St. Nicholas and a Season for Sledgehammers

I’m considering a war on Christmas.  Not because I don’t enjoy Christmas trees and gifts and the time spent with family, not because I’m against a religious holiday playing large on a national scale.  I’m increasingly against Christmas because I love it–this is a sort of kill it to save it strategy.

In a recent survey 45% of Americans said they would rather skip Christmas.  Why?  Because of the financial and personal stress.  Being overwhelmed with shopping and economies of obligation is no way to mark the coming of Christ into the world.  Yet this is what we have created.  Christmas has in fact become the  holiday on which a consumerist economy relies.  Thus Thanksgiving quickly gives way to want, and black Friday leads into a black Advent in which over-consumption puts us into debt and brings profitability to Mattel, Apple, and every other pusher of goods made on the backs of the poor.  We’ve forgotten that the true color of the season is purple or blue–the colors of penitence and the pre-dawn light.  

Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas and in many places around the world this is the day in which gifts are given.  We can learn a great deal from St. Nicholas about giving gifts and it is in his lessons that we might find our own way to move past Christmas and celebrate Christ’s coming into the world in the Feast of the Nativity.

St. Nicholas is noted to have frequently given gifts in secret.  This is key to his Sainthood.  There are plenty of wealthy people who go around advertising every dime they give, but few give gifts in complete secret.  What would be the payoff?  The interesting thing is that in order for a gift to really be a gift it must be given outside of the normal systems of exchange or else it is no gift at all.  When we give and expect something in return then we have simply made a trade, not given a gift.  St. Nicholas gave gifts in secret so that no exchange could take place.  This is in following with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to give in secret so that our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing.

What if we as a society began not only giving smaller gifts but giving secretly, disrupting the economy of exchance?  What if Christmas was a season in which small surprises abounded and our time with family was simply spent enjoying the gift of each other–presence not presents, as some have expressed it.  To do this we must engage in some kind of return and re-imagining -not only by embracing St. Nicholas as our model of gift giving, but in promoting the Feast of the Nativity over Christmas.  If Christians begin celebrating the Feast of the Nativity over Christmas then that would mark an important shift toward understanding the light of Christ in the darkness rather than holding on to some sacred shred of what has become a largely secular holiday.

A holiday, a “holy day” is an icon–it is meant to open our vision to the divine and help us see the reality of God’s kingdom in the world.  When an image or a symbol no longer sparks our vision beyond it, but rather settles our vision on the symbol itself, it is no longer an icon–it has become an idol.  Is Christmas an idol?  We need to discern this in our churches and then ask “do sledgehammers come with free gift wrapping?”

About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline and a contributor to the book Sacred Acts: How churches are working to protect the Earth’s climate. Ragan’s articles and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines including Triathlete, The Oxford American, and Books & Culture. He works to live the good life with his wife Emily and daughter Lillian.

  • srocha

    We observe Advent whilst most are celebrating Christmas, then we celebrate Christmas during the liturgical season of Christmas. It makes for a rather disjointed (in a good way) season and brings us a great deal of peace and joy.

    SR


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