Santa Claus

Facing the Hanukkah-Holidays puzzle, one American family at a time

Anyone passing the Hoffman home in the Cincinnati suburbs during the holidays will see festive blue and white lights and an inflatable bear in the front yard -- a bear wearing a Santa cap and holding a candy cane.

 This is where things got complicated, with a typically blunt question from a child: Should Jews have a bear in the yard during Hanukkah?

 "I said it was a Jewish bear," said Neal Hoffman, a marketing executive. "One of our boys came right back with: 'What about the candy cane? Don't candy canes have something to do with Christmas?' I said I didn't think there was anything specifically Christian about a candy cane. Is there?"

 Well, that's complicated, too, since the candy cane often shown with Santa Claus is a symbol that links the shopping-mall superstar back through the mists of history to the 4th Century St. Nicholas of Myra, in Asia Minor. The saint was a bishop and, thus, this spiritual shepherd carried a crook staff -- which in Western church tradition is shaped like a large candy cane.

Baptists face Christmas, present and future

This is the time of year when many pastors sit in their offices muttering, "It happened again." The Rev. Rick Lance knows all about that. He has long been one of the true believers who battle the waves of "Happy Holidays" messages that define one of their faith's holiest seasons as the civic tsunami between Halloween and the inevitable wrapping-paper wreckage on Christmas morning.

The problem is that whining doesn't work. Thus, Lance has grown tired of preaching his all-to-familiar annual sermon on why the faithful should "keep Christ in Christmas" while making fewer pilgrimages to their shopping malls.

If people actually want to celebrate Christmas differently, this countercultural revolt will require advance planning and real changes.

"To continue playing the game of 'ain't it awful what they have done to Christmas' may be a cop-out," argued Lance, the executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. "After all, we contribute to the commercialization of Christmas. We are a part of the supposed problem of abuse that the Christmas season has experienced. ...

"A revitalization of Christmas will not come from Wall Street, Main Street, the malls or the halls of Congress and the state legislature. The chatter of talking heads on news programs will not make this a reality."

It would help if their churches offered constructive advice. That's why it was significant that, just before Dec. 25, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service published several commentaries by Lance and others raising unusually practical questions about how members of America's largest non-Catholic flock can fine-tune future Christmas plans.

For example, Christians for centuries have marked the pre-Christmas season of Advent with appeals to help the needy. It's significant that Baptists -- who tend to ignore the liturgical calendar -- have long honored one of their most famous missionaries and humanitarians by collecting missions offerings during this timeframe. This Baptist missionary to China even has her own Dec. 22 feast day on Episcopal Church calendar.

Thus, Lance noted that, this year "my wife and I decided to make our largest gift ever to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. … This may be a small step, but we believe it is a step in the right direction."

One big problem is that America is a highly complex culture that observes at least three versions of Christmas, with the secular often bleeding into the sacred. They are:

* The Holidays: Formally begins on Black Friday after Thanksgiving. The season slows around Dec. 15, with few events close to Dec. 25. Shopping malls and lawyers define these Holidays.

* Christmas: This season begins in early December in most churches, with many concerts and festivities scheduled between Dec. 7 and Dec. 20, so as not to clash with travel plans by church members. There is at least one Christmas Day service.

* The 12 days of Christmas: This celebration begins with the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on Dec. 25 and continues through Epiphany, Jan. 6. This ancient tradition is all but extinct.

So what are believers supposed to do next time to restore faith to the Christmas season?

The Rev. Todd Brady of First Baptist Church in Paducah, Ky., urged parents to think twice before -- literally -- adding Santa to their outdoor Nativity scenes.

"Children in today's world already have a difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and reality," he said. "Christmastime often blurs even further the line between what is real and what is not real."

Church historian Nathan Finn also asked parents to weigh the implications of discussing that magical list that determines "who's naughty and nice." Children quickly realize this is an empty threat.

"Far more troublesome is the sub-gospel message this tradition sends. Santa is cast as the judge of all children," he noted. The problem is that the real Christian Gospel insists that, "every kid deserves the coal. Every parent deserves the coal. I deserve the coal. ... There is nothing we can do to change our circumstances and move ourselves from the naughty list to the nice list."

The bottom line: The true meaning of Christmas isn't that Santa Claus is the highest authority on sin and grace.

"We are moved from the naughty list to the nice list," stressed Finn, "not because of something we do, but because of what Jesus had done for us."

Santa Claus vs. St. Nicholas?

We see the headlines every two or three years during the holidays.

A pastor preaches on the true meaning of Christmas, warning about sins of selfishness and materialism. Then, in a moment of candor, disaster strikes.

This time the dateline was Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Local newspapers, followed by national wire services, reported that Father Ruben Rocha of St. Pius X Catholic School did something shocking during a Mass for students in kindergarten through third grade. He told the children that there is no Santa Claus.

The church hierarchy sprang into action.

"There's a time and place for everything, and this was not the time or the place or the age group to be talking about the true meaning of Christmas, at least in terms that young children cannot understand," Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the media.

Father Rocha apologized in writing to parents. Few details of his sermon are known beyond reports that, in response to a child's question, he said that parents eat the milk and cookies left for Santa.

As a public service to cautious clergy, it might help to review the few options available to those considering discussing the spiritual and commercial versions of Christmas with children. Santa is hard to avoid.

Nevertheless, remaining silent is the first option. Many clergy and parents do not choose silence because it affirms the schizophrenic, secular-sacred Christmas split.

