Standing On The Side Of Love In Statesboro, Georgia

Who is Santa Claus?

I first came to know Santa in Minkovitz Department Store in downtown Statesboro. It was in the building that now houses Frills and Fancies – right across from the court house. This was the MAIN department store for many years in the ‘Boro. Now the Minkovitz family was Jewish. But they sure celebrated Christmas in their store. And every year, Mrs. Minkovitz’s father, Old Man Deloach, would dress up in a Santa Suit and sit on his throne on the third floor. Of course, that’s the floor where the toys were. Mama would take my brother Johnny and me up there and we would nervously sit in his lap and share our hopes and desires. I’m sure you have a similar story. I somehow came to the conclusion, though, that Mr. Deloach wasn’t the REAL Santa Claus. And Mama clarified my confusion by indicating that Santa had lots of helpers. (A seed of doubt planted.) One Christmas, though, we road the Nancy Hanks train all the way to Atlanta and visited Rich’s department store. That, of course, is where the REAL Santa was. I was SO excited when I got into the rocket (or elevator) that would take us up to Winter Wonderland for our visit with Santa. But when I got up there, we divided into TWO lines. The “colored children” were to go into one line and the white children went into the other. Now the Santa at Minkovitz in Statesboro saw all the children. But here we were dividing into two lines. Why? How could the REAL Santa be in two places. Then I overheard someone saying that the other line led to a colored Santa. A Colored Santa! Santa wasn’t colored. Not in any of the pictures I had seen. (Another seed of doubt planted.) And so it went. Little by little I learned information that made me wonder. I held on for a LONG time though. I wanted there to be a REAL Santa so badly. I finally understood the truth about Santa when I was in the fifth grade. The other children were teasing me because I said there WAS TOO a Santa Claus. So, just as Virginia O’Hanlon questioned an authority, we went to Mrs. Russell, our teacher. Mrs. Virginia Russell was the sweetest, most loving teacher in the world. And she always told the truth. And so she did. Mrs. Russell told us that yes, indeed Santa was real. But Santa was more than just a regular person. Santa was a spirit. Santa was the spirit of giving and of love for children. And then I knew. I turned to my friends and said, See, Santa IS real. But my heart hurt because some of my innocence was erased that day. Since that time, though, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for that Wonderful Spirit of Giving, Santa Claus. How did we get Santa Claus and why does he continue to exist?

Although most of us are somewhat familiar with the origin of Santa Claus, the history is really complicated and unclear. The standard explanation is that Santa began with St. Nicholas, although there are authorities within the Catholic church that question his very existence. Most of the histories of St. Nicholas were written long after his death and we really do not know how much is factual. So I’m providing a disclaimer right here that I’m not providing you with facts. I’m sharing the legend with you.

Among Christians, there is near universal belief that Nicholas was a bishop from Asia Minor who died in 345 or 352. Many religious historians believe, however, that Nicholas is a recycled pagan god drawing from the legends and attributes of many of them. In any case, at some point, the church created a biography that matched many of the stories being told about him. He was believed to be the Bishop of Myra in Lycia (now Turkey). He is alleged to have attended the first council of Nicea; however, according to my sources, his name does not appear on the list of bishops that were attending. There were many miracles and legends told and written about Nicholas and churches were named in his honor. Many of the stories were recorded in the 10th century by the Christian author Metaphrastes. Here are four of the more famous feats.

• He halted a storm at sea and saved three drowning sailors

• He loved children and gave them gifts anonymously by throwing them through their windows at night.

• He inherited a large fortune and used it to help poor children.

• He brought several children back to life.

Later, legendary St. Nicholas lost some of his popularity in Europe. He was out of vogue mainly because Martin Luther disagreed with the veneration of the saints, which he said was not based on biblical teaching but on superstitions. In the 19th century St. Nicholas was superseded in much of Europe by Christkindlein, the Christ child, who delivered gifts secretly to the children. However, he traveled with a dwarf-like helper called Pelznikel or a St. Nicholas like figure. Eventually they all became combined into an image that is sometimes called, Kris Kringle and sometimes called Santa Claus. In Europe today, St. Nicholas or one of his aliases (Pere Noel, Father Frost, Father Christmas, Joulupkki, , etc.) distributes gifts on December 5, the eve of his feast day or on some other chosen wintry day. In North America, we have Santa Claus accompanied by his reindeer and he comes on Christmas Eve. Why Santa Claus?

When the Dutch came to America and established New Amsterdam – now New York City, they brought St. Nicholas with them. After the British seized the city there was a great deal of intermarriage and, similarly, the legends of each group were married. Saint Nicholas, also known by the Dutch as Sinter Klaus, became synonymous with the British Father Christmas and he began to visit homes on Christmas Eve. By the end of the Revolutionary War, his name had Americanized into Santa Claus.

However, not everyone in America liked Santa Claus or the secular celebration of Christmas. Even the congregationalists, who were the fore-mothers and fathers of Unitarians and Universalists, often denounced Santa and Christmas celebrations as sinful. But over time, Santa’s popularity grew. And he had some help from some authors, artists, and songwriters.

