the Apostle in New York, one part of my job was to dress up as Saint Nicholas every year on the Monday after Thanksgiving at what was called "Winter's Eve" - an annual tree-lighting and neighborhood holiday party in the Lincoln Center neighborhood of midtown Manhattan. I would appear in the church to tell the story of Saint Nicholas and distribute Christmas candy. It was always fun, and it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the significance of Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus in the way we celebrate Christmas.
Of course, like anything else, Santa can be misused. His coming can replace the holiday's proper focus on the coming of Christ. His gift-giving can be distorted to reinforce commercialism and greed. That's all true enough. But, as the old saying goes, abusus non tollit usum. Properly part of the total Christmas experience, Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus exemplifies the generosity that should be at the heart of our seasonal gift-giving. Despite being told "you'd better watch out, you'd better not pout," the reality is that Santa seldom skips a visit because a child has been less than perfectly well behaved the past year. He is a good metaphor for generosity that really has little to do with the recipient's merit. As such, he's actually not a bad metaphor for grace, which of course is what Christmas is all about - God's free unmerited gift to us of himself .