The story of St Nicholas should be reclaimed, not cancelled

Almost every year, it seems, there’s a story about some wretched clergyman (in my experience, usually some Anglican who wants his name in the papers) who makes all the children in his parish cry by announcing that there’s no such person as Father Christmas. This year, I’m sorry to say, it’s a Catholic archbishop.

It seems that what annoyed this one was a plan for a “snow cabin” in the main square of his cathedral city of Resistencia, in Argentina, where Father Christmas would hear children’s wishes and receive donated toys to be given to poor children.

In response to this, in a sermon during Mass, Archbishop Fabriciano Sigampa told the children that Santa Claus was not real, but instead a commercialised symbol of Christmas. (I thought that this particular Father Christmas was collecting donated toys for poor children? What’s commercialised about that? But let it pass).

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“That’s not Christmas,” Archbishop Sigampa said: children should not confuse celebrating the birth of Christ “with a fat man dressed in red”. Well, who said that they should? But they might well remember the story of St Nicholas, the original Santa ’Claus, who had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him (hence the gold-paper covered chocolate coins we give children at Christmas) and understand that story, surely, as being directly related to the underlying message of Christmas (just as Christmas presents should remind us of the gifts of the three Kings). Another version of the story of St Nicholas has him secretly, by night, throwing gold coins into the houses of the poor.

But does Archbishop Sigampa reclaim Santa Claus for the Church? Not him, the miserable old Scrooge. “Surely, in the coming days there will be a deluge of advertisements after they inaugurate the house where a fat man dressed in red lives. And we should not confuse, we should not confuse Christmas with that.” He said children “should know that, in reality, the gifts come from the efforts of their parents and with the help of Jesus”.

Yes, but the children already know what their parents do for them, and they take it for granted: that’s what parents are for, that’s just routine. What they look for every year is the wonder of Christmas, the idea that there is something magical about the season. More and more we are being told by the secularists that the real origin of Christmas is an older pagan feast called yuletide and that’s how we should keep it. But of course, when Christianity baptised the older winter feast, it was transformed, it became what it had never been before, a season of reconciliation, of peace to men of good will. And that meaning has persisted, even in these supposedly de-Christianised times.

We are similarly increasingly told these days that our Christmas has more to do with all the feasting and jollities of Dickens’s Christmas Carol than with the story of the birth of Christ: but Dickens’s story (which is, after all, the story of a conversion), and the Dickensian Christmas itself, are directly derived from the prior reality of the story of the first Christmas. “I am sure,” Scrooge’s nephew tells his uncle,

“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

If the story of St Nicholas has been to some extent de-Christianised, it’s Archbishop Sigampa’s job to re-Christianise it, not to say that we just scrap it. Such stories, such traditions, are too precious to just cancel, as though they had never been.

Anyway, the archbishop’s sermon caused the organisers of the snow cabin to do just that. The snow cabin will now be called “The House of Christmas”: but it will have no Santa, no magic. So children just won’t be interested in it and it will be a flop. And I hope Archbishop Sigampa will be thoroughly satisfied, the old misery guts: a church full of weeping children and an excellent scheme for collecting toys for poor children scuppered. Bah, humbug, is what I say; and I hope the archbishop enjoys his plate of gruel on Christmas day.

And God bless us, every one.

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