The Real (Not So Jolly) St. Nick
About 17 centuries ago, in the village of Patara (today Demre, Turkey), a nobleman who had fallen on hard times made a difficult choice. With no dowries for his three daughters, it was unlikely any of them would marry—which was like a death sentence for women at the time. Slavery was preferable. At the very least, it meant his daughters would be housed, fed, and clothed. So the nobleman was forced to propose selling his eldest daughter.
The next morning, a bag of gold was found on the floor of his home, evidently thrown through the window. Some versions of the story suggest the bag had landed in a shoe or stocking left near the fireplace to dry. The gold supplied a dowry for his eldest daughter, so the nobleman proposed to sell his second.
The next morning, a second bag of gold appeared. The house bustled with wedding plans, but one daughter still remained. That night, the nobleman stayed awake until, as expected, a third bag flew through the window and rattled on the floor (… or into a stocking). He immediately sprang outside and overtook the mysterious donor.
He recognized the lean face and its dirty beard immediately. It was Nicholas, a local orphan who had dedicated his life to the church and the poor. The gold had come from his own inheritance, left by his deceased parents. Nicholas made the nobleman promise to tell no one of his charity. The nobleman’s gratitude, however, was better than his word. St. Nicholas of Myra would commit many other acts of secret gift-giving in his lifetime, and knowledge of his deeds would spread throughout the known world.
The real St. Nicholas differs strongly from the modern Santa Claus: There’s no reindeer, no sled, no red suit, no toyshop in the North Pole, no elves, no Mrs. Claus, no portly middle, no milk and cookies, and no product placement. Instead, we find a generous gift-giver who is well-acquainted with hunger and sacrifice.
The Santa Claus we know today acquired his traits in just the last two centuries, and most of them on American soil. “You go outside the US, Santa is not a big deal,” says Dan Perkins, Executive Pastor at WestGate Church in San Jose, CA. Even the name, Santa Claus, first appeared in a gazette published in New York City in 1773: An Americanized version of the Dutch Sinterklaas.
Still, however great the differences, it’s easy to see where Santa Claus got his start. Both figures are secret gift-givers who visit the homes of innocent children under cover of night to stuff stockings that hang near fireplaces. While some disparage Christmas for its pagan origins, Santa’s beginnings are definitively Christian.
Is Santa a Distraction?
Santa Claus is everywhere. He’s in our malls, our city centers, our postcards, our radio stations, and even our hood ornaments. A common worry is whether or not the myth overpowers the true story of Christmas. Santa—a foil character at his best—seems much more popular this time of year than the real protagonist.
All of our interviewees said they wouldn’t mind if we saw a bit less of jolly ol’ St. Nick, but they don’t consider his omnipresence a major problem.
So, is Santa’s popularity a problem? Yes, somewhat. Of course, our interviewees would prefer Jesus had Santa’s screen-time. Some of them added that they’d like to see a rediscovery of the historical St. Nicholas displace the goofy modern version. But these Christmas wishes begin with an unspoken: “If it were my choice… .”
So, is Santa’s popularity a major problem? No, definitely not. Ultimately, each individual and church has a lot of control over who they feature prominently during Christmas. To a great extent, Santa is only a distraction if we make him so.
Jeff Keuss, professor at Seattle Pacific University, encourages church leaders not to get hung up over Santa. He says provocatively: “I think Christmas distracts us from the true message of Christmas: Christmas trees distract us; tinsel distracts us; Bing Crosby distracts us.”
Santa is just one of an endless series of seasonal trappings we could argue are distracting. “We don’t teach about Santa,” says Pastor Ryan. “We teach about Jesus. Santa is just another element like Christmas trees or lights.”
Moreover, the Santa problem is not so far gone that it can’t be leveraged to promote some good. Instead of abandoning Santa, Keuss encourages churches “to point to Christ through the [cultural] context and to celebrate the good that we find there.”
In short, Santa’s come to town, and he’s not going anywhere. Churches might as well use him to tell the true story of Christmas.
How Dan Perkins, Executive Pastor of WestGate Church, Brings Santa to Church
One Sunday, Pastor Perkins was stepping off the stage when he noticed a great man on the front row. He had a bushy white beard and even wore a red sweater. Perkins couldn’t help but ask him if he had ever played Santa Claus.
He laughed—“Ho ho ho! No, I haven’t!”—as if it were an odd idea.
“Can you act?” Perkins asked.
He replied he couldn’t. But why act when you’re the genuine article?
The gentleman’s name was Mel, and that meeting launched his career as St. Nick.
As a worship pastor, Perkins has written and produced over a dozen original shows for churches. These have been staples in WestGate’s outreach ministry. To reach a professional-level production value, WestGate “would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on shows,” says Perkins. However, the turnout was usually good. In Do You Believe?, Perkins featured Santa Claus as the narrator, played by Mel. The story is modern-day and based on true events, but it has a clear gospel lesson—a lesson an entire community hears from the mouth of Santa Claus.
“The church needs to use these kind of devices that are already attractive to the world,” says Perkins. Santa is a familiar, generally-liked face with a backstory everyone already knows. He’s a pre-packaged mouthpiece for the gospel.
