Saturday, December 17, 2011

Santa Claus = St. Nicholas?

Enjoy this lovely image of St. Nicholas from artist Susan Seals, and purchase a print here. A friend of mine posted on a message board wondering what I've heard many Christians (Protestant and Catholic) wonder: how a person can encourage his or her children to believe in Santa Claus, as opposed to St. Nicholas, the Catholic saint. Are they really the same person?

First, it must be pointed out that Santa Claus IS St. Nick, at least literally. Santa means "Saint" and "Claus" is an abbreviated form of Nicholas (as in Ni-KLAUS). In our house, Baby Jesus gives the gifts (and hence all requests for toys are addressed to him).

We tell our kids the gifts come from Baby Jesus but St. Nicholas delivers them, and St. Nicholas lives in heaven, which is a lot nicer than the North Pole. We let them think what they want about reindeer and elves.

With our own children, we don't really encourage them to watch movies that propose to explain the Saint as a secular phenomenon, whether Miracle on 34th Street or The Santa Clause, so as not to confuse them. Of course there is no Mrs. Claus (Fr. Fasano says it's an easy mistake to make: she's his housekeeper.) And as I've blogged before, we love the book Country Angel Christmas by Tomie de Paola, which features a Santa Claus who lives in heaven (reindeer and all). I think that helps them picture him more clearly.

Our pastor Fr. Jerome Fasano (whom I think is the best homilist in the US) gave us a stern lecture Dec. 6th weekend when he first came to our parish, talking about the terrible scandal of so many Catholics in American accepting heresy, even unwittingly, because of lack of teaching. He said that he was pleased to see how devout and faithful our parish was, but he suspected us of harboring one heresy he found absolutely unacceptable: that there is no Santa Claus. (There was a relieved shout of laughter from the congregation at his words.) Now he gives a similar version of the homily seasonally, telling us the facts about St. Nicholas (for instance, that he was imprisoned for the faith, and that he attended the Council of Nicea, where he distinguished himself by punching Arius the heretic in the nose), and urging us to not deny our children devotion to this wonderful saint.

Some people object, saying that the popular image of St. Nicholas hardly resembles the actual life of the saint. My surmisal is this: if even half the legends about St. Nicholas are true, then I'd think that a man who spent his time on earth rescuing little girls from prostitution and little boys from sadistic butchers would be perfectly contented spending his heaven helping children receive dolls and Legos and basically serving as one of the hallmarks of their childhood innocence.

What is certain is that every since Nicholas went to heaven, he's been wildly popular with the faithful, and the accusation that he's more popular thant Jesus is far from a new one. (See various medieval miracle plays to the saint, in which Our Savior's name is barely mentioned.) Which leads me to think he really was a splendid personality on earth.


Jen Ambrose said...

I was in Front Royal that weekend, and it was a great homily at the 10 am Mass. My 8-year-old, who was already hashing out St. Nicholas' (versus Santa Claus) was in rapt attention because Father's explanation jived with what he's been figuring out on his own.

Anonymous said...

In Holland (a calvinistic country) st. Nicolas is huge and the festivities for him are much much bigger than Christmas. When after the reformation the country leaders wanted to get rid of those celebrations for a Catholic saint, the angry crowd marched into the streets... and so they kept it all the way it was, up until today.
When Dutch emigrants went to the US they celebrated st. Nicolas and I always heard that over the years he melted together with the figure of 'father Christmas'.
I never received a single Christmaspresent in my life, people from other countries are usually shocked to hear this :). For us, Christmas was always only about baby Jesus.

sarah e. said...

Thank you for writing this! My husband and I (both Catholics) are struggling with what to teach our children. Knowing what other Catholic families do is a help.