I have a beard. It’s a little bushier than usual right now and it’s white, like the hair that’s left on my head. Just to be clear, though, I’m not that old: my hair was grey early on and white not long after. My face is sometimes a little red, especially in the cold and, since I can’t really see very well close up, I need to wear my reading glasses a lot of the time. I should also mention that I’m not slim. It’s possible I might be even be a little round, not Weeble round, but round, nevertheless.
The point is that I might look just a little bit like Santa Claus. Or more than a bit. People comment on it. As I was getting in my car the other day, someone actually stopped their car in the middle of the road, rolled down the window and shouted “Hey, Santa!” I get that a lot, have done for awhile. Please don’t ask me why I’m not more jolly or if I can shake my belly like a bowl full of jelly. I should be and I probably can, but that’s not the point.
I Googled St. Nicholas the other day and the first images that came up looked familiar. As in, a thinner version of me familiar. So I even look like the original Santa. Yikes.
I used to hate that. Now, not so much.
Nicholas was a bishop in the late third, early fourth century in part of Asia Minor that’s now in Turkey. He was born into a wealthy Greek family, but his parents died in an epidemic when he was young. He was devoutly religious and the idea of Jesus as a servant, who cares for others and gives all that he has, inspired him to travel, giving generously from his wealth. The legendary stories of his gift giving became the most significant part of his later incarnations and St. Nicholas became Sinterklaas and Santa Claus.
So Santa Claus was inspired by Jesus.
Okay, so Clement C. Moore maybe wasn’t thinking that when he gave us our contemporary vision of Santa in “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823. The excesses of our commercialization of Christmas (that’s from the old english “Christ’s Mass,” of course) and some of our other “traditions” may lead us even further away, but hang on a minute. Just pause for a moment and wonder about where a lot of these things came from.
The thing about St. Nicholas is that he didn’t give just one day per year. He was inspired by the life of Jesus, not just his arrival. In fact, Christmas wasn’t really celebrated until the 4th century, so he may not have even known it.
As complicated as we can make it, Christmas is a simple thing. If you like Santa Claus, it’s this simple: St. Nicholas wanted to live like Jesus and he gave freely and generously of himself and all that he had. Everyday.
And that one day we have Santa focus on? At the heart of it is a simple story about a woman, a man, a trip to Bethlehem and the birth of a baby. That baby would grow up to be a man who tried to show people how to live right and live together, and bring us back to a more meaningful relationship with God. And he would ultimately die for trying to do that.
In celebrating Jesus’ birthday, I believe we need to remember that Jesus is alive in each of us the other 364 days of the year, too. All that he taught, all the care and compassion and love that he shared, all of the wonder of life that he showed, all that began in this birth.
That’s easier said than done. There is so much happening in the world that can dissuade us, so much around us that can make it difficult to live out what Jesus taught. But in birth is promise. New life brings new possibilities and every day, God invites us to new life in the promise of this child born in Bethlehem.
Santa’s work isn’t done in one day and neither is yours. There’s work to be done, the work of Christmas. Legendary preacher Howard Thurman wrote these words in the early 1970’s:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and the princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flock,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among brothers,
to make music in the heart.