Throughout this season, we’ve been talking at church about the traditions which surround Christmas. This coming Sunday, we’re going to dive into the tradition of Santa Claus, which for a pastor is kind of like treading on thin ice. My daughter is one of many children who attend worship, and the last thing I want to do on a Sunday morning is take away their belief in Santa!
However, there’s also great inspiration to draw from the historical Saint Nicholas. St. Nicholas lived in the 3rd century and was a bishop of the church. He was renowned for his generosity and compassion towards the poor and it is those acts of kindness that have given inspiration to the tradition of Santa today.
When I was in college, I had the opportunity to study abroad. Sixteen of us set out for a semester of backpacking around the Mediterranean—our journey would take us from Crete to Egypt to Turkey to Greece to Italy and finally to southern France. The goal was to study the development and influence of Greek and Roman culture. It was an amazing trip, but also very intense and tiring. We were in “class” six days a week, visiting archaeological sites and museums.
Much of my learning from that trip had nothing to do with Classical studies. Half the fun was learning to live off whatever I could carry in my backpack, and figuring out how to navigate new cities, cultures and languages! One important lesson was money management. We were on our own to pay for lodging and food, so that meant carrying around a few thousand dollars in traveler’s checks and keeping track of expenses for a period of five months!
While I was there, I had the desire to continue a practice of tithing—giving away 10% of what I spent during the week. Sometimes I was able to give to churches we attended, but not every week allowed for that in the schedule. Often I found myself trying to find creative ways to give—to people on the street sometimes, although I knew that wasn’t the most effective way to give. About half-way through the trip, though, another opportunity presented itself.
Around mid-terms, the morale of the group started to sink. Some of this was because the professor who traveled with us was a tough grader, and many people’s midterms were lower than expected. Throw in homesickness and just general weariness from all the travel, and I realized that we needed something to boost our spirits. So I decided to put my tithe towards small “pick-me-ups” for the group.
Sometimes I’d buy chocolates for the whole group to share. Sometimes I’d do something specific for someone who was having a rough day. Always I tried to do it in secret, and I started signing my gifts with a simple line: “From the Classics Angel.” At first the secrecy was about modesty. But eventually the secrecy became part of the fun—the planning of how to do the gifts so no one would find out, or engaging in the debates among the group about who the “Classics Angel” was!
But then something amazing happened. Around Easter, some “Classics Angel” gifts started to pop up that didn’t come from me. Before long, hardly a day went by without some “Classics Angel” gift being shared. To this day, I have no idea how many people participated in the conspiracy—it might have been two or three of us, or it might have been all 16 getting in on the act!
I wonder if something similar happened to St. Nicholas. If he had the experience of hearing about some act of kindness that was attributed to him, but that he had nothing to do with. And maybe he thought about setting the record straight, maybe he was uncomfortable with getting credit for someone else’s kindness. Or perhaps he was honored. I doubt he ever could have foreseen a time when literally millions of people would be performing acts of kindness—some to neighbors, some to strangers—and every single one of them claiming it was done by “Saint Nick.”
We have no idea how the historical St. Nicholas would have felt about this. But what we do know is that he understood doing something in the name of someone else, because that’s exactly what he was doing. After all, his acts of kindness were done in the name of Christ. That’s part of what Christmas is about—we express love not in our own name, but in the name of someone else, the One who started the whole ball rolling because He came to share His life with us.
And that, for me, is the true power of traditions—participating in an act which goes back, from generation to generation and century to century and saint to saint, stretching back to connect us to that moment when God came in human form and blessed our world with His love. So go ahead, play Santa this year, and know that God delights when your giving is done in the name of one who has shown us how to love.