Saving Saint Nicholas (Oh and Christmas!): Whitterings, February 2006

Last month I wrote about Advent during Epiphany. Now I am writing about Christmas as we approach Lent. I seem to be unable to catch up!

In a recent article in the London Times I read about a new society founded by the Communications Director of the Anglican Communion, Canon James Rosenthal. It is called the St Nicholas Society. Its aim is to encourage and support celebrations surrounding the Saintly Archbishop of Myrna. It seems harmless enough and rather “likable if that is sort of thing one likes” (Miss Jean Brodie.)

I am unashamedly Catholic in my use of extra liturgical devotions to foster thought and reflection on various aspects of Christian life. I bless the Christmas Creche at Christmas, Candles at Candlemass, chalk at the feast of the Epiphany, palms for Palm Sunday, pets for St Francis’s day, and graves for All Souls Day,. Each has its own significance and adds a bit of flavour to the liturgical year. The Blessing of Chalk, in case it is a new one to you, is for the traditional blessing of houses on Epiphany. The children take the blessed chalk, if the parish priest does not visit the house himself, and with it they write above the main door 20 + K + M + B + 06 whilst saying the prayer: “The three Wise Men Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar followed the star of God’s Son who became man two thousand and six years ago. May Christ bless our homes and remain with us through the new year”. Then they draw crowns over the three letters representing the names of the Wise men, write “Orate pro nobis” after the number of the year and ask a blessing on their home and their family.

So the idea of celebrating the feast of St Nicholas with a little more flare immediately appealed to me. The website ( offers ideas for hymns prayers, St Nicholas’s parades, children’s services as well as directions for the proper costume. St Nicholas, as an Archbishop, should be dressed in Episcopal robes. The Societies website suggests not borrowing the Diocesan Bishops Cope, Mitre and Crosier. So far so good. He is certainly a well loved Saint. He was the fourth century Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, now modern day Turkey, and tradition holds that he attended the Council of Nicaea. He is believed to have been persecuted and tortured for his faith. Legends surround him about his great love and devotion to his people especially the poor and children. One legend tells of his saving three poor girls from being sold into prostitution by secretly throwing presents of gold for their dowry through their fathers window at night. This gave rise to the custom of giving children gifts on his Feast day, the 6th of December. The name Santa Claus is attributed to him because the Dutch who came to the United States of America called him Sinte Klaas (Sinte = Saint & Klass = Cholas while the Nick was swallowed in a guttural stop). How he came to be associated with elves is unknown to me.

As I read more about the Society the more excited I became. The St Nicholas Society does not seek to concentrate attention on St Nicholas for the Saints sake but to draw attention back to Christ as the focus of Christmas. The St Nicholas celebrations are only one strategy in a much winder plan to reclaim Christmas traditions for those of us who are Christians and the Evangelistic opportunity for the Church for those who are not. It is not about reclaiming ‘power’ over Christmas but the Church unashamedly “owning” the Nativity. Canon Rosenthal (an Episcopalian Lay Canon) says:
“It is also a time to recapture St Nicholas, Bishop, disciple and true caregiver, replacing the department store Santa Clauses (aka Father Christmas). Santa's visitors have no clue, idea or notion that it was a Christian saint that was the original Mr Claus, a saint renowned for his goodness, his love and charity and his faith in Christ. Why shouldn't our children (and adults) and maybe the sales clerk know this fact - I think they should. The society is not opposed to celebrations, gift-giving or other holiday activities, but it does encourage a sanity in the amount of gifts bought and exchanged as well as allowing Christmas to remain a day of Christian celebration. There is no need for the secularised Santa Claus or Father Christmas when St Nicholas, who was born in 260AD and died on December 6, 343, provides a perfect model for care and gift giving. Santa is a commercial invention. St Nicholas is a servant of Christ and an example for us all to enjoy and emulate. The society believes that St Nicholas helps young and old see what the true spirit of Advent and Christmas can be for us all, especially for those who find the holidays very stressful. It is our hope that jolly old St Nicholas will become, once again, in English-speaking parts of the world, a focus of celebration in his true identity. Santa is not bad, but St Nicholas is just better. I believe there is a bit of the spirit of St Nicholas in all of us.”

The more I thought about it the more obvious it became. The theology of Saints in our church is that they point to Christ with their lives. We remember the Saints because by looking at their example we gain a deeper understanding of how to follow Christ in our own lives. They are Saints because with their actions and witness they revealed Christ to the world. St Nicholas pointed to Christ by his love, generosity and faith. When I consider what this Saintly Christian Archbishop who loved children in the name of Christ the Child has been turned into I shudder: a semi-pagan, magical, obese, consumerist, workaholic toy manufacturer, who keep NSA type spy technology to judge the moral barometer of all the world’s children, with a sweatshop full of little green men who work every day of the year but one. The Church has almost lost poor old St Nicholas completely. If you think about it long enough what has happened begins to sink in. The Church has allowed one of its most beloved saints to become prostituted for the consumer retail capitalistic market. It is ironic that he is know to have saved others from being sold into prostitution while we idly stand by while he goes totally unrecognised as a Saint because he has been so tarted up. Is it not time that we reclaimed him? Is it not time to teach our children who the real ‘Santa Claus’ is? Is it not time to show the world that this man who everyone loves was one who loved Christ more than all? Some older people still remember St Nicholas but most people in our society do not even know ‘Santa Claus’s’ real name or profession. The church misses out on a wonderful evangelistic tool every year as we continue to let St Nicholas be defined solely by the world.

The story of Christmas is simple. I tell the story to the Sunday School ever year at the Christmas Carol service. God created us so He could love us and we could love Him. Like a parent in a supermarket who tells us to stay where we are so we will not get lost, He told us not to eat of the tree because we would get lost. We ate, we got lost. He sent directions for how to return to God through Moses and we did not follow them. He sent Prophets to show us the way. We did not listen. Instead we usually killed them. Today most people have forgotten that there is even a home to go back to. They do not know that we are lost. At this point I usually say to the children, “wouldn’t you be angry if you told someone not to wonder off and get lost and they did just that? Wouldn’t you be angry if every time you sent someone to bring them back they either ignored them, beat them up or killed them? Wouldn’t you want to just give us on such a stupid disobedient kid?”

This year William, who is about 8 years old, blurted out an answer I had not come across before. He was not trying to be clever. He was not trying to get the ‘right answer’. He was not trying to show off. He simply said, “Well if I were God, I would just go and find them myself.” Hearing these words from a child’s mouth paralysed me. It was so simple that it seemed as if I were discovering that it was true for the first time. I did not speak for a moment as I did not want to sound chocked up. Of course that is the end of our story. That is what Christmas is about. He loves us so much He came to bring us home Himself.

This is what the Church has to say to the world at Christmas. This is why St Nicholas became a Deacon, a priest, and a Bishop so he could teach this Gospel to the world. This is what he witnessed to with his whole life. He even suffered persecution for this great Gospel. It is time to use him for this purpose again, to point to Christ Incarnate, Crucified and Risen.