The second option is to nix Santa, right up front. Beliefnet.com columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green has offered blunt reasons for why Christian parents should -- gently -- reject the Santa Claus scenario.

"First, it's a big fat lie," she said. "What kind of an example are you setting here? How stupid are your kids going to feel when they realize they fell for this? What else of what you taught them are they going to doubt?"

Wait, she's just getting started: "The Santa myth teaches kids ingratitude. ... They learn that goodies magically appear and don't cost anybody anything. Their role in life is just to open packages and enjoy. It also teaches greed. We may say piously that we want our children to develop just and generous virtues, but filling them with images of a toy-wielding potentate with a lifetime pass on eToys will knock all that flatter than Kansas."

There is a third option for tradition-loving clergy and parents and, truth be told, I have never read a headline about a pastor being nailed for using it.

Call it the St. Nicholas option. It is especially easy for believers in Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican churches that emphasize the lives of the saints. The goal is to teach children about the 4th century bishop known as St. Nicholas of Myra, while noting that elements of his story later helped inspire the secular story of Santa Claus.

According to church tradition, he was born into wealth and gave his inheritance to the poor. The most famous story about the bishop is captured in the Charity of St. Nicholas icon. It shows him visiting a poor family at night, carrying a bag of gold. The father could not provide dowries for his daughters, which meant they could not marry. Nicholas rescued them from ruin by dropping gold coins through a window.

These gifts fell into their stockings, which had been hung up to dry. The rest, as they say, is history.

The feast of St. Nicholas falls on Dec. 6 and, in parts of the world, remains a day for gift giving and alms for the poor. It is also a good time to discuss the pre-Christmas season of Advent or, in Eastern tradition, Nativity Lent.

The message to children is simple. Yes, there is a real St. Nicholas. But he is not what Christmas is all about.

Playing the St. Nicholas card is the best option, but it is not without its risks, said Father Nicholas Bargoot, an Eastern Orthodox priest here in South Florida.

"With all the commercialism that surrounds us, we still have to be careful when we make that link that we do not to tarnish the reality of St. Nicholas and who he is," he said. "It is still easy for young children to be confused. I mean, what is St. Nicholas doing at the mall?"

A Baptist take on St. Nicholas

The bureaucrats charged with turning Russia into a godless utopia had a December dilemma and a big part of their problem was St. Nicholas.

The early Communists needed to purge Christmas of its Savior, sacraments and beloved symbols, including this patron saint of widows and children. What they needed was a faith-free icon for a safe, secular New Year's season. Digging into pre-Christian Slavic legends they found their superman -- Father Frost.

"It's so ironic," said the Rev. James Parker III of Louisville, Ky. In order to wrest control of Christmas, "one of the things the Communists had to do was to get people to forget the real St. Nicholas. ... Here in America we've forgotten all about the real St. Nicholas because he has turned into this Santa Claus guy. It's like we're taking a different route to the same place."

It would not be unusual to hear Eastern Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican clergy voice these sentiments in the days leading to Dec. 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, the 4th Century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Parker, however, is associate dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Still, he is convinced it's time for more churches -- even Southern Baptist churches -- to embrace the real St. Nicholas.

"I have often wondered how a Martian reporter would do a story on Christmas," he wrote, in a Baptist Press commentary. "If one only had the dominant cultural icons of TV, movies, news media and retail stores, my guess is that the Martian viewing audience wouldn't have a clue as to what Christmas was about.

"They might think it had something to do with snowmen or reindeer or retail store sales. And if any particular person rose to the top in the public's conscious awareness, it would be a jolly secular guy at risk for stroke or cardiac arrest who liked to dress in red and let his beard grow."

Rather than whine about what has happened to St. Nicholas, more churches need to "remythologize" this hero of the faith, said Parker.

Little solid historical information is known about Nicholas except that he was born into a wealthy family and, after the early death of his pious parents, he entered a monastery and became a bishop. Some early writers claim he participated in the Council of Nicea and, when theological debate failed, that he punched a heretic who argued that Jesus was not fully divine.

"The mental image of Santa Claus punching out Arius ... has to fundamentally change the way one would ever see Santa Claus again," said Parker. "While I might not agree with his methods, I certainly admire his passion for Christological orthodoxy."

Nicholas was imprisoned under the Emperor Diocletian, tortured and then hailed as a "confessor" because he refused to renounce his faith. He was released under Constantine and died around 350 A.D.

Another detail in accounts of his life is that Nicholas gave away his inheritance helping the poor. One famous icon shows him taking small bags of gold to parents who could not provide dowries for their daughters, which meant they could not marry. Thus, the bishop would rescue the girls from lives as slaves or prostitutes by dropping gold coins through their windows during the night. These gifts often fell into their stockings, which were hung up to dry.

This unforgettable image of was especially popular with children. Through the centuries, this story blended with other legends in other lands. The result was Father Christmas, Pere Noel and many others, including Sinter Klaas, who came with the Dutch to New York City.

Now Santa is everywhere, the smiling face on one of American culture's most popular exports -- the holiday season formerly known as Christmas.

"In the circles that I run in, people can get pretty worked up about things like this," said Parker. "These are they people who keep saying that they want to put Christ back into Christmas. So while they're doing that, why not put the real St. Nicholas back into the picture as well. He was a bishop. He cared for the poor. He was a great Christian leader who defended the faith.

"That's all good, isn't it? Wouldn't it be good to reclaim that?"