Spirit of real St. Nick has much to teach us

December 22, 1997

Dear Editor: I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon, 115 West 95th Street, in a letter to the New York Sun, Sept. 21, 1897.

Among my favorite Christmas movies is the original Miracle on 34th Street, the tale of one Kris Kringle, Santa Claus at New York City’s huge Macy’s department store, a Santa so real he even sends shoppers to competing stores to ensure children receive the best gifts.

That the jolly guy is fingered by a mental therapist as a public threat doesn’t bode well for him when he’s before a court determining if he should be committed.

Still, Kringle has a few things going for him, like an amazing Santa look, solid Claus know-how and a true giving heart. Children testify he’s the real thing. If he’s not, is there evidence? What about the 1897 New York Sun?

One hundred years ago, the Sun published a now world-famous editorial responding to Virginia O’Hanlon, a very real eight-year-old girl who wrote simply: “Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?”

These stories are enjoyable because they’re credible. As Sun writer Francis Church replied, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”

The original Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop from present-day Turkey who was canonized after an exemplary life of giving, would agree. Sadly, he would frown on many of our modern modes of observing the season.

That’s because there is much that is neither holy nor real. Near the time of Nicholas, Emperor Constantine jammed Christ’s birthday celebrations into “natalis solis invicti,” an agricultural, solar festival of the Romans.

It was a top-down approach that has left the modern world sifting Christmas’s deeper significance from its pagan roots and ever-evolving folklore. Accordingly, in North America, gift-giving has become a holiday sickness and, like Nicholas, Jesus has become a mere shadow of his historic self.

If he’s not poking his head through extra tinsel, little Jesus is left in his manger, sleeping in heavenly peace, implications of his birth all-too-sanitized by our culture’s obsessive compulsion with Mr. Clean.

I was reminded of this on the opening night of this year’s St. Thomas Holiday Fantasy of Lights while in front of a rather unconventional nativity scene with Mary, Joseph, animals, straw, the manger, and . . . no baby Jesus.

“People don’t get it,” said a nearby women who helped make the work. “He’s risen.”

“Oh,” I said, lights going on. “Yes, of course.”

Allowing Jesus out of his manger runs against the season’s homey sentiments. Even when we let him grow up, we still prefer a Jesus who’s palatable, with conventional, if not effeminate, features and a message that’s prudently balanced, like that of an Aristotle.

Yet Christ’s birth, brief ministry and death were all unconventional. As magnetic as he was, Jesus was puzzling and even infuriating. Deserted by his friends, called a devil, and nailed to a stake of wood, he was hardly the picture of an integrated, happily-adjusted man.

Journalist-author Philip Yancy asks in The Jesus I Never Knew, what government would execute a Mister Rogers or Captain Kangaroo who told people to be nice to each other?

So, yes, this is Christmas, and what have we done? Why do I, like others, feel such a strange ambivalence to much of it? Is it because glib cheeriness simply isn’t in the original?

If God truly did enter the world’s stage in the flesh, he clearly played by its harsh rules. Born in a barn? A mule could have stepped on him for heaven’s sake.

Christ even chose a family tree filled with public skeletons. His bloodline runs from Old Testament scandals, including incest, prostitution and not-so-royal adultery covered by murder, showing a God less interested in avoiding disgraces than in transforming them.

This is what the gospels tell us God offers us: himself, not a gift peddled by store management to make a buck, but an appropriate gift perfectly suited for humanity’s children.

Did the maker of all things really descend to our fifth-rate, dirty little ball of a planet? Asking the question seriously changes Christmas from a shallow time of coziness to a meaningful event in the proverbial courtroom. There we can listen to the untainted story of a mysterious Jesus, the Christ of an empty manger, and reach a verdict.

We can be hallowed and lifted, and, like the Sun’s bright editorial of 1897, say yes, with faith we can push aside the curtain and be filled with the reality of Christmas’s joy. Or we can be left in a thinly glossed celebration of dissatisfaction, hounded by the season’s contradictory forces, and the world unredemptiveness.

Do we need to ask the real Mr. Christmas to stand up?

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December 22, 1997 • Posted in ,
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