As Simone becomes older, I have been wondering what to tell her about Santa Claus. I have been worried about creating an “I want” monster, especially when I want her to think about giving, not receiving. I am also aware of how Santa Claus has become the icon for secular Christmas, a holiday whose focus is to be the Christ child. What is a mother to do, who simply wants to raise a happy, humble child but also help her navigate being a Christian in a secular world?
I wonder how Santa Claus, or Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, would feel about the modern challenges of Christmas. Even though today is St. Nicholas’ feast day, the details about St. Nicholas’ life are a bit unclear. Living in Asia around the 300s, what seems to be agreed upon is his care for sailors and seafarers, for children and the poor. There are legends of him being a gift bearer – whether the gifts were small coins in children’s shoes or bags of gold for poor women. What does seem certain is that Nicholas had a love of people, and he expressed that love through tokens of affection – unexpected gifts for all.
Our challenge 1700 years later is that gift giving and the sharing of love has become tainted by our consumerist society. Now we often give gifts because we feel like we have to; we don’t want to leave someone out or not reciprocate in gift giving; we may feel pressure to buy or to get just the right thing – especially on tight budgets; and we don’t want to be embarrassed by getting a smaller gift for someone than they give us. We can get so stressed about gift giving that we forget why we wanted to give something in the first place.
We get some encouragement today from our Epistle lesson. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; … if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” This is where the gift giving started – out of love. But love doesn’t have to be expressed in gifts – we love because loving is holy work. Loving transforms others and transforms us. God is made manifest in those expressions of love.
I think St. Nicholas got this. He didn’t give gifts because of some cute letter from a child. He gave because he was so filled with love that he could not live another way. The gifts were an expression of the God who was transforming him and others.
So this year, find a way to make this Christmas about love. Presents aren’t inherently bad – St. Nicholas gave with the best of them. But remember why you are giving them – a full heart that witnesses the exorbitant love of God for all.