Washington Irving wrote a humorous book in 1809 about the history of New York in which St. Nicholas is depicted as smoking a pipe and riding over the treetops in a horse-drawn wagon. Clement Clarke Moore read the book and wrote a Christmas poem for his children called, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known today as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” And thus, the reindeer were born. Thomas Nast, a popular political cartoonist, further developed Santa’s image. He was the first to say that Santa lived at the North Pole during the time when explorers were competing to be the first to reach it. By the end of the 19th century, Santa Claus ruled. His image was used in campaigns to restrict child labor laws and for charities. And of course, his image was used to SELL products, most notably Coca Cola, who has copyrighted their image of Santa.

Although we sometimes now think of Santa as only a commercial entity, there is actually a Theology of Santa. Some say he is a “practice God” for children. After all, he has many of the attributes of the Old Testament God.

Sing:

Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why,

Santa Claus is coming to town.

He’s making his list. He’s checking it twice, Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice,

Santa Claus is coming to town.

He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake,

He knows if you’ve been bad or good,

So be good for goodness sake.

Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why,

Santa Claus is coming to town.

That’s not my favorite Christmas song. But it does provide us of some understanding of the Santa theology.

• He is virtually omnipresent. He can visit hundreds of millions of homes in one night.

• He is omniscient. He monitors each child; he is all seeing and all-knowing.

• Although not omnipotent, he does have great powers. He can manufacture gifts for hundreds of millions of children, and deliver them in one night – each to the correct child.

• He is all-good and all-just. He judges children’s behavior and awards them accordingly.

• He is eternal.

While most see no harm in perpetrating this myth, Santa theology can be dangerous. Santa is not really just at all. Children are rewarded not by their behavior but by how much money their parents are willing or able to spend. This could damage a child’s self esteem. And I know from experience, that it can put a real hardship on parents. I used to worry that if my sons presents from Santa were not as good as the ones he brought their cousins who lived next door, they would think Santa didn’t love them or that they were not worthy. So each year, I would find out from my brother Johnny what his children were getting and then try to match that. How ridiculous! One year I bought them a go-cart, which they didn’t need and I couldn’t really afford at the time. Another problem with Santa is that children in Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses or some other traditions do not receive gifts from Santa. But they have to go to school and hear about what all their Christian friends received. Many of their parents try to make up for this situation, of course, by giving gifts for other holidays or occasions during this period.

So what do we do about Santa? What should children be taught about Santa Claus? I don’t have the answer. I do know that Santa is not going away. I think Frank Church, the editor of the Sun who answered Virginia’s letter, is right. He will be here for a long, long time. But we do have choices about how to handle Santa Claus. he folks at the organization called Religious Tolerance present four options.

  1. Santa is an important part of childhood. Carleton Kendrick believes that “all children have the right to be fascinated and enchanted by the nurturing, age-old myths and fables of their culture.” He implies that parents should originally teach their children that Santa exists and they should refrain from admitting the truth when their children express doubts. Rather they should stand by to support their kids when their “fantasies and myths grudgingly give way to more mature, confusing realities.
  2. Belief in Santa is dangerous. The Rev. John Eich suggests that teaching a child about Santa can backfire. “When a parent says “Yes, there really is a Santa Claus and his reindeer can fly,’ he is no longer playing a game. The parent is lending his personal authority as a parent to the myth, giving it the ring of truth.” When the child later finds out that there is no Santa, she may doubt other parental teachings, including the parent’s religious beliefs.
  3. Belief in Santa is useful. Gary Grassi believes that children can grasp the concept of Santa better than God. Then once children understand how Santa works, it is a relatively simple step to abandon him and accept an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving God.
  4. Teach Santa as a myth. Parents can teach the historical legends associated with St. Nicholas. They are great stories At the same time, parents can teach Santa Claus as a modern secular/cultural myth. Children can still enjoy the story without actually believing that Santa exists. Families can still pretend that girts arrived from Santa. Since the child has always considered Santa to be an imaginary person, he/she will not be disillusioned with their parents when their friends tell them that Santa does not exist.

What should UU’s do? You You decide.

As far me, I will have something from Santa for my grandson JD under my tree. But when the time comes and he asks me questions about Santa or the Easter Bunny, I will try to explain what I see as the truth. My sons, John and Fred, became suspicious first of the Easter Bunny and challenged me to tell them whether or not the eggs really came from ME. I told them the truth. I told them that after they went to bed, I became the Easter Bunny. The spirit of the bunny was in me and I would hop all around the kitchen and color eggs and put them in the basket and for two or three hours, I really WAS the Easter Bunny. They got so tickled with me demonstrating my bunny incarnation that the new knowledge was liberating and not defeating. I think they knew right then that on Christmas Eve, I became Santa. I have Santa within me and, for me, Santa is real!

© 2001 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.

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