Mel was really getting into character. In fact, he was becoming so popular that WestGate hosted a “Breakfast with Santa.” After children scrambled onto his lap and told him what they wanted for Christmas, “Santa” would listen carefully, and then he would ask them: “Do you know what Santa wants for Christmas? He wants everyone to know that Christmas is about Jesus.”
Mel took the red suit beyond WestGate. He and his wife, Linda, frequently volunteer for the Indio Youth Task Force, a nonprofit based in Indio, CA, where they deliver toys and food to hundreds of needy families while—you guessed it—dressed convincingly as Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
Should Santa Claus come to church? In Dan’s view: Yes, if he declares the gospel.
How Ryan Cameron, Executive Pastor of Champions Centre, Brings Santa to Church
Champions Centre is famous for its theatrical productions—or rather, production singular. Unlike WestGate, they only produce one show every year: Scrooge the Musical. If WestGate is the proverbial fox who does many things well, then Champions Centre is the hedgehog who does one thing with excellence. If you google “Scrooge the Musical,” Champions Centre is the first result.
Scrooge was an outreach tool, and a wildly successful one. Ten performances over two weeks drew in families who otherwise would not have stepped inside a church. However, 2017 will be the first Christmas without Scrooge in 30 years. “Scrooge for us, amazing as it is, is taxing for our volunteers,” says Ryan. In addition to a hefty bill, the play requires three months of preparation and over 400 volunteers. Last year, ticket sales reached their peak, and 2017 was anticipated to be even bigger. But Champions Centre decided to reorient their outreach strategy in a manner that funnels the unchurched to their weekend services. “This year is a bit of a case study,” says Ryan.
So, what’s one way they do that?
Santa Claus, for starters.
For the first time, Santa Claus will make an appearance at Champions Centre to take pictures with families and hear Christmas wishes. Children will receive a free coloring book of the Nativity, so the presence of Santa directs back to the season’s real celebrity. Unlike many mall Santas, the Champions Centre Santa will not charge for visits. The concern, as before, is to reach the unchurched. However, the rub is the location: A Santa visit gets them inside the building and interacting with its members.
Should Santa Claus come to church? In Ryan’s view: Yes, if he can “church” the unchurched.
How Dave Hatcher, Pastor of Trinity Church, Brings Santa to Church
For WestGate and Champions Centre, Christmas is the annual peak of attendance (second only to Easter). A substantial percentage of the crowd is first-time or irregular visitors.
Consequently, these churches throw their outreach efforts into these holidays with full force, employing strategies to reach, inform, and retain the unchurched.
As a result, a Christmas service tends to look different than a regular weekly service.
At Trinity Church, this isn’t the case. “We do recognize Advent,” says Pastor Dave Hatcher. “Usually, our exhortation, our calls to worship, our prayers, and the songs that we sing surround traditional Advent themes.”
Like WestGate and Champions Centre, Trinity Church will include a Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols service this year. But unlike WestGate and Champions Centre, Christmas is not treated like an outreach event. “The point isn’t to try to create an evangelical service,” says Hatcher. “We do other things for that.”
For this reason, Santa won’t show up at Trinity Church, but not because Pastor Dave considers Santa evil. Really, it’s the same reason Pastor Dave would not dress up as Abraham Lincoln on President’s Day: He might do it elsewhere for an outreach event, but it’s not a part of recognizable Christian worship in church on Sunday. However, this does not prevent Dave from assuming a Santa-like role: “I hand out candy canes on the Sunday before Christmas. All the evangelical feast days I have some sort of gift for the children.”
In short, Christmas is just another Sunday at Trinity Church. What you do there on Christmas Day resembles what you would do on any other Sunday of the year. In fact, attendance at Trinity Church is actually at its lowest around Christmas as members travel to visit friends and family. However, for the rest of the year, Trinity Church boasts more than 90 percent attendance of their membership on any given Sunday—an extraordinary achievement. When asked for an explanation, Hatcher replies: “Our people take the Lord’s Day seriously.”
Of course, reaching the community is a huge priority.
Trinity Church hosts a ministry called Creating Friends, which is a special-events ministry to
reach out to families with children with special needs. Backed by a capable staff, the church offers to care for the children so parents can have the afternoon to themselves—perhaps to do some Christmas shopping. Without this ministry, parents would be preoccupied with meeting the demands of their children and wouldn’t find the time.
Once dropped off, the kids can get their picture with Santa. This is an additional gift, since it usually takes a long time and would not have been feasible with a mall Santa. “We’re not saying anything about Santa Claus,” says Hatcher. “It’s more like something we know families would love to have for their children that they’re unable to do.” It’s also commonplace for the volunteers to wear Santa hats
Even at Trinity Church, Santa isn’t considered evil or even dangerous. In the proper place, he can be a great blessing.
Should Santa Claus come to church? In Hatcher’s view: No, not church. But he can help out nearby.
“….Goodwill toward Men.”
When children see Santa, they don’t think about commercialism. They are far more innocent. A Santa hat means “Something good is about to happen.” In fact, Santa is a culture-wide psychological trigger for hopeful anticipation, and churches that don’t avail themselves of that miss an opportunity to be the agents of that hope through their generosity.