Some years ago Noah and Laura, two of my students, gave me a treasured Christmas gift: a ceramic Santa kneeling at the manger worshipping Jesus.
I am well aware that there are those who would like to eradicate the legend of Santa, but he does typify what every Christian should be like for He is described as being full of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, and faith. (cf. Gal.5)
The Santa custom actually began as a person named Nicholas who was born around the year 300 A.D. in what is now Turkey. He was a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. When his parents died and he inherited their wealth, he simply gave it away in the form of gifts—primarily to poor children. If the recipient discovered his identity, he would request that they tell no one. From this came the custom of gifts coming from an unnamed Santa. We should not lie to our children about who Santa is, but enjoy the custom while making certain we teach them that Christmas is all about God giving His Son Jesus to deliver us from our sin and bring us into His family.
St. Nicholas, the generous gift-giver, was a church leader throughout his life and known for his warm personality, his compassionate spirit, and boldness in preaching. In later generations his death on December sixth was celebrated by giving gifts. Christians were already celebrating the birth of Jesus on a Roman festival day December 25, and at some point along the way, the St. Nicholas remembrance became a part of the Christmas celebration with the exchange of gifts as a reminder of the greatest gift of all—Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we meet the Wise Men—kings from the East—who recognized Jesus as God’s gift to them and brought Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Likewise we acknowledge the gift that others are to us by giving something appropriate to them. It may be a gift of time, thanksgiving, a card, or something of substance. A gift is not given with the expectation of receiving a gift in return but rather in the spirit of having already received something. It is more blessed to give than to receive. St. Nicholas’ life reflected this attitude of heart. He is known as Jolly old St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Papa Noel, Father Christmas, and various other names in different countries and languages.
It is difficult to find a person who looks happier than a “Santa” with his twinkling eyes and joyful laugh. It is difficult to find a person so eager and ready to give to others with no thought of getting something in return. It is difficult to find a person so willing to forgive and be gracious to the smallest of offenders. Yet, these are precisely the characteristics that we Christians are to have day after day; they are the fruit of the Holy Spirit. If people all ages are drawn to these characteristics in Santa, how much more are they drawn to spirit-filled Christians who are in circulation 365 days a year rather than just a few days around Christmas time.
During the Christmas season, each time we see his symbol, let’s remember the life of St. Nicholas who gave himself and his wealth and time to those around him as he served Jesus. Perhaps someone will look at you this Christmas and say, “Hi Santa, I see Jesus in you!” The Santa in our house should be filled with Ho-Ho-Ho laughter that does our heart good like medicine. Such joy comes from knowing Jesus and is kept in manifestation by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Thank the Lord for St. Nicholas who worshipped Jesus and whose unselfish life continues to point us to Jesus Christ—the Greatest Gift ever given. No matter how good anyone may appear to be, how perfect, how jovial, or how benevolent, only Jesus is the real source of these characteristics for He alone is the giver of the abundant life. Above all else, JESUS IS THE CENTER AND FOCUS OF CHRISTMAS. May all of our activities and celebrations point to HIM.
Notes: On Christmas Eve when our children were small, we always read the biblical account of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke, but I also read “The Night before Christmas” story to them and under the tree they would find gifts from “Santa.”
P.S. This is the first time I’ve had my picture taken with a Mall Santa, but it goes with the above story about how I relate to him. -December 2016
(c) Above article adapted and expanded from East of Bethlehem, Chapter 13, by C. Yvonne Karl. Brentwood Press, 2003. firstname.lastname@example.org)