I don’t ever remember believing in Santa Claus growing up. There is a recording of me at Christmas when I was three. I opened a present, and when I discovered the doll I had wanted, I exclaimed to my mom, “Oh Faye!” Of course, I usually called her mommy at age three, and I am not sure why I decided to call her by her first name just then. But this recording seems to indicate that even at age three, I was certain about who my presents came from, and it wasn’t Santa.
I am not sure why I never got into Santa. It may have been that my parents spoke to me in a rather grown-up manner, even when I was young. The story goes that when I was a baby and Nixon and McGovern were debating on TV, my dad held me on his lap and lectured to me about the relative strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. Apparently I listened intently. Discussions like this were somewhat normal in my house growing up, and so we may have never gotten around to Santa Claus. Or it may have been that I have always associated Christmas with the birth of Christ, rather than the advent of Santa. I may have felt that I would slight Christ by focusing too much on St. Nick.
I don’t feel like I suffered for my lack of belief in Santa. My mom decorated the house beautifully for Christmas, and I remember the Christmas season being filled with magical candles, Christmas music, and family reunions with my enormous family whom I adored. It seems like over the years, Christmas grew increasingly hard for me. I love presents and Christmas lights as much as the next person, but sometimes it is hard to appreciate these things fully when so many people in the world are without food and shelter and are under constant threat of losing their lives. Christmas exuberance often feels irresponsible in the face of horrific tragedies like Aleppo.
Despite all of this, I think I have actually begun to believe in Santa Claus this year. And I am mostly serious. I am not sure why, but a while ago, I began researching the life of Santa Claus—or, rather, Saint Nicholas, and I discovered something really interesting. The real St. Nick was a kick-ass social justice warrior. St. Nick lived in the third century in Greece, and he became known for being a protector of the vulnerable of society, especially children.
This is an icon of St. Nicholas.
There are a lot of stories about Saint Nicholas, but there are two I especially like. In one story, there were was an evil butcher who kidnapped some boys during a famine and was going to sell their flesh as ham. St. Nick raised the boys from the dead and reunited them with their families. Apparently St. Nick regularly restored hope to children by rescuing them from evil people and reuniting them with their loved ones. In another story, St. Nick came to the rescue of a poor man and his three daughters. This man had no money to give his daughters as a dowry, and so according to the custom of that day, no one would marry them. Because of difficult life circumstances, the man and his family became increasingly indigent. Faced with immanent starvation, with no ability to work, and no prospects of marriage, the eldest daughter had decided to prostitute herself in order to save her family. One evening, St. Nick threw a bag of coins into the window of the house where the family lived. This enabled the eldest daughter to get married. He did this for the other two daughters as well. The family was saved from starvation.
St. Nick didn’t literally raise these girls from the dead like he did with the kidnapped boys, but he did something just as important. Although they lived in a cruel society that had refused to give them the dignity they deserved, he resurrected their hope. In reading these stories, I realized that today St. Nick, in the person of Santa Claus, has been sanitized, watered down, and commercialized. No wonder no one really believes in him when they get older. The real St. Nick was radical, loving, and full of the kind of creative justice that tips the scales in favor of the oppressed and dehumanized, bringing them hope again. Incidentally, I take it that this is exactly what Jesus did, too, and there really is no conflict between Jesus and St. Nick. St. Nick was just carrying out the project Jesus got started. That’s a story I can believe in. And through my research, I suddenly realized that after all these years, I DO believe in St. Nick. I believe because I have seen him.
For example, I saw St. Nick this year in the loving justice of my friends, Steve and Luella. Steve and Luella found out that their neighbor, an older black woman who had lived all of her life in their neighborhood, was being harassed by petty fines for stuff like paint peeling off the side of her house or for a flat tire on her car. Meanwhile, Steve and Luella, who are white, had a crazy urban garden growing in their front yard. They had never received a fine of any sort. Steve did some investigation and found out that his neighbor’s predicament was part of a pretty common pattern in their neighborhood.
Over the years, a wealthy white woman has put pressure on minority homeowners to move out of their homes. She would harass them with petty fines until they either grew weary of harassment or could no longer pay the fines and had to move. When they sold their homes, the woman would buy them up and then rent or sell them to white people. My friends aren’t ones to sit by idly and let such things happened. Steve raised money to pay off his neighbor’s fines, and when the media wanted to interview him, he refused to do the interview unless he and his neighbor could do it together so that together they could highlight the injustices that had been occurring. Steve and Luella are still really good friends with their neighbor. Just like Saint Nicholas, they resurrected the hope of this woman, even though she had been treated cruelly by folks who refused to give her the dignity she deserved.
