Happy Santa Claus Day! We Americans derive our Santa Claus from immigrants’ celebrations of St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6). (I have heard that we call him Santa Claus because we misheard how Italians pronounced “Santo Nicholas;” I don’t know if that is true, but it’s as good a story as any.) St. Nicholas was a fourth century bishop in Turkey. A couple of legends make him the patron saint of children and sailors, but in our house he is the patron saint of gift giving.
Jesus said that we should give so that our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing,
That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly (Matthew 6:4).
St. Nicholas exemplified this kind of giving. Needy families in his hometown of Myra would awaken to find that bags of money had been tossed into their homes through open windows. That is where we get our otherwise creepy idea that once a year a fat old man shimmies down our chimneys and gives us presents in exchange for milk and cookies.
A number of years ago, when Kyla was still our only child, we made a few changes to the way we celebrated Christmas.
- We began to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. On December 5, we would have Kyla leave her shoes on the back porch, and after she was asleep, we would put little chocolate coins in them. Then we would tell her the story of how St. Nicholas gave gold to a needy family.
- We helped our daughter share the celebration. We also gave Kyla coins she could share with her class at daycare. (She was too young to make the obvious connection between the coins in her shoes and the coins for her friends.)
- We brought St. Nicholas back at Christmas. On December 25th, our kids find some presents from us and some from “St. Nick.” (We do not give them a lot of presents, either.) This allows us to subordinate Santa to the Saint. Our children thus get to participate in their culture while also learning to discern unhealthy aspects of it.
We keep some parts of the Santa Claus story. St. Nick gets a sleigh but no wife (bishops were celibate). Our kids still act like kids on Christmas morning. They are excited to get presents, but they know that “Santa” does not exist for their sakes. St. Nick gives because Christ gives, and so should they!
Now that Kyla is older, it is fun to watch her leave secret presents for her brothers and friends. She understands why giving should be in secret. Nor was she traumatized when she figured out that we were the ones leaving her presents, just as she had been leaving her presents for others. Kyla had already learned to think critically about Santa Claus. She knew that certain parts of the story were made up, but St. Nicholas, and the lessons he teaches, live on in what we do for others for Christ’s sake.