Around this time of year, faith-filled folk start decrying The Commercialization of Christmas. Secular Christmas music (Christmas music during Advent!), “holiday” trees, Starbucks cups, and materialist impulses all come under fire, but perhaps most controversial of all is Jolly Old St. Nicholas in his Coca-Cola inspired red and white.
The real St. Nicholas—a church father recently made meme-famous for punching heretic Arius in the nose—bears little resemblance to the fat bearded gentlemen who hurries down chimneys and brings gifts to children whose names are recorded on cosmic “Naughty” and “Nice” lists. Not to mention the flying reindeer. Indeed, the fables associated with Santa Claus are so fantastic that even children have difficulty believing in him after a while, and some Christians worry that growing out of belief in Santa Claus will pave the way for growing out of belief in God.
I do not worry about this.
For starters, God has never done anything so silly as ride in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, one of whose noses glows like the butt of a lightning bug. When God does big, impressive things, it is for big, impressive reasons, like freeing the chosen people from slavery in Egypt or freeing all people from slavery to Sin. (Nice job creating and then fulfilling a foreshadowing clue there, God, thank you for that!)
The thing is, when God gives, he gives completely. God gives differently from how Grandma or your little brother give.
When Grandma gives you an ugly sweater for Christmas, 99 times out of 100 she does NOT know it is ugly AND she really, really wants you to wear it. And because Mom knows Grandma loves that sweater, guess what you’re wearing in this year’s school pictures? Yup, the ugly sweater. When your little brother gives you a nerf gun, what he’s really saying is something like “I got you something you won’t like so I can have it” or “please play with me, pleasepleaseplease!”
Most of the time, when people give other people gifts, they come with strings attached. When a man gives a woman a diamond ring, he expects her to marry him in return. If things don’t work out, he expects to get that ring back. When mom and dad spend money on an expensive summer camp, they expect you to attend summer camp and not cause too much ruckus while there so they can have some quiet time to themselves. When Aunt Mable gives you oil paints and a canvas, she expects you to paint a picture.
God does not give like Grandma, Aunt Mable, and all the other people do. Instead, God gives freely and completely.
When God gave the Chosen People their freedom, he set them up in a paradise in the desert, gave them a few simple rules designed to keep them safe, and said “Go for it.” He didn’t say “I’ll be checking in later to make sure you deserve the Promised Land” or “I will really only be happy if you wear that Team One God sweater I got you,” he just said “be good.”
When God gave all people their freedom by Incarnating in blood and flesh with the wailing tears of a newborn infant, and allowing Godself in the human person of Jesus the Nazorean to grow up and die a bloody, fleshy death with the heartbreaking tears of an adult condemned, he said, “Remember those rules I gave the Chosen People? It’s more a spirit-of-the-law kind of thing, the important thing is, Be Good.”
Think about it, God—who could have Incarnated as something cool like a dude who flies around on a sleigh pulled by wingless antlered cattle—Incarnated as an ordinary little boy who grows up and dies an ignoble death. God did so because he wanted to give the entire human race the gift of salvation, he did so at an incredible cost to himself. This is not a cheap-o gift picked up at the Heavenly Dollar Store, it literally cost more than a pound of flesh.
And you know what? It’s a no-strings-attached gift. Every member of the human race is offered this gift (we call that “grace”) and every member of the human race can do with it what he or she pleases. We can love God and thank him for his gift every moment of every day, or we can curse God and worship Satan every moment of every day, or we can do something in between (we call that “free will”). God will not be calling up to make sure we are wearing the sweater—or expecting us to say “thank you, it’s just what I always wanted” even when we don’t mean it.
God gives, and then he lets us take it from there.
So what does this have to do with Santa Claus? Well, Santa Claus gives like God gives.