This isn’t the only time I have seen St. Nick this year. My friends Tanya and Christian live downtown in a neighborhood that has been forgotten and abandoned by many. It is a neighborhood in which residents are harassed by the same woman who harasses people in Steve and Luella’s neighborhood. On most Saturdays, Tanya and Christian open their house to anyone in the neighborhood (or anyone, really) to drop in for pancakes, waffles, hot coffee, and good conversation. They also often hold classes to teach anyone who wants to learn things like registering to vote, navigating the health care system, or even skills like canning or making knit hats for friends and family. Sometimes when Tanya comes home from work, she finds neighbors sitting on her porch. They know it is a safe and quiet place to be. Tanya and Christian also have a little library box in front of their house that holds donated books. They purchased it from an organization called Little Free Library, and their friends and neighbors help keep it stocked. Anyone in the neighborhood can take the books. The other day, a neighborhood girl discovered the box, and she said to Tanya, “You mean I can get free books whenever I want?” On a daily basis, I see Tanya and Christian resurrect hope in people by loving folks who have been forgotten by others.
This year has been a difficult year for so many reasons, but in the midst of troubling politics, world tragedies, and natural disasters, I continually see my friends, family, and even complete strangers show love in powerful ways to those who have been forgotten and dehumanized by others. I have witnessed people being resurrected by love. I have been resurrected on numerous occasions by this love. This is the spirit of St. Nick, and it is alive and well in the world despite all the darkness that exists beside it. When I asked Steve if I could share his story, he said, “Yes! Rebellions are based on hope.” I like this idea, and I think St. Nick would, too, because he consistently rebelled by inspiring hope against the dark forces that conspired to crush peoples’ body and spirits.
The other day, I read an article on Facebook by a woman named Leslie Rus who has a wonderful way of helping her kids learn to be Santa Claus. This woman writes, “In our family, we have a special way of transitioning the kids from receiving from Santa, to becoming a Santa. This way, the Santa construct is not a lie that gets discovered, but an unfolding series of good deeds and Christmas spirit. When they are 6 or 7, whenever you see that dawning suspicion that Santa may not be a material being, that means the child is ready. I take them out ‘for coffee’ at the local wherever. We get a booth, order our drinks, and the following pronouncement is made:
‘You sure have grown an awful lot this year. Not only are you taller, but I can see that your heart has grown, too…In fact, your heart has grown so much that I think you are ready to become a Santa Claus. You probably have noticed that most of the Santas you see are people dressed up like him. Some of your friends might have even told you that there is no Santa. A lot of children think that, because they aren’t ready to BE a Santa yet, but YOU ARE’.”
This woman helps her children plan their first acts as Santa Claus. Usually this involves identifying people in their community who need love and support and figuring out tangible ways to show it. I have to admit that when I read this story, it resurrected hope in me. I think many of us experience the world as a magical place full of wonder and mystery when we are younger. Santa Claus and other stories like that are part of what create this childhood magic. Often as we get older, we are told that the stories we believed aren’t true. We stop believing in “Santa” and “Santa” here, of course, can mean a lot of things. So I love it that this woman helps her children understand that the magic, wonder, and mystery they experienced as a child is not something they have to give up when they get older. Rather, it is a human endeavor that they get to be a part of now.
This year more than ever, I believe that despite all of the darkness in the world, there is something beautiful, sacred, and even magical at the core of every human being. I think that the darkness of this year has helped to illuminate in ways I had not seen before. Humans have this amazing ability to empathize, to see each others’ pain, to offer help, and to love. We have the ability “to raise each other from the dead” when all hope seems lost. I have been thinking a lot about the Christmas rituals I want to develop and practice for the rest of my life. I don’t know what they all are yet, but they will definitely involve Santa Claus
 Here is one of the sites I used to research St. Nick: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/
 Tanya tells me that Little Free Library is a national organization, and anyone can purchase a box from them. Maybe you would like to include a box in your neighborhood, too. https://littlefreelibrary.org/
 This story was posted December 7, 2016 on the Facebook page “Love What Matters.” It is attributed to Leslie Rus.