Santa, St. Nicholas and churches today

So, what did your local church do to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas this past week, on Dec. 6th?

The sainted bishop of Myra is a towering figure in the churches of the East, of course, and there are other liturgical churches that recognize that traditions linked to the real St. Nicholas — the patron saint of endangered women and children, among other groups — are part of the quiet season of Advent/Nativity Lent.

However, the lovers of holy St. Nicholas the Wonderworker are not used to seeing him mentioned in the mainstream press, in large part because of, well, you know, that other guy. The Coca-Cola guy.

However, the pros at Religion News Service recently put out an nicely nuanced feature about the Santa Claus dilemma that some churches face year after year. The big question: If Santa is real, as the whole pop culture machine insists that he is, then what are religious groups supposed to do with him? And what about the real St. Nicholas? Where do you put him in the picture without picking a fight?

Here’s the top of the story, which was written (please note this disclaimer) by Adelle Banks, a long-time speaker in the Washington Journalism Center program that I direct. She’s a pro’s pro.

(RNS) When the Rev. John McCausland crafted his Christmas Eve sermon at his Episcopal church in Weare, N.H., he always followed a basic formula. There had to be a brother and a sister in the story. Jesus and the holy family played a prominent role. And there was always an appearance from Santa Claus.

“If we never mention Santa Claus, then you create a parallel universe,” said McCausland, who retired in June. “What I try to do in this story is to tie the two together, but not make Santa Claus primary.”

McCausland kept the Jesus-and-Santa story tradition for 14 years at Holy Cross Episcopal Church. Children would carry the figures to the creche display and sit for McCausland’s story, in which Santa often joins in the adoration of the Christ child.

Just where to place the jolly elf in the original Christmas story can be a perennial dilemma for both parents and pastors.

I love the “parallel universe” quote. That says it all. And that, from a journalism perspective, that quote points at the heart of a huge story that is extra hard for journalists to tell. The bottom line: Which Christmas is the real one? And how do Christian leaders say, “Put the Christ back in Christmas” without, in effect, saying that it is time to put “Christmas back in Christmas.” Can churches really manage to live in the world of the shopping mall and the world of church tradition at the same time?

Now that’s a real Christmas war that affects all kinds of people, as opposed to just the politicians and lawyers caught up in the annual “Christmas wars” that make tired headlines year after year. This is a story that will give parents, pastors and priests sweaty palms.

Toward the end of this RNS story, there is this courageous statement by a Protestant pastor.

Prepare to be shocked.

Michael Chanley, the former parenting minister at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., said he stuck to the Bible and never intentionally taught about Santa.

“When children have asked, as they always do, I simply ask them what they believe. Regardless of what they say, my response is, basically, the same,” said Chanley, now the executive director of the International Network of Children’s Ministry.

“I tell them Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. Then, I share with them the story of the real Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, and how his generosity inspired many of our traditions.”

So, did GetReligion readers see any other mainstream coverage of the St. Nicholas/Santa Claus equation this past week? Please leave us some URLs in the comments pages.

IMAGE: Care of St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Mission in Toronto.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bobby

    Toward the end of this RNS story, there is this courageous statement by a Protestant pastor.

    Not just a Protestant, but a Restorationist …

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Well, Time has a brief piece on St. Nicholas, but the pic is of Santa-at-the-Mall. Their incredibly hip, slick, and cool “2 minute bio” was obnoxious, but it’s Time Magazine, after all.

    The rest that I found was mostly blogs having fun with the legend that Jolly Old St. Nick whipped up on the heretic Arius at Nicea. The Touchstone blog Mere Comments, offers a recipe for St Nicholas Punch, a spiced apple/orange drink.

    Not sure if this is a blog or mainstream journalism, but The Washington Times has a column on it. The Copts are down with the legend, too and even this from Eternity Bible College, which I’m guessing could be considered evangelical or fundamentalist.

    Well, that was fun, but I was sorry to learn that us Catholics have made St. Nicholas an optional feast. It’s a loss, given the wonderful stories of his saving girls from prostitution, raising the dead, calming the sea, and, of course, punching Arius’ lights out.

  • Jerry

    Does anyone use the famous, Yes Virginia letter in a religious context? I’ve not seen that in the media so I wonder. Because it seems to me that a version of the letter is a natural way of approaching Santa Claus in a Christian context.

