This week, as I was shopping with my wife, Jess, for all our Christmas food, I picked up a case of Coca-Cola. As expected, on the front in Christmassy red and white, was a picture of Santa Claus.
We might have sent a letter or wish-list to Santa as children. Then, at some point, we may have learned that there is no Santa in the North Pole, and that we should be thankful instead for our hard-working parents who did their best to buy us gifts and make us happy on Christmas morning.
And then, as we grew older, we got the chance to be Santa. We can spoil our nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren, with all kinds of gadgets and toys. But it doesn’t need to only be children. We can also bless our partners, parents, and pastors (wink wink, nudge nudge) with presents to let them know how much we care about them.
But like all good Christmas traditions, there’s something more behind Santa Claus that we should think about this Christmas. You see, Santa is actually based on a real person, Saint Nicholas, who taught the church about giving and generosity. But the way he did it may surprise you.
Unlike Santa Claus, Nicholas lived during the fourth century in what is now modern day Turkey. His parents were very wealthy, and after their early death, Nicolas was left with a significant inheritance. Because of the faith instilled to him by his parents, he decided to use his wealth to bless the poor.
Nicolas lived during the time when Christians were persecuted in the Roman world. He experienced the terror of emperor Diocletian, but maintained his conviction that Jesus’ commands ought to be followed. Nicolas didn’t just spiritualize Jesus’ commands to give away to the poor and take care of the widows and orphans. He believed that he should actually use his wealth for others.
There are many stories out there that display the extent of Nicolas’ generosity. One time, Nicolas got to know the family of a single father who had three daughters. But because they were so poor, the father was not able to provide dowries for his daughters. In the fourth century, this meant they would likely never marry.
Nicolas, feeling moved to help, decided to give each child a lump of gold. Legend has it that he tossed them into the window, landing in the socks that the daughters had hung on the fireplace mantel to dry. (This is where the tradition of hanging stockings comes from!)
Whether or not we believe this is how the story really happened, it’s clear that Nicolas exemplified Jesus’ teaching of generosity and giving up of worldly possessions for the sake of the poor. He modelled a generosity that didn’t seek recognition or praise. His charitable actions and commitment to following Jesus eventually led him to become a bishop and a saint.
In the last few hundred years the person of Saint Nicolas turned into the legend of Santa Claus. We still see a character of generosity and joy at Christmas. Santa and his reindeer come around on Christmas Eve to make all the good children happy by giving them the toys they wished for.
There’s definitely a time to receive gifts, but Santa shouldn’t just remind us of wish-lists and getting what we want. Santa should make us think about the joy and blessing of giving - not a kind of giving that makes us or our loved ones happy when we have more than we need; but a kind of giving that extends to those who really need it, without reservation, requirement, or restriction.
And so, this Christmas, as we buy all the gifts for our family members and loved ones, I invite you to take the Santa challenge. Here’s how it goes.
Make room in your budget for one more gift.
I know this might be tricky, but maybe you can sacrifice something that you were hoping to buy for yourself. Don’t go into debt for it, but find the area where you have abundance and try to cut back a bit for the sake of someone in need. It’s not easy; it’s sacrifice.
Learn about a need in your community.
You might already be able to think about one. Maybe there’s a family member who is going through a difficult time with finding work or has unexpected expenses that they can’t seem to handle alone. Or maybe it’s a neighbour that you know could use a helping hand. This might also require some listening. Talk to your pastors, community leaders, or others who may know about the needs in your community.
Figure out how to give what you can give.
You may not have lumps of gold lying around, but figure out what the best form of giving would be. It might be cash, a gift card, or a practical item.
Give in secret.
This might be the most challenging part. It’s hard to give while letting go of the recognition that goes with it. But giving without anyone else knowing is a freeing and joyful experience. It feels good knowing that the receiver doesn’t know and has no need to reciprocate the gift.
Leave it in God’s hands.
After you give, let go of it. It’s no longer yours to worry about. Allow God to use the gift to touch the person in a way that will make them feel loved, and allow God to use that experience to shape you as a person.
Maybe this seems farfetched, but this is what the tradition of Santa Claus is really about. It’s about generosity. It’s about sacrifice and commitment to your community. It’s about taking Jesus’ words seriously and letting go of our own wealth and gratification. So what are you waiting for? Take the Santa Challenge.