Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Real Santa Claus

Last year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I posted a four-part series looking at Biblical messages found in some of my favorite Christmas programs. I'll post links to those posts at the bottom of this page, for easy reference.

Young Natalie Wood pulls on Edmund Gwenn's beard
to find out if he might really be Santa Claus
Today, I'd like to talk about a couple more holiday classics. First, there's Miracle on 34th Street. Although there have been several versions, I don't think you can beat the 1947 original. Edmund Gwenn, stars as Kris Kringle, an elderly man who gets a job as a department store Santa and makes a big stir by insisting (and eventually proving) he's the real deal!

The other classic I want to mention today is... Ernest Saves Christmas! I realize it's not really on the same level as Miracle (which won multiple Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture), but it's a lot of fun, and I like to watch it every year! Here, Douglas Seale is an aging Santa Claus looking for someone to take his place. These two movies are very different from each other, I know, but Gwenn and Seale both make excellent Santa Clauses, in my opinion!

I think part of what I like about these two movies (and the reason I brought them both up today) is the fact that they both ask the question: What if Santa Claus was a real person?

Of course, Santa, as the world knows him today, is a jolly old man who has a belly that shakes like a bowlful of jelly when he laughs, keeps a list of which children have been naughty or nice, and flies around in a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer every Christmas Eve to deliver presents to children all around the world. He slides down the chimney with ease, fills stockings, leaves gifts around the Christmas tree, eats a few cookies with milk, and then slides up the chimney again to rush to the next house. With his long white beard and his trademark red and white suit, he is instantly recognizable, and he's long been a favorite character among children. Most adults, though (with the exception of Ernest P. Worrell, apparently), would have a problem accepting the idea of a real-life Santa like that... and for good reason!

Why would any sane adult
believe in Santa Claus?!
In addition to the fantastical magic side of Santa, many adults would say he often represents nothing more than the overly-commercial side of Christmas. He not only delivers, but often sells a wide variety of products during the holiday season, as you can see him in ads for everything from candy and soft drinks to electronics.

While we're at it, I know many Christians dislike Santa because they see him as a strictly secular character. I made a point to look in stores this year - I have not seen a single Christmas card combining Santa with a religious theme. There is a picture that sometimes floats around social media sites showing Santa kneeling at Jesus' manger (which is a little strange to me). There's also the song, "Here Comes Santa Claus", which includes the (also strange) line, "Santa knows we're all God's children. That makes everything right." Other than that... well, you won't find Santa Claus in the Bible, that's for sure!

But despite all this, I have to say I love Santa, and I'll tell you why...

For one thing, to me, Santa represents the spirit of generosity. I mean, if the legend were true, Santa would basically be giving away billions of dollars in presents every year! That kind of generosity is something the Bible definitely supports! (1 Timothy 6:17-19; Matthew 10:42) Santa gives with cheerful generosity, too, simply for the joy of making others happy, and this is a beautiful model for us! (2 Corinthians 9:6-8) That's why it's so refreshing to me, in Miracle on 34th Street, when we actually see Santa Claus fighting against commercialization and insisting that the happiness of children is more important than trying to make money for any company. We see a similar attitude in Ernest Saves Christmas, where Santa's gifts come not from a store, but from his magic sack, and the old Santa has put off giving the job to another man for too many years because he loves the joy of giving so much!

The other thing I love about jolly old St. Nick is that... he's real!

Here I'm not talking about the mythical man pictured in movies like Miracle on 34th Street and Ernest Saves Christmas and the like, but I'm referring to the historical Saint Nicholas, whose story can be traced (tenuously) back to the Bible. Nicholas was born in about 275 AD in a small port city known as Patara, in the southern portion of Lycia, in modern-day Turkey. Nicholas' parents, Epiphaneus and Nona, belonged to the Christian community there, which some claim may have been established when the apostle Paul visited Patara briefly (200 years earlier) on his third missionary journey (Acts 21:1).

Saint Nicholas
Whether it's true that young Nicholas' church was first founded by Paul or not, that's not important. What's important is that Nicholas grew up knowing about Jesus and seeing the example of his parents, who were reportedly very generous to the poor because they understood the life-changing message of the Gospel. Even though Nicholas' parents died when he was very young, their faith in action made such an impact that Nicholas gave away his inheritance to the poor. As an adult, Nicholas went on to become a bishop in the church, and he became very wealthy, but he was constantly giving. By the time he died in the year 343, Nicholas had given away nearly everything he had.

Now, our modern image of Santa has become a distorted image of Nicholas, but that doesn't mean his legacy has been lost. The idea that Santa comes in the middle of the night and gives his gifts secretly can be traced back to stories about the way Nicholas went about giving gifts to the poor. The tradition of hanging stockings for Santa to fill likewise goes back to tales about Nicholas. In fact, Nicholas made such an impact during his lifetime that, since then, hundreds of bishops, popes and cathedrals have taken his name so they could be identified with him, and the legend and stories have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries! But the whole thing goes back to a little boy whose life was changed by the true message of Christmas - that God sent his only Son to be our Savior!

"She will bear a son, and you are to 
name him Jesus ["the Lord saves"],
for he will save his people from their sins."
- Matthew 1:21

And the spirit of St. Nicholas lives on today, not just in fictional tales of Santa Claus, but in the lives of real people who are touched by the Gospel message enough to be inspired to great acts of generosity.
  • It lives on in people like the anonymous businessman in Pennsylvania who goes out every year and gives away hundred dollar bills to strangers just for the sake of planting hope in peoples' lives [CLICK HERE for his amazing story].
  • It lives in the hundreds of Salvation Army volunteers who donate their time to ring bells outside stores every year to collect money for the poor.
  • It lives in the hearts of people everywhere who give what they have - whether it's a little or a lot - to share joy and hope and peace with others because of the blessings God has given them and the knowledge that God sent his Son because he loves ALL people!

I like Santa Claus because he reminds me how the spirit of Christ got inside St. Nicholas and changed his life, and his generosity has inspired and changed the lives of countless others who continue to pass it on! That's the power of Christmas!

So I'd like to know, how has Christmas changed your life? What difference does the Gospel make in the way you treat others? You don't have to be wealthy like Pennsylvania's "Secret Santa" to be generous and loving. I'm sure you can look at your life and see many ways God has blessed you and enabled you to bless others.

The message of Christmas is that the light of God has come into the world (see John 1:1-14). How will you - like Santa, like St. Nick, or like so many others - how will you bear witness to the light this Christmas?


Here are links to last year's Christmassy articles, in case you missed them:
  1. Loving Charlie Brown (based on A Charlie Brown Christmas)
  2. Is It a Wonderful Life? (based on It's a Wonderful Life)
  3. Overcoming the Grinch (based on How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
  4. The Cure for Scrooge-itis (based on A Christmas Carol)

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Please comment on this post. Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Is there something I left out or should have covered? Was something confusing? I want to know what you think!