On Christmas morning when kids unwrap gifts from Grandma, little brother, mom, dad, and Aunt Mable, they know there are strings attached. Mom’s feelings are going to be hurt if her daughter doesn’t make her something from the EZBake Oven; little brother is really looking forward to a nerf gun war after breakfast, etc. If you fail to honor the little obligations attached to those gifts by invisible strings, your relationships with the gift-giver is jeopardized. Ignore the strings attached to those gifts long enough, and Grandma might cut you out of the will, Mom might stop trying to give you anything (even help paying college tuition), and you might go years avoiding eye contact with your little brother at holiday parties when you are both adults. If a man offers you a diamond ring, you accept, keep it, but refuse to marry him. . .well, there is no way that friendship is staying intact.
But when God gives the gift of salvation and you shrug it off or do not pursue it right away, God does not cut you out of the will, stop talking to you, or end the friendship. God gave you the gift of salvation at the price of total self-sacrifice, and he allows you the freedom to use—or abuse—the gift any way you please. And he will never stop offering you that gift.
When kids unwrap gifts from Santa Claus on Christmas morning, there are no invisible strings dangling off those gifts. Santa offers gifts just like God: sure, there’s a right way to use that elf-made drone from Bed, Bath, and Beyond, but if you crash it into the neighbor’s pool the first time out, Santa will not give you his disappointed face or send you to your room. Santa might even bring you a new model next year.
Santa teaches us to give like God gives, with perfect generosity. We do not have to give Santa anything in return (although he won’t turn down a few cookies, just like God won’t turn down our prayers of thanksgiving). If we are not thrilled with Santa’s gifts, he doesn’t mind if we keep them in the back of the closet or drop them off at Goodwill (just like God is willing to receive the latecomers into heaven). Even if we claim not to believe in Santa, he still brings us gifts (just like God offers the gift of salvation to atheists and agnostics).
In my household we teach our children that Santa Claus is another name for Saint Nicholas, that St. Nicholas is long dead but also fully alive in heavenly beatitude. We leave the reindeer-chimney-every-child-in-the-world-gets-gifts thing somewhat ambiguous. If a few of the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning are signed as from St. Nick (and the more expensive, exciting gifts typically are, because elfmade objects are often a little out of mom and dad’s price range), then our kids have the opportunity to experience receiving a gift from someone who is perfectly generous. They get to experience God-style giving in a very concrete way they can understand.
When my toddler unwraps his very own vacuum (it’s the only thing he reeeaaally wants—don’t judge) from Santa, he can use it because he wants to and how he wants to, not according to whatever subtext his child’s brain might ascribe to the gift if Mommy gave it. He can use the vacuum to clean up after breakfast or to battle monsters under the bed—Santa is fine with both.
I recently read an article by a mother who teaches her children to become a Santa once they start to doubt the fables. She gives her kids the mission of finding someone who needs a gift given with perfect generosity—she gives the example of a crotchety old lady from down the street who hates kids—and her children rise to the occasion, giving to those in need with perfect generosity, signing off their gifts as “from Santa,” and never, ever taking credit. No strings attached.
I really like this idea, but my kids will not become Santas. They will become St. Nicks.
As the reindeer and elves grow more suspicious, we will remind our children that St. Nick is a real person, long dead but fully alive with God. St. Nick became a saint because he loved God and strove to be like God; St. Nick became like God in the way that God gives. This is, after all, why St. Nick is associated with Christmas. On Christmas Day we celebrate God’s perfectly generous gift of Godself in the Incarnation, and St. Nick visits us in the dark of night on Christmas Eve to deliver gifts with perfect generosity.
My children will spend the first years of their lives enjoying the freedom of receiving gifts given to them with perfect generosity by St. Nick. When they are ready, they will learn the joy—and sometimes the pain—of giving gifts with perfect generosity. In their more reflective moments as they grow into teenagers and then adults, I hope they will have a little insight into God’s generosity from both a human and Godly perspective.
The gift of giving and receiving generosity is one of the best gifts I can give my children. On Christmas Eve we will leave the flue open in our proverbial chimney for St. Nick to show my kids what God’s generosity looks like.