Although we know very little about Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, there is no disputing the fact that he has become one of the most popular saints of the Christian calendar. Certainly, he is the most imitated! For countless centuries, in Christian countries around the world, people have dressed up with white beards and variations of red garb to play at being St. Nicholas or Santa Claus for a group of delighted children. Indeed, every parent or grandparent who puts a gift under a tree is, in part, imitating a man who is remembered for no other reason than the fact that he knew what it is to love!
Of the many legends concerning Nicholas, most detail his many acts of generosity and mercy. This was a man committed to the Scriptural mandate to love our neighbour. It’s a task more easily spoken of than done. It’s easy to talk of loving but much more difficult to do it. Loving is more an act of the will than of the heart. It involves making hard choices, making commitment. It means choosing to function and act with no motivation other than the desire to benefit another.
The Scriptures call us to be imitators of Christ, to quite literally pretend that you are Jesus. We are invited to participate in a faithful act of pretence! I like that idea! For although there are dishonest kinds of pretending where we pretend to be something that we have no intention of truly becoming, there is also, I think, a good kind of pretence where the act of pretence can lead us to the real thing.
In the same way, as we pretend to be more Christ-like, as we put on the face of Christ, we grow into the fullness of his grace and love. What begins as pretence, becomes a reality. To use Scriptural terms, we are talking about putting on Christ, about Christ being formed in us. But regardless of the terminology, the reality of what occurs is the same. As we seek to be more Christ-like, the true Christ honours our faithful act of pretence by turning it into a reality.
So what does all that have to do with St. Nick? As the reigning symbol of the modern, secular holiday season, poor old Santa has become a symbol of all the elements in our modern, consumer driven Christmas that are offensive to us. As such, he gets more than his fair share of bad press from cranky church people at this time of the year.
But not all of it’s deserved. Yes, Christmas is overly hyped and overly commercialized. Yes, there are things we would rather do with a little less of and others we would want to see given a higher profile. But at the same time, as flawed and imperfect as our annual imitations of old Nicholas might be, on one level they represent a striving for something good and something right. It’s not the real thing by a longshot, but it is informed by the real thing and can still point toward the real thing. And that, in my mind, is something to be thankful for.
So this year, as you dodge through the mall, quietly cursing the muzak Christmas carols and the too-early “holiday” decorations, see if you can’t squeeze out a smile and a prayer for St. Nick. He may be more of a friend than you think!