Saint Nicholas is one of my favorites. Yes. I know St. Nick and Santa Claus are different figures. If it could ever be proven that Saint Nicholas of Myra was merely a church legend, I would still cherish the story. He is the patron Saint of children and pawnbrokers. He is the one who like Moses gave into violence to defend the faith by punching the heretic Arius in the mouth only to become subject to the discipline of the church by being suspended from his office as bishop for a year. And in his repentance he humbly submitted to the discipline. He was amazingly human. Like St. Paul centuries before him, he would say “follow me as I follow Christ.” I have often thought if I had been in a tradition where I took on the name of a saint it would be Nicholas. I was given an icon of St. Nicholas for my ordination. His name was on the short list of possible names for my sons.
Imagine then my complete surprise when a former church member called me out of the blue to ask a strange question. “Would you be my Santa Claus?” It was the first time I was ever asked to play Santa. The person who called was a special education teacher for home bound students. She explained that these children never got to go see Santa. Their families never had pictures of their children with Santa. She went on to say that up until that year her uncle had done this task. He was no longer able to do so. She had the costume. She had gifts for the students. Would I give a few days’ time to help her out?
What could I say? I was an active pastor then. I had duties to perform at the church and the district? It was December for heaven’s sake the busiest month in my calendar. I said of course I would do it.
The following Saturday afternoon I drove to her house to get the costume. When she answered the door the first words out of her mouth was, “Oh good. You didn’t lose the weight.” The suit had no padding, you see. After visiting for a while and making arrangements to meet I took the suit home. But, there was one thing nagging at me in the back of my mind. Could I pull it off? I had no acting experience. There was no theatrical training in my education. Could I really be Santa? Then inspiration happened.
I called one of my then church members who had small children. “Are your kids still up?” I asked. It was early evening. “Yes.” He said. “Could I bring them some candy?” He hesitated. “Well, I guess that would be all right.” He said finally. “Good,” I said, “I’ll be right over. And I will be wearing a red suit and a white beard.” After that I put on the suit and drove over to their house.
Luckily, Greg regained his composure in time. The kids were waiting. When he opened the door he said, “Look who’s here!” The children were beside themselves with glee. I then fell into the role. I talked with the kids as Santa. I mentioned to one of the girls how she was so much like her grandmother (who I knew). She giggled with the attention. I was laying it on thick and heavy. When I left the children knew Santa had made a special visit to their house. I wonder if they remember that night now.
That night Santa became real for them. And I felt the spirit of St. Nicholas dwelled within me for what I thought would be a short time. But, I was in. For the next three Decembers I was Santa for kids who did not get to see Santa otherwise unless they were in Children’s Hospital. My friend retired from her teaching post. But, I never retired from being me and Santa. I have been invited to be Santa at schools, church, and nursing homes. To this day I have yet to own a Santa Claus costume. Like the spirit of St. Nick, the suits I wear are borrowed.
I once said in a joking way that I was Santa Claus. A friend’s five-year old son looked to her and asked, “Is he really?” Yes I am. I am happy to be one of those people who give up their own identities for a brief time to bring Christmas joy to people who really need it. Another thing that makes me even happier are the times when I can’t be there those other guys who say, “if you can’t make it, call me and I will do it.”
Some people want to say Christmas is about Jesus and not Santa. I claim that if Saint Nicholas was a true follower of Jesus, then we need him too this time of year. The rest of the year we don’t get enough of either of them.