We are all sort of familiar with Santa Clause with his red pyjamas and long with beard. Yet what many of us don’t know is that cocola turned him red in the advertising of their product and he has been painted red in our imagination ever since.
It is interesting that the symbol for philanthropy and the real meaning of Christmas being by a multinational corporation to become their motif for their consumeristic endeavours.
Father Christmas rather than living on the north pole and surrounded by elves in a toy factory (thanks Hollywood for that) he is really based on a real life Saint, St. Nicholas, an early bishop, of a place in Greece called Myra. He was a fiery redheaded man who was passionate about orthodox theology an on one occasion punched some of the followers of the Arius heresy (think Jehovah’s Witnesses).
He was also a wealthy man having been left a fortune by his parents. He was extraordinarily generous but was also very humble and used to give gifts and blessings by stealth.
On one occasion when an old man thought he might have to sell his daughters into prostitution due to their abject poverty, on hearing of the families poverty Nicholas threw a bag of gold down his chimney which saved the family and enabled them to survive and turn their lives around.
Often the poor would do their washing outside and would hang their stockings out to dry and Nicholas would put money in their drying stockings as a way of blessing people anonymously.
Nicholas was so extraordinarily generous that his “stealth generously” became that of legend. Following Nicholas’s death many of his clergy follows his generosity to the poor and marginalised, over the years the entire fortune was spent on alleviating poverty in Myra.
As I thought about St. Nicholas and his kindness by stealth, I was challenged by the idea of how often we do the right thing for the wrong reasons, how we like affirmation for our good deeds and how we like other people thinking we are good and kind people. The recipients of the original St. Nicholas never knew the human hands that God used to bless them. I want to have a humility like this, although I know on some days I have a long way to go!
The legend has lived on even until today, but rather than being a Saint whose life can challenge and inspire us, we mystify and romanticise so we aren’t challenged to be more like Christ by the example of St. Nicholas.
Also Nicholas was someone who sought to give practical help wherever he saw human need or suffering, rather than simply being generous and self congratulatory once a year.
Interestingly, the change from green to red has significance in the Catholic colour of seasons red is infrequent celebrations of Saints Days (rare events) rather than the green which is ‘ordinary time’ which is most of the time.
We often ask children “if they’ve been good?” In order that “Santa” might come, which actual makes generosity a reward for good behaviour rather than an unearned gift. Indeed take this flawed thinking we end up catagagorizing people into ‘the deserving and undeserving poor’ which places ourselves in a very judgemental position, all of us have made mistakes and squandered opportunities and needed the help of others.
So rather than dismiss Santa as a myth let’s recapture this green hero, his humility and philanthropy by stealth, but please don’t punch and Jehovah’s Witnesses!