Santa Claus was never a big part of my life until I let my white beard grow long. That was twenty years ago. My beard sometimes closes doors for North American Caucasian who think I never got out of the 1960s. But the beard opens more portals to wonderful conversations in places like Viet Nam where they called me Karl Marx.
Elders in Afghanistan admired my beard and apparently trusted me. They addressed me as Baba (Uncle) Noel. Once in Mexico City airport I got stopped eleven times by mothers with young children who wanted their child to meet Senior Noel. It was summer and I didn’t have a single gift to give, not even a piece hard tack candy.
When late November arrives I know I am in for surprise greetings every time I go out. The words from strangers carry positive energy because people have good thoughts about Santa except for children age seven and older who have become suspicious that Santa talk is a ruse and he can’t be trusted to be what they were taught about him.
The home I grew up in acknowledged Santa. We didn’t have a fire place so it was confusing to me how Santa would get into the house by way of a chimney that went to a coal furnace. Somehow he made it and the stockings were full when I awoke on Christmas day. There was at least one small present, an orange and some hard tack candy, not my favourite but I didn’t complain because I didn’t want to stop a good thing.
I first really became aware of the power of Santa and St. Nicholas, during the 1990s when I regularly visited Palestine where Muslims, Jews and Christians alike used my appearance as a conversation starter. When the second intifada (uprising) broke out in 2000 there were violent exchanges between Israelis and Christian villages like Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. In Beit Jala I was seriously introduced to St. Nicholas, their patron saint who gave special protection to the villagers since the 4th century.
The story is that St. Nicholas was a pilgrim to Beit Jala in the years 312-315 and he lived in buildings and caves built by monks a century earlier. The people of Beit Jala told me story after story about how St Nicholas had saved their village over the centuries up to and including modern intifadas.
The original Saint Nicholas, one of the sources of modern day Santa lived in 4th century Turkey in the city of Myra and was known to be a prolific and secret gift giver particularly to people who left their shoes out for him. According to legend St Nicholas spoke up for justice and was imprisoned under the Roman emperor, Diocletian. He later became a church leader, bishop and according to historians participated in the Council of Nicaea of course after he was released from prison under Emperor Constantine the first emperor to court the support of church people. St. Nicholas died Dec. 6, 343 and according to reports a unique relic called manna formed on his coffin. The manna had special healing powers.
The merging of Santa Claus, in his flying sleigh and St. Nicholas, the gift giver and healer with the birth of Jesus has really only happened in the last several hundred years. The choice of December 25 to remember Jesus birth didn’t occur until 350 years after Jesus’ birth. It is almost certainly not Jesus birthday. It is winter in Palestine and shepherds are not likely to be in the fields at that time of year. The date was probably chosen because it was the Roman holiday that celebrated the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere. Today Christian and non Christian cultures celebrate Christmas.
Somewhere between my childhood and the 1990s I learned that the combination of St Nicholas in the fourth century, European mythology, and imagination gave birth to the modern Santa Claus. There is just enough magic in all of the sources to maintain curiosity in children and adults. In the final chapter of this mashing together to make Santa Claus, the holiday season has become a marriage of commerce and advent that conveniently invokes Santa in order to escape the more demanding implications of the story of Jesus' birth, the politics of domination, poverty, infanticide, peace, and hints of universal claims from the Magi.
The power of Santa is invoked to sell lots of stuff, in fact the whole economic year hangs on December sales. By the time Santa Claus works his wonders in the market place he has been thoroughly trivialized and there is not much connection to St Nicholas, gift giving, generosity, or even reindeer..
I have never played Santa for a commercial establishment, but I have impersonated Santa for events of gift giving. Commercial establishments need a lift from Santa because it is very hard to sell Christmas shoppers with a story about someone being born in a manger probably with goat manure on the dirt floor. Commercial life demands immediate results, the kind that a newly minted and happy Santa can offer. It does not need a birth story about unknown parents who are manipulated or forced by an emperor with no compunctions about using terror to impose his will, into travelling to that forsaken place where Jesus was born.
One time I visited Toys R Us dressed like Santa and accompanied by a team of elves. It was a few days after Christmas so the symbolism was still solidly implanted in people’s brains. I entered the store with my staff of elves and immediately requested the manager to remove violent war toys from his shelves. I explained to him how dangerous the toys were and that I had determined that the bad toys must be permanently removed for the safety of children. He replied that what was on his shelves was not my business to which I replied that toys are always my business.
We then used the shopping carts to load assorted dangerous toys from throughout the store that my staff of elves had marked for removal. By that time the police had decided to intervene to stop what they called a disturbance but what we designated a recall. TV cameras were also present. I informed the police that my staff and I would leave the store as soon as we had completed our work. The police threatened arrest. We had a quick staff meeting, elves and Santa, and judged that the police would never arrest Santa or his staff. We were right, however the police blocked our progress as we pushed our carts from aisle to aisle and finally into the backroom where we instructed the workers to hold toys for pick up by United Postal Service and prompt shipment to my workshop.
So you see Santa can be firm and hard nosed. That is why hard nosed adults should put Santa Claus and his ancient partner Saint Nicholas back into the holiday season!