Santa and St. Nick
December 25, 2004
I would be willing to bet that you did not come to church this morning expecting to hear a homily on Santa Claus. But he is the fellow I would like to discuss with you today. I am convinced that if we understand the history of Santa Claus it will help us appreciate more deeply the meaning of the birth of Christ and apply that meaning to our lives.
The history of Santa Claus begins with a real historical person. His name was Nicholas, and he was a Christian, a believer. In fact he was a bishop. Nicholas was bishop of a town called Myra in Asia Minor, which is present day Turkey. It was a seaport on the Mediterranean coast. We know that Nicholas existed because in 325 the Great Council of Nicea took place. This council gave us the creed which we will profess in just a few moments, and Nicholas was numbered among the bishops that attended the council. The most significant thing we know about Nicholas was that he was committed to help people who were in desperate need. The most famous story of his providing such help has a direct connection to Santa Claus.
It seems there lived in Myra during the time of Nicholas a poor man who had three daughters. All three daughters were ready to be married. But they could not take this step because their father could not afford to provide them with a dowry. In the world at this time an unmarried woman would be disgraced, and it was the responsibility of the family to provide daughters with a sum of money to arrange a marriage. The poor man did not have the money and so his daughters were prevented from having their own family and children. It was a desperate situation. The man even considered selling one of his daughters into slavery so that he could raise money to marry off the other two. But he could not bring himself to do this. Nicholas heard of the situation. One night he went out quietly with a bag of gold which he threw into the window of the poor man’s house. The next morning when the man found the gold he was delighted and gave it to his eldest daughter for her dowry. But there were two more daughters and so on two subsequent nights Nicholas again went out and threw gold into the poor man’s window so that all of his daughters could enter married life.
Now you can see in this story the beginnings of Santa Claus. Remember that at this time of history people married much earlier than today. Marriages were usually arranged when a girl was about 12 years old. Therefore, the action of Nicholas coming at night and secretly providing gold for the children of the poor man eventually developed into the story of the kindly old man who brought gifts to all the children of the world. Now of course it took centuries for St. Nicholas to become Santa Claus. But you can hear still the connection in the names. You can hear the word “Saint” in the word “Santa” and of course “Claus” is the last syllable of Nicholas.
For most of history, Santa Nicholas came on his feast day, which is December 6th. He would come at night with his horse and his wagon full of gifts for the children. But in the early 1800’s the American writer Washington Irving re-wrote the story and said that Santa Nicholas drove his horse up onto the roof so he could come down the chimney. In 1821 the author Clement Clarke Moore wrote a famous poem in which he changed the story a bit more. Now instead of a horse and a wagon Santa Claus had a sleigh and reindeer, and instead of coming on his feast day, he came on the “Night before Christmas.” For most of history Santa Claus was dressed in green because he was a bishop and green was the episcopal color. But in 1931 the Coca Cola Company launched a famous ad in which Santa Claus was dressed in red (for obvious promotional reasons). The color stuck and Santa became “the man in the red suit.”
So how does this history of Santa Claus help us as believers? How does it guide us in our worship of Christ, the newborn King? It allows us to make a contrast. A comparison between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. For there are two qualities of St. Nicholas that are largely absent in our culture’s perception of Santa Claus. I believe that if we can reclaim these two qualities, they will deepen our appreciation of what we celebrate today. Santa Claus is always connected with gifts and the magic of the season. St. Nicholas is connected with service and faith. Yes, Santa’s gift giving originated with St. Nicholas but St. Nicholas did not give gifts simply to bring a smile to children’s faces. He gave gifts in order to rescue those in desperate situations. Had Nicholas not recognized the need of that poor man and his daughters their lives would have been ruined. So the gift giving of Nicholas was not simply to make children happy. It was an act of service, an act to save those in need. And why did Nicholas act in that way? Not because he was a jolly old fellow. But because he was a person of faith. Nicholas was a believer. He understood the meaning of the feast we celebrate today: that God so loved the world that God sent God’s only son to be one of us—that Jesus was, in the words of the angel in today’s gospel, our Savior. Therefore, if God has saved us, then we in turn are called to save one another. If God has loved us, then our role is to do what Nicholas did, to serve others because of God’s goodness.
This then is what the history of Santa Claus provides for us on this feast of Christmas—the realization that we should celebrate this day in faith and service. In faith because we believe that God has become one of us and saved us from evil and sin. That faith makes us generous to one another because God was first generous to us. Out of God’s generosity we reach out in service. Moreover, our service should not be limited only to the people that are closest to us but should reach out to those truly in need: the poor, the lonely, the sick. Like Nicholas we are called to serve those who find themselves in desperate situations.
