Every year, as Christmas approaches, the discussions begin in parenting circles: How do you deal with Santa Claus?
Some embrace the myth wholeheartedly, complete with the recent addition of the Elf on the Shelf, Santa’s faithful spy (since, apparently, kids these days are less open to the idea of an omniscient Santa than previous generations). Others reject it completely, fearing that perpetrating even so innocent a deception will damage their children’s trust in them, especially as regards things invisible and miraculous.
We Orthodox have a better option in the celebration of St Nicholas on his feast day (Dec 6/19), which provides an opportunity for stocking-stuffing without worry about overshadowing the wonder of the Nativity when its day arrives. Yet, especially for those of us converts who were raised in Santa-free households, there can remain a slight discomfort to the tradition of gifts from St. Nicholas. Is it really just a baptized version of the same Santa game? When our children discover our role in these gifts, will their faith be shaken?
A look at the wider cultural context and effect of Santa as opposed to that of St. Nicholas may well provide an answer.
In America, Santa Claus is understood to simply be a game, an innocent trick played on the young by their elders. A sincere belief in Santa Claus professed by someone “old enough to know better” is considered a mark of extreme gullibility, on par with belief in the Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny. The fears of Santa-rejectors are realized when atheists mockingly put belief in God in the same category.
For much of our culture, the Santa myth is the great disillusionment metaphor: When you were a child, your parents (well-meaningly enough) taught you this fun-but-harmless myth that a jolly fat old man with reindeer and elves and such brought you your Christmas presents. Then, one day, you got wise and realized that your parents were actually the ones buying your presents, so obviously no Santa Claus had anything to do with it and it’s all at best a silly game. Modernists of whatever stripe then proceed to apply this common experience to whatever ancient traditional nonsense they wish to reject, because obviously now that we’re wiser science has explained what really happens. Postmodernists may be more nuanced and “open-minded,” freely admitting that the whole Santa thing is just a construct, a game, but since everything else is a construct, too, why not believe in Santa? What could it hurt?
But the tradition of gifts from Saint Nicholas did not arise in such a culture; it predates modernism by a long shot. Its cultural function is different.
We Orthodox know that Saint Nicholas is real; we know that he truly is loving and generous and kind, that by his intercessions he still helps and gives gifts to us. We want our children to know him and love him as one who loves, cares for, and prays for them. We also know that reality is much more than can be explained by mere cause-and-effect. The simple fact that we buy the presents and place them in the stockings is not in any way proof that they are not from Saint Nicholas. The Communion of the Saints, which we are part of insofar as we are partakers of Christ, unites us so closely that Saint Nicholas can give gifts through our hands just as surely as God puts food on our table through our salaries and kitchens.
We might even go so far as to say, just as God sends rain on the just and unjust, providing food even for those who refuse to acknowledge Him; perhaps even so Saint Nicholas is delighted to give gifts to children even through those who think it’s just a game, who think reality is cause-and-effect, dollars-and-cents, who doubt the possibility of saints and would never dream of venerating one.
Maybe this is why the Santa myth continues to survive in our darkened culture, even caricatured and distorted as it has become, because our dear Holy Father Nicholas just cannot help himself; he still loves to give to children.
Because of this, when our child asks whether these gifts are really from Saint Nicholas, we can wholeheartedly answer yes. We need not fear when they want to know how, when they realize whose hands did the buying and the stocking stuffing. We can embrace the opportunity to teach them how the Saints love us through the hands of others.
Perhaps they will want to lend their hands to Saint Nicholas, too.