Kate Bluett has an interesting post about her family’s St Nicholas Day tradition:
. . . According to some of my grade-school classmates, though, my life was tragic not only because of the siblings and the handmedowns, but also because Santa didn’t visit our house.
Let me be clear: None of my classmates actually believed in a real Santa Claus who somehow skipped my house. They understood perfectly well that Santa was something their parents did and my parents didn’t. Just like they knew Saint Nicholas was something my parents did and most of theirs didn’t.
But wait! Isn’t Saint Nicholas just another name for Santa Claus? In a word, no. See, Santa Claus is that fat guy who takes requests and brings kiddos everything they want on Christmas morning. Or at least that was what he did to my classmates. He was kind of like the Christmas ATM. St. Nicholas, on the other hand, has nothing to do with Christmas except a date. The Feast of St. Nicholas is today, December 6. This proximity to Christmas has caused him to be linked with the latter festival, but the connection is incidental. And there are gifts given on St. Nicholas’ Day, but they have nothing to do with naughty or nice, or with wishes granted. And they’re small. . . .
I can hear some objecting: “St. Nicholas gives gifts just like Santa Claus. There’s no difference.” Yes, there is. For one thing, St. Nicholas gifts are gratuitous. They aren’t rewards in the way that Santa gifts are. They don’t encourage self-serving moralism. For another, the shoes provide a limit for the size of the gifts. It’s impossible to fit a bicycle in a shoe, for example. And it’s even harder to fit a list’s worth of gifts in one. Thus, there’s a limit to the amount of sheer greed that can be encouraged on St. Nicholas’ Day. Granted, I know families who put similar limits on Santa gifts; one, for example, only puts Santa gifts in the stockings, so they can’t be too grand. Without those limits (and similar ones on non-Santa gifts), Christmas just becomes greedy. And in what way does that celebrate the birth of Christ?
I’m not arguing against Santa Claus, per se. I’m just arguing against unlimited Santa. I’m arguing against the Feast of Gimme, and I think the Feast of St. Nicholas provides some insight as to how to avoid that feast, namely by establishing gift-limits. No, this does not make me a humbug. A humbug wouldn’t wish you a Happy St. Nicholas’ Day.
I understand where she’s coming from. Really I do.
I am just as opposed to the crass materialism and consumer mentality that have come to be associated with Christmas and Santa Claus. But where I differ with Kate is in attributing all that is negative to Santa Claus. I say leave the jolly old elf alone.
Ok, ok. I know this is a topic that is libel to get people all het up. So let’s keep it sociable and friendly.
But when you blame Santa, you’re attacking one of my cherished childhood traditions. And I feel honor bound to put up some defence on his behalf. In short, don’t blame Santa.
Here’s what I wrote in Kate’s comment box:
Well, we had Santa and he visited on Christmas. But he more closely resembled your St. Nicholas than the Santa Claus you describe. He filled stockings with nuts and oranges and a bit of candy. He left one or two gifts to be opened on Christmas morning. But all the naughty and nice and lists and stuff we ever heard about was from television, never our parents.
We did leave cookies and milk for him though, it seemed the hospitable thing to do.
I’ve heard of families who do both. St Nicholas comes on his feast day and drops off some candies shaped like gold coins, picks up a list and returns with a gift at Christmas. I’ve heard of families in which presents received depends on acts of charity done by the kids.
I think it doesn’t matter so much what you call him or when he comes. What matters is the spirit in which you celebrate his coming. Christmas can be an opportunity for conspicuous consuption and secular materialism or it can be a time of spiritual reflection, generousity, and the celebration of the birth of the King. I’m not trying to pick a fight; but to explain things from a different perspective. I’ve seen too many people making Santa the scapegoat for the one and the stumbling block to the other. I think that’s the result of faulty reasoning. Just because the secular world has co-opted Santa, doesn’t mean we can’t take him back. Because the way I see it, Santa Claus is just another way of pronouncing St Nicholas. He was our saint first and we shouldn’t let them tarnish his good name.
There are as many ways to celebrate St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, and Christmas tide (and Epiphany) gift-giving as there are families that partake in these grand and glorious traditions. All I’m asking is that we leave off swiping at other people’s beloved traditions or lack thereof. Criticize consumerism, criticise materialism, criticize seculariasm, I’m with you all the way. But don’t criticize Santa or blame him for all those evils. Because I’m living proof that you can celebrate Christmas with Santa without any of those ill effects tarnishing your understanding of the true meaning of Christmas.
A follow-up post is here: Thoughts on Fantasy for the Holiday Season