Now these two qualities of faith and service are truly at the heart of Christmas. But I am not sure that you could identify them in that “jolly old elf” that visited your house last night. Yet both faith and service can be found in the origins of Santa Claus. The gospel calls us to make faith and service a part of our holidays and a part of our lives. To do so would be a genuine blessing. Because if we could remember what God has done for us in becoming human and then choose to care for the least among us, I assure you it would be the best and surest way to a truly Merry Christmas.
Breaking the Stable Tradition
December 25, 2007
The Vatican is not usually recognized as for its innovation. Usually when the Holy Father speaks, it is to reaffirm some belief or practice of the past rather than proposing some change in the future. But this Christmas is different. This Christmas for the first time in its history the Vatican has replaced its traditional manger scene in St. Peter’s square with a radically new one. And it has turned a lot of heads and raised a lot of questions by doing so.
The traditional manger scene is the one we have here in the church and the one many of you have in your own homes. It is based upon the Gospel of Luke, the gospel we just heard proclaimed. In it Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the world wide census, Jesus is born in a stable and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn, and the angels appear to shepherds in the fields announcing the savior’s birth. We all know that story. But some of us might not know that there is an alternate version of Jesus’ birth which comes from the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel Joseph and Mary do not travel to Bethlehem. Joseph receives a message from an angel to take Mary as his wife. When he does so, Jesus is born in Joseph’s home. Now it is this version, Matthew’s version, that the Vatican has chosen this year to be its Christmas scene.
So beginning tonight, if you were to travel to Rome and go to St. Peter’s square, you would not see a stable with a donkey and an ox, you would not see shepherds and sheep, you would not see a baby in a manger. What you would see is a baby with his mother in Joseph’s home. You would see Joseph’s carpentry shop where he works. Adjacent to that shop is a small outdoor patio, and next door a pub in which people are drinking and celebrating around a fireplace. Now you might find an angel or two, but no shepherds, no manger.
When the Vatican was questioned about the reason for this change, it gave a very incomplete explanation. The head of Vatican City State who is in charge of the display simply said, “It’s time for a change.” I think you would agree with me this is a totally inadequate explanation to justify a change which has altered centuries of tradition. That is why it is a good thing you came to celebrate Christmas here at St. Noel. Because when the Vatican holds back in silence, I am unafraid to rush ahead with an explanation. In fact, I think the explanation is rather obvious. Why move from Luke’s gospel to Matthews’s gospel? Why move from a stable to a carpentry shop?
Because the whole meaning of the feast that we celebrate tonight is the Jesus must move from the manger to our home. As exotic and romantic as it may be to picture Jesus surrounded by shepherds and sheep, it is more important to find Jesus where we live, where we work, and yes at times where we relax with friends and a few drinks. The gospel of Matthew challenges us not to keep Jesus in a manger but to bring him into our lives, to bring him home.
Now what does it mean to bring Jesus home? It means to make his priorities our priorities. What are Jesus’ priorities? Let me give you the top three.
Jesus puts people first. We who bring Jesus home are asked to do the same. We must realize that there is nothing more important than the people in our lives. They are more important than the money we make, than the work we do, than the comforts we enjoy. There is no more important thing to do than to spend our time with people, to share ourselves and our wisdom with them, to let them know that we love them and are thankful for them. Jesus makes people a priority. In his great commandment he says that we are called to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we bring Jesus home, we must put people first.
We must also turn the other cheek and forgive our enemies. Each one of us carries some resentment, some anger towards someone who has hurt our or disappointed us. We have all the reasons why they were at fault and why it is their responsibility to come and ask us for forgiveness. Jesus says we must take the first step to forgive them. We must make the first step toward reconciliation. We do not do this because the person who hurt us deserves it. We do it because it is simply God’s way. When Jesus teaches us to pray he says, “forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” If we bring Jesus home, we must forgive our enemies.
We must also care for the weakest among us. Jesus calls us to care for the unborn, for the poor, for the sick, for the imprisoned. It is not enough for us to say, ‘Look I’m taking care of my life and my family, let those people care for themselves.” Jesus measures us against the way we care for the most vulnerable and the most weak among us. He says, “Whatever you do for the least of those among you, you do for me.”
