One of the things I hate about going shopping during the season of the Christmas rush is the music that is piped in over the mall sound system. I would happy with traditional renderings of the old carols, but instead, my ears are assaulted with the latest auditory atrocity, celebrating Christmas as a time of consumerism, indulgence, and fun in the snow. And often, to make matters worse, we have St. Nicholas forced to preside over all this—or, as he is described by these contemporary songs, “jolly old St. Nick”.
Some of the transformation of St. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, into jolly ol’ St. Nick (aka “Santa Claus”) can be laid at the door of the old 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” attributed to Clement Clark Moore. It is more popularly known as the poem “Twas the Night before Christmas”. Many details from the poem have become part of the popular mythology of Santa Claus and his secret gift-giving on Christmas eve. Stockings were hung by the chimney with care, and the children were nestled all snug in their beds. St. Nicholas appeared on his miniature sleigh full of toys, pulled by his eight tiny reindeer. This St. Nick came down the chimney with a bound, the stump of a pipe held tight in his teeth, his little round belly shaking when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly. Not a lot of holy reverence here; he was a right jolly old elf, and the householder laughed when he saw him, in spite of himself.
I think it is worth comparing this St. Nicholas, who lives at the North Pole, with the real one, who lives in heaven. The main contrasts are three in number.
First, the real St. Nicholas, as found in his icons, is a lot thinner. That is, he points us toward asceticism and self-denial as the prescribed path to fulfillment. The real St. Nicholas is not portrayed iconographically as having a “little round belly,” nor does he appear as “a right jolly old elf” who provokes involuntary laughter. He appears as a man of God, a hierarch in the holy Church, someone of a serene countenance who comes from much prayer and fasting. Jolly ol’ St. Nick calls his followers to eating and spending sprees, to buying more and more, even if they go into debt to pay for it, and his pre-Christmas feast day is known as “Black Friday.” St. Nicholas the wonderworker of Myra in Lycia calls his followers to take up their cross and follow Christ, and his pre-Christmas feast day is marked on December 6, in the middle of a fast. It is not characterized by a mad scramble to buy, but by worship of the living God. But some festivity is allowed at a feast: we love St. Nicholas so much that even on this fast day we are allowed fish, oil, and wine.
Secondly, the real St. Nicholas carries a Gospel, not a bag full of toys which seem to be liberally distributed whether or not one is naughty or nice. Santa Claus is rarely without his sack of loot; St. Nicholas is never without the Gospel. As a bishop, his main task was preaching and rightly defining the Word of Truth, so of course he carries that holy Book. It contains the words which are the most precious to him, and which he constantly preached to his flock in Asia Minor. As his icon shows, it is his message to us today as well. And this message of St. Nicholas is identical with that of his Lord: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Finally, the real St. Nicholas knows that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), whereas Santa Claus would have us believe that it is more blessed to receive than to give. Santa is about receiving—that is why young children do not traditionally ask each other, “What did you give others for Christmas?” but rather, “What did you get for Christmas?” Santa is the patron saint of consumerism. The authentic St. Nicholas knows that while it is important to receive graciously, almsgiving still results in receiving more grace. Obviously Christmas morning knows both giving and receiving, and parents will attest that the real fun is watching their children receive. There is good in both giving and receiving. St. Nicholas knows this and can keep the two in balance; Santa tends to forget and focus mostly on receiving.
None of the above meditations are offered in a Scrooge-like spirit. Contrasting the true St. Nicholas with the false one does not imply that “Christmas is a humbug,” as the pre-conversion Ebenezer thought. I like Christmas: the tree-decorating, hearing from long-absent friends through Christmas cards, the Christmas day turkey. I even like the gift-giving. I am not much threatened by Santa Claus; I simply don’t mistake him for St. Nicholas. That is, I think that however much (or little) we enjoy the pre-Christmas season, we must discern that there are in fact two kinds of Christmas celebrated concurrently in our culture. One is about consumerism and over-indulgence, pure and simple. Jesus has little to do with it, which is why in some places the public display of a crèche or saying “Merry Christmas” provokes opposition. The other Christmas is our own Christian feast, the commemoration (as the service book says) of “The Nativity according to the Flesh of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ.” We can partake of both, so long as we remember which one has priority. The contrast between jolly old St. Nick and the true St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia reminds us of the differences between the two Christmases.