  • Rev. John E. Mikalajunas

    Each year we have our annual St. Nicholas Day Party for our children on the Sunday nearest the feast Day. One of the men of the church dresses as St. Nicholas yes in the robes of a Bishop, successor to the apostles. As scripture speaks of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
    It was the reformationist churches that took off his Mitre and gave him a Stocking Cap, They gave him reins to Reindeer instead of a Bishop’s Staff, and they gave him a wife, which is contrary to the traditions of the Apostolic Church.
    Our children greet the Saintly Bishop not a fat old man in the wrong clothing. They receive encouragement from the Saint, a Religious Book, and candy for the Sweetness of life. Each year this party grows in our church with more children and teens along with their parents.
    The reformationists in 1930 gave us Artificial Birth Control and the Lambeth Conference, now it is contraception
    and abortion given by the reformationists with empty churches and elderly congregations.
    Go Back to the true spirit of St. Nicholas of Myra and enjoy the beauty of God. Rev. J. Mikalajunas

  • Will

    Jerry: Apparently, the forthcoming movie
    is using it in a Christian context?

    What I want to know is, will we see St. Nick punching Arius out?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I think it important for churches to ignore Santa Claus and concentrate on St. Nicholas as Christ’s Mass approaches. And yes–tell children that the Santa Claus who is everywhere promoting expensive gifts, jewelry, self-indulgence, rampant materialism is not the real St. Nicholas but a fraud created by the advertising world. Whatever happened to the ascetic and charitable side of Christianity which the season of Advent is supposed to be??? Indeed, some of the stores that are the biggest hucksters and hawkers in merchandising exploit the season to the Max, but then tell their employees they must never let the word Christmas pass their lips when they wait on customers.
    There are many Christians disgusted with what has happened to the day of our Saviour’s birth in America. But will you see much in the media reporting on or reflecting on the issue??? Or how many human interest stories on the way some Christian families are trying to purposely cut back the season’s anti-Christian self-indulgence by helping out the starving around the world. Few, if any stories I am willing to bet (especially when compared to all the self-indulgence propaganda filling the media).
    In fact, there is a case can be made that all the ballyhoo about a Santa Claus fed to little kids is a major cause of loss of Christian Faith. For at some point kids eventually hear there is no Santa and that it is a fable. Well, what does that do to their young Christian Faith. Is it just another Santa fable???

  • mattk

    I attend St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Saratoga, California. The children in my parish know all about St. Nicholas the slave of Jesus. Every year I wonder if any reporters are going to do a human interest story about us and if they might have some questions about St. Nicholas. They never do.

  • http://none Linda Fowler

    Santa Claus has usurped the place of Jesus for many years. The real St. Nicholas is more interesting and fits right into the activities of Christmas and Advent. I think our over endorsments of Santa Claus has produced a very materialistic generation insted of one of charity. We want, want, want and forget about those who have real needs. It is the “ME” generation and is very sad.

  • Jerry

    Sometimes specialist magazines can do a much, much better job than the daily media when it comes to figures such as St. Nicholas. For example, the current, issue #82 of Renaissance Magazine (not available online) has a story:

    The Real St. Nick

    Didst thou know that the origins of our modern-day Santa Claus come not from a round chubby soul at the North Pole but from St. Nicholas, a fourth-century saint born and bred in faraway Lycian Turkey? We reveal his virtuous life of piety, charity, and compassion that has transcended the centuries to become a worldwide icon.

    Renaissance Magazine is interesting because along with Renfaire stories, there is some interesting history such as in this case.

    Sadly, their web site doth be a wee bit behind the times:

  • Blake Helgoth

    We celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas with stockings filled with treats and gifts and a special meal every year. We also watch the VeggieTales video of St. Nicholas – and although made a Protestant group, it is very well done. Unfortunately, it is only an optionla memorial so finding a Mass in celebration is hit or miss.

  • Michael Carter

    We had a Christmas Tree Lighting, followed by Santa’s visit to our Knights of Columbus hall several days later:)

  • john

    I have 2 little boys age 5 and 2.We tell them about St.Nicholas..we have a childrens cartoon video based on the real St.Nicholas that they watch and we place a small statue of him over our fireplace during advent.We tell them that Santa Claus is based upon the actual St.Nicholas.We tell them that although he is now in heaven..he can truly watch over you and know if you’ve been bad or good..but that he can intercede for us as well if we need his help.As for the secular Santa Claus and all the materialism and Frosty the snowmen and Rudolphs..we make sure our children are aware that the meaning of Christmas is twofold..that Jesus was born and came into the world to save us..and that He shall come back again and we await His return.Merry Christmas to all.