Putting people first, forgiving our enemies, caring for the weakest among us, those are Jesus’ priorities. If we are to bring him home, they must be our priorities as well. And that is not easy. I suppose it is for this reason that many people at this time of year choose to keep Jesus in the manger. They string up the Christmas lights, turn on the Christmas music, wrap the Christmas presents, and look fondly upon the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. The Gospel of Matthew calls us in a different direction. It invites us to take Jesus home. It calls us not to leave him in the little town of Bethlehem, but to bring him to our town, to bring him into our lives. It calls us not to keep him away in a manger, but to let him rule our hearts and to fill our hearts with love, forgiveness, and service.
So let us do that. Let us open our hearts and let him in. For only those who do so will know the true joy of this season and the wonder of Christ’s birth.
Christmas and King Wenceslas
December 25, 2010
One of the great things about the Christmas season is that there are so many songs, traditions, and customs which help us celebrate the meaning of this feast. Today I would like to use one of them in my homily to enlarge the meaning of Christ’s birth. It is a Christmas carol: “Good King Wenceslas.” You can find it in your worship aid right after the final hymn of today’s liturgy. It is in a box at the bottom of the page.
Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night though the frost was cruel, when a poor man came in sight gath’ring winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me. If thou know’st it, telling, yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me flesh and bring me wine. Bring me pine logs hither. Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went, forth they went together, through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now and the wind blows stronger. Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread thou in them boldly. Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod where the snow lay dinted. Heat was in the very sod which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.
I think we all know the first line of the song: “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.” You might know the melody, but in case you do not remember it, Aga, our music director, will play it for us. (The music plays.) The words continue, “when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel. When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.”
There are two things that we should notice about this Christmas carol. The first is that it really is not a Christmas carol. Jesus’ birth is not described. There is no manger, no shepherds, no wise men, and no angels. All we have is good King Wenceslas, a Czech king of the 10th century, looking out his palace window one frosty night and noting a poor man gathering winter fuel. But it is this unusual characteristic of the carol which makes it most useable for us. This carol does not describe Jesus’ birth, but instead describes how we should live in light of Jesus’ birth.
This is exactly what good King Wenceslas shows us how to do. In the second verse, he calls his page and asks who the poor man is and where does he live? The page answers “by St. Agnes’ fountain.” The story continues. The king is a Christian, and here is a poor man. He tells his page that they will go out and invite the poor man to dine with them for a great feast. But first the man must be found. So the two of them go out—the king and page together “through the bitter weather.” Now we arrive at the second notable trait of this carol: there is a miracle in it. The miracle has to do with the extremely cold weather. In the fourth verse, walking outside into the cold, the page begins to speak. “Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger. Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer.” The page is frozen. He cannot go on. The king responds: “Mark my footsteps, my good page. Tread thou in them boldly. Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly. In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted. Heat was in the very sod which the Saint had printed.” A miracle—better than electric socks! The page warms himself by the heat that comes from the footprints of good King Wenceslas. Then of course, the carol ends “therefore, Christian men [women too, but they ruin the rhyme], be sure wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
So that’s the story of good King Wenceslas. I would suggest to you that there are three things that this carol tells us about celebrating Christmas–what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. What to do is obvious. We are called to serve the poor. We are called by good King Wenceslas to look out our window and recognize who needs our care. Who is struggling because of grief, sickness, loss, or poverty? How can we extend ourselves to them? At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Christ who brings our salvation. But the truth is that Christ often works through us to bring salvation to others. So what we are called to do at Christmas is to be Christ to others—to reach out to those in need.
When do we do this? Well good King Wenceslas look out on the Feast of Stephen. The Feast of Stephen is December 26, the day after Christmas. This carol is quite specific to state that living the Christian life is not limited to Christmas day. It begins the day after Christmas and continues every day after that. We are called to be Christ to others every day of our lives.
How do we follow the gospel? How do we do what Christ asks of us? By walking in the footsteps of a saint. Here I do not mean good King Wenceslas. All of us have saints in our own lives—holy people who reflect God’s love to us. They might be a parent, an aunt, a teacher, a friend, or a coworker in whom we can see qualities that should be a part of our lives—qualities of generosity, sacrifice, patience, service, or joy. To celebrate Christmas well, we are asked to identify a saint in our lives and then follow in his or her footsteps. If we do so, we will not be disappointed. For by following in the steps of a holy person, we will have direction and courage. The winter chill of discouragement and fear will not affect us because “heat is in the very soil which our saint has printed.”
