When I wandered into the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor recently, a special showing of Miracle on 34th Street dampened my Christmas spirit.
I plopped down in one of the old theater’s restored Beaux Arts seats during the scene where Santa explains The True Meaning of Christmas to a Macy’s janitor. Santa launches into a tirade about the commercialization of Christmas, about how Macy’s wants him to push certain toys on the kids. That attitude misses the point of Christmas, Santa says. Christmas is about bringing joy to children, no matter where the parents buy the toy.
“Okay,” I thought. “Maybe Santa missed the mark too.”
Christmas is about joy, but the gift-giving part should be secondary. Miracle on 34th Street and so many other stories like it aim too low to hit The True Meaning of Christmas. Instead, they fit into a popular conception of Christmas that places a premium on gift-giving for the sake of gift-giving, embodied in a jolly man in a red suit. The real Santa—Saint Nicholas—offers deeper insight how we should celebrate Christmas.
A Catholic bishop in Turkey during the third century, Saint Nicholas became the basis for the Santa Claus myth because of his reputation for discreet generosity. In the most famous story, he saved three poor sisters whose father did not have enough money for their dowries. To prevent him from selling them into slavery, Saint Nicholas visited their house three times, each time leaving enough money so that each sister could marry. On the final occasion, the father caught sight of Saint Nicholas as he was climbing out the window and thanked him profusely.
Other legends record the saint saving three men falsely accused of crimes from the death penalty and saving the city of Myra in time of famine with a miracle of beer. All throughout Turkey, Nicholas was known for his charity to rich and poor alike.
In the most lurid tale, Saint Nicholas once raised two boys from the dead. A nobleman was sending his sons to Athens to be educated, but first instructed them to receive a blessing from the bishop. Before going to Nicholas, however, the young men stopped at an inn. Seeing how rich they were, the innkeeper killed them and pickled them, intending to sell them as pork.
Saint Nicholas saw all of this in a vision and confronted the innkeeper about the murder the next day. Because of the holy man’s insight, the innkeeper confessed his crime immediately and begged forgiveness for what he had done. No sooner had he finished speaking than the pickled pieces of the boys reunited and the boys came back to life. Saint Nicholas raised the boys to their feet and told them not to thank him, but to give praise to God alone for this miracle. He then blessed them and sent them off to Athens for their studies.
Regardless of the factual truth of these stories, they convey a deeper truth about how Saint Nicholas became a symbol of gift-giving at Christmas. Like all saints, everything he did was directed at others to bring others closer to God. In the story of the two murdered boys, Saint Nicholas returned them to life not because he felt bad about their deaths, but because he knew they could grow closer to their creator in life.
Every one of Saint Nicholas’ gifts was really a gift to God. And of course, that’s why he is the most recognizable symbol of Christmas, a holiday that focuses solely on Christ giving of himself to the world so that the world can give itself to him.
So buy Christmas presents. Sing carols. Celebrate Santa. But remember that each time we give a gift to each other, we become like more like Christ, the ultimate giver on Christmas.
And that’s the greatest miracle of all.