Monday, December 5, 2011

From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas, 1294, Russian Icon , Novgrorod.
Tomorrow, December 6, is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas.
In the Catholic Church, having patron saints is like having "friends in high places"; they want you to model your life on the life of Christ, just as they did. As we choose our friends based on similar interests and backgrounds, so we come to find patron saints by what they went through and were called to do with their talents and gifts; a patron saint is someone with whom you can identify your life's journey in becoming Christ-like. Likewise, because of the extraordinary graces given to certain people while on earth and God's pleasure to use them in numerous situations, certain people of exemplary grace deemed Saints by the Church offer lessons in following Christ in more ways than one, and Saint Nicholas is certainly that man of exemplary quality and heroic virtue.
Nicholas Delivering the Dowry, Fabriano, 1425, Pinacoteca Vaticana.
We always associate St. Nicholas with children and the giving of gifts, but we are quick to forget the saint's generosity in saving the three virgins from destitution and this is why St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of single men and women. The story goes, there were three women in the diocese of Myrna were Nicholas was bishop; their father, unable to afford a dowry for them to properly wed, could not save them from destitution that awaited them (becoming prostitutes to support themselves). Hearing of the family's plight, Nicholas the bishop went to their house at night and threw in three bags of gold, one for each girl, so she could wed properly. Someone saw what Nicholas had done and, knowing of the girls' plight, interpreted Nicholas' actions in not-so-charitable terms (he was paying for their sexual service to himself). And scandal spread around Nicholas until his other heroic virtues of patience and long-suffering convinced people of his sanctity.
What does the story mean?
The three virgins symbolize the soul in its progression to holiness and fulfillment of its destiny. The father of the three girls signifies the world and how the world cannot provide for what it is that we need in order to follow Christ (we are born in the world, as the father is the biological father of the three girls, but he can't provide for them). The marriage they are to seek is the marriage with the Lamb, Christ himself, but none of us have the dowry (sinlessness and holiness) necessary to make that marriage. The falling of night is the "dark night of the soul" through which we must all pass, the troubles and cares, the concerns and burdens of daily life that tries to separate us from God. The window (through which Nicholas throws the bags of gold) is the window of self-reflection: meditation and prayer.
St Nicholas in Bulgaria.
The good bishop, who sees the need of the children in his flock, is the magisterium of the Church, who provides for us with the Sacraments and Feast of the Mass. And what is the bag of gold? It is both the Grace we need to do good works, and the good works themselves; the gold is the soul being perfected and in its perfected state (for what God plans to do definitely comes about). It is all these elements working together which assures us that our unmarried souls will find their heavenly Bridegroom and eternal destination. And even today, in the overly-commercialized persona of Santa Claus, these lessons and meanings still hold true. Santa Claus bringing the presents to the children reminds us that we are all God's children, and as St. Nicholas has been called to give to us abundantly from the Graces which God has given him, so we are called to give abundantly from the Grace which God gives to us, no matter what day of the year it is
Illustration, 1881 by Thomas Nast.
But why does Santa Claus look the way he looks?
Why, for example, does Santa have a beard? Could you imagine a beardless Santa?
The beard is a symbol of wisdom, and for Santa to have a beard is imperative because we have love in direct proportion to our wisdom: those who are wise, are wise because they know what true love is, they don't settle for weak or false forms/expressions of love; and those who truly love love truly because through their life's experiences and trials, they have learned the great value of love and why it is so precious, and why it is so powerful. When a child tugs on Santa's beard, to see if it is real or not, that is a child's way of discerning if Santa is real, if Santa's love for them is real, by knowing if the sign of wisdom, the beard, is real.
1686, after Christmas became legal again in England.
Why does Santa wear a red suit, lined in white fur?
The red suit is the color of love, because to give your life for another is the greatest act of love there is. Usually, the animal  fur symbolizes the passions and the appetites, but because it is white, that means that he has tamed them, he rules them, they do not rule him. The white fur on his wrists means that his strength comes from controlling his appetites (the arms symbolize strength). The white fur cuffed on his ankles means that his will is not dominated by his passions (the feet signify the will) and that's why he wears the black boots: his own will is dead so that he can do the Will of the One who sends him. The black belt refers to his chastity (even in a state of marriage). Santa wears a red cap because the head is that which governs us, and since it is red, he is governed by love.
One of Norman Rockwell's many Santa illustrations.
The rotund figure of Santa means "bounty."
Cartoonist Thomas Nast presented his figure of Santa Claus in an 1863 edition of Harper's Weekly; the American Civil War was in its second year of bloodshed and turmoil, which explains why a figure of Santa and the bounty that was once enjoyed by all might be enjoyed by all again, in the near future. In the Book of Job, he laments his poor fortune now, but reminds himself that God favored him once, and may still do so again; Santa's plumpness, likewise, reminds us in the "leaner" years of the Lord's goodness in the past, and to hope for it again in the future. Here is a snippet of a diary entry, dated December 24, 1864, from Dolly Lunt Burge, a mother living in Georgia during the Civil War, just after General Sherman's March to the Sea and blackened earth policy ruined the lives of all living in the state:
Thomas Nast's 1863 Harper's Illustration.
"This has usually been a very busy day with me, preparing for Christmas not only for my own tables, but for gifts for my servants. Now, how changed! No confectionary, cakes, or pies can I have. We are all sad; no loud, jovial laugh from our boys is heard. Christmas Eve, which has ever been gaily celebrated here, which has witnessed the popping of firecrackers … and the hanging up of stockings, is an occasion now of sadness and gloom. I have nothing even to put in [8-yr-old daughter] Sadai's stocking, which hangs so invitingly for Santa Claus. How disappointed she will be in the morning, though I have explained to her why he cannot come. Poor children! Why must the innocent suffer with the guilty?"
Netherlands, Sinterklaus, 2007.
The only reason why Christmas has become so commercialized is because we let it be so. In our own hearts, we don't value the gifts of the Spirit which God wants us to have (after 10 years, I feel that I have plenty of patience, but the Lord insists on giving me still more, so I must accept it....), and it's far easier to go out and buy something, as we all know, then to exercise patience with that driver who just risked everyone's life by cutting in front of us on the highway, or abstaining from getting angry with co-workers, or spending time with the kids instead of watching television, etc., etc., etc. Yea, it's easier to buy gift cards and packages, than to do those things. But Christmas reminds us that we are called to do exactly those things, every day of the year, because He did them, and St. Nicholas did them, and you and I can do them, too.
The Feast of St. Nicholas, 1665-8, Jan Steen, Amsterdam.
Lastly, the major characteristic of Santa that we cannot ignore is: does Santa exist? Because we question whether or not God exists, we question whether or not His Saints exist. Below is the most re-printed editorial in the English language, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, which first appeared in the September 21, 1897 edition of The New York Sun. Little 8-year-old Virginia asked her father if there was really a Santa Claus and he told her to write to the Editors at The Sun. Answering little Virginia was Francis Pharcellus Church who had been a correspondent during the Civil War. Although he had no children of his own, Mr. Church famously told her, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus":
May good St. Nicholas pray for us, and help us, with grateful hearts, to accept the good and the bad which our loving Father in Heaven is pleased to send us, that we may win the earthly battles here and so gain the crown of heaven eternally. Like "Jolly Saint Nicholas," may we receive the Joy that is the Gift of the Spirit, and have a Merry Christmas, knowing our Savior and Father loves us.
Amen and Merry Christmas!