So, in the next 24 hours as you gather with family and friends, you might hear the strains of good King Wenceslas on your television, radio, or IPod. If you do, I encourage you to remember what this carol tells us about celebrating Christ’s birth. Try to locate a saint in your life and follow in his or her footsteps. Begin that journey the day after Christmas and continue it every day after that. And remember that following the gospel of Christ, serving one another, is no hardship or burden because “ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
December 25, 2013
Stella was eight years old. She was bright, funny, and relatively independent. But Stella hated one thing: she hated a thunderstorm. When the lightening flashed and the thunder crashed, Stella froze. She did not want to be alone. Now her parents knew this and tried to avoid any upcoming trouble. One day, they realized that a rather large storm was scheduled to pass over their home just about bedtime. They were hoping that they could keep Stella up until the storm was over, but the storm took its time, and it was growing late.
So finally, they said, “Stella, there’s big storm coming but it’s very late so why don’t you go upstairs and go to bed and we promise that we will not go to sleep until the storm is over. So you don’t need to be afraid because we will be right downstairs.”
Now Stella didn’t like this idea. But she was very tired. So she went up to bed and fell immediately to sleep.
KABOOM! The house shook with thunder.
Stella sat up in her bed and cried out, “Mommy! Daddy!”
Her mother ran up the stairs, held her, and said, “Yes, that was a loud one, but we’re right downstairs. I think the worst is over so go back to sleep.”
Her mother left. Stella lay down. But she did not go to sleep, because she didn’t think the storm was over. She was right.
Stella cried out again, “Mommy, Daddy!”
Her mother came up. “Yes, honey, that was louder than the first one. But we are still downstairs. And, remember, God is always with you, so you don’t need to be afraid.”
Stella knew that this was true. So she said okay and lay down again. Her mother left the room.
Stella sat up. “Help!” she said, “I’m afraid!”
This time her father came up. He held her. “Honey,” he said, “this is a really bad storm. But don’t be afraid because we’re right downstairs. And as your mom told you, God is always with you.”
Stella thought for a moment and then she said, “I know that God is always with me, but I need someone with skin on!”
Don’t we all? Don’t we all need someone with skin on? It is important that people love us, but don’t we need to be able to see that love, to hear that love, to touch that love. We need love with skin on.
God knows this. Centuries ago God revealed God’s self to Abraham and for centuries the Jewish people preserved their faith in a loving and forgiving God, in a God who saved them and freed them. But what you and I celebrate today as Christians is our belief that that same God became one of us. The technical word for this is “Incarnation.” It is a Latin word which means that God took up human flesh, that God came in human skin. And God did that because God knows that we need love that we can see, hear, and touch. And now that Jesus has risen and at the right hand of the Father, that incarnate love of God is meant to continue in our human flesh. God’s love became human at Bethlehem, but we must make God’s love real today.
Therefore, it is appropriate on this Christmas day to be thankful for the people in our lives who have really loved us, who have loved us in a skin-like way: the people whose laughter we have heard; the people whose embrace we have felt; the people whose patience we have seen in their faces as they held their breath and bit their tongue for our benefit. And if we have been loved in this real and human way are we not obliged to love others in a similar way? The message today is not only to be thankful for the people who have love us, but to ask, “Who are the people in my family and friends who I need to love? Who are the people who need to hear my voice of forgiveness and understanding; the people who need to see my face of welcoming and acceptance; the people who need to feel my touch of compassion?”
But it is even bigger than that. The birth of Christ tells us that we must love wider than just our circle of family and friends. The angel today’s gospel announces that this child is to be joy for all people. So our love must extend to all people regardless of their race, background, or sexual orientation. The angels’ song tells us that this child is to bring peace to the earth. So our love must be an active love that fosters peace and combats injustice, poverty, ignorance, and oppression.
If this world is to become Christ’s world, if this world is to be a world of peace, we must do more than think of peace. We must do more than hope and pray for peace. We must work for peace. We must have some skin in the game to make a difference. As we celebrate God becoming incarnate, as we celebrate Christ’s birth, we must love as we have been loved. Jesus loved us with skin on. It is now up to us to let that love continue for ourselves, for our families, and for our world.
A Wider Christmas
December 25, 2016
Christmas is a great Christian feast, a day on which we remember the birth of Jesus who we believe is Savior and Lord. I imagine that many of you here know a great many things about the customs, the food, the music, and the history that surround this holiday. But here is something you might not know. Do you know that many of the most popular Christmas carols were not written by Christians? They were written by Jews. “White Christmas” which is the most recorded Christmas song of all time was written by Irving Berlin whose father was a Rabbi. Jews also wrote “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Even the song “Christmastime Is Near,” from “A Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” was written by a Jewish author. Now it is unexpected, isn’t it, that the line from the carol “Do You Hear What I Hear,”—A child, a child sleeping in the night, he will bring us goodness and light—was written by someone who was not Christian?
The Jewish authorship of so many of our Christmas songs is a reminder that the thrust of Christmas is to open us wider. Christmas is always pushing us to be more expansive, more inclusive in our love. Usually we see Christmas as a time to be with those closest to us, our family and friends. Certainly that is central to this feast. But Christmas is always asking us to reach out of the circle of relationships in which we live. You can hear this invitation in the words of the angel to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.” Not just some of the people, or certain people, but all of the people. You can recognize this in the way that Luke begins his Christmas story with the reign of the Emperor Augustus and an enrolment of the whole world. By this Luke tells us that the love of Jesus is not to be restricted only to Bethlehem or Jerusalem but is to extend to Rome and to the ends of the earth. God loves all people, and all that God has made.
The Word of God invites us to respond to that love and to imitate it. Christmas calls us to extend our arms wider, to adjust our attitudes more broadly, to live our lives with more generosity. It is not simply a time to focus on our family and friends. It is certainly not a time to tighten our hearts out of indifference or fear. Christmas invites us to reach out in love and care to the poor in our cities, to the immigrants on our borders, to the protection of our environment, to those who do not share our Christian faith but still have dignity as children of God.
So when you gather together tonight or tomorrow with your family and friends, by all means be thankful and rejoice for the people who are closest to you. But do not stop there. Take up the challenge of Christmas to widen your love. I know, of course, that it is difficult for us to spread out our love more broadly. But if Jews can write Christmas carols, cannot we as followers of Jesus find room in our hearts to let more people in?
A New Christmas Tradition
December 25, 2019
We all love Christmas. For some of us, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Part of what gives joy to our Christmas celebrations are the many customs and traditions that surround this feast. Some of these traditions are very old. Setting up a Christmas tree goes back 500 years. People started sending Christmas cards about 200 years ago. But Christmas continues to create new traditions. It is one of these traditions about which I would like to speak to you about today. That tradition is the “Elf on the Shelf.”
Now to understand the Elf on the Shelf, you have to understand Santa Claus, because the Elf is a part of his system. Santa’s system is this: Santa has a lot of really nice toys and gifts that he wants to bring to people at Christmas. But Santa does not intend to bring those gifts to everyone. He only brings gifts to those who are good. If you are mean, fight with your brothers and sisters, selfish, or cruel, Santa might come to your house, but he is not going to bring you a gift. You might receive coal or a piece of rotten fruit. Since this is Santa’s system, it has to be maintained. If the system is going to work, Santa has to know who is good and who is not. As the song goes: Santa is making a list and checking it twice. He has to find out who’s naughty or nice.
For many years Santa ran this part of the system himself. When I was growing up and misbehaved before Christmas, my parents would say, “George, Santa’s watching. Santa’s watching you!” And because I really wanted a new bike for Christmas, I would clean up my act. But about 2005 Santa got tired of watching. So, he outsourced this piece of his system to elves, and here is where we get the Elf on the Shelf. You may buy one of these Elves on Amazon for about $30. If you bring an Elf to your home, he sits on a shelf and watches. Then every night he goes back to the North Pole and tells Santa who is good and who is bad. He comes back the next day and watches from a new location.
This is Santa’s system. It is in place, and it is a part of Christmas. But what I want all of you here to know is this: Santa’s system is not Jesus’ system. Santa brings gifts to those who are good. Jesus gives himself to everyone. That is what the angel announces to the shepherds: “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.” For all the people, not just those who are good, or responsible, or kind. The good news is that Christmas does not depend on what we do or fail to do. It only depends on what God has done, and God has given us his son.
Jesus comes to the good and the bad, to the saints and the sinners, to the naughty and to the nice. That means that if you are here this morning, Jesus comes to you. Even if you are not particularly proud of everything you have done this year, even if you have fought with your brothers and sisters, even if you have been more selfish than generous, even if you still hold a prejudice against others who are different because of status, or race, or sexual orientation, Jesus still comes to you. He offers you eternal life.
So, let’s get this straight. If you want presents under your Christmas tree, be good. Santa’s system, Santa’s rules. But Jesus’ rules are different. The only thing that matters to God is God’s free choice to save us, and God’s power to save us is greater than any of our achievements or failings. This is why God does not need the Elf on the Shelf. God’s love is unconditional. Therefore, whoever you are, whatever you have done, God’s love comes to you and the joy of Christmas is yours. That’s the gospel. Period. Merry Christmas.