When I was a kid, my parents were ambivalent about Santa Claus. My Dad would openly say, “I don’t want to give credit for my gifts to you to a man in a red suit!” but my parents also both loved story telling and fun. No sensible parent should resist utterly the lure of a good tale and Santa Claus is a good tale.
From the start my parents pointed out that there was history behind the legend so we knew that Santa Claus was really an early Christian leader, Saint Nicholas. We delighted in the apocryphal story that the good bishop had punched the arch-heretic Arius in the nose.
There was nothing better than Santa with attitude.
There are any number of hot headed prelates, however, as anyone who has ever attended a church business meeting can attest, but few who are also gentle and very smart. Modern church history shows that combination is very rare: he whom the Lord gives righteous anger seldom gets a thinking head.
Nicholas was very smart, but his legend began with his kindness. So many stories developed about it, that it is impossible to be sure what detail is true. This much we know, there was a Nicholas and he must have been kind, because that is the way he was remembered.
One of the oldest stories about Nicholas has the saint providing the dowries for three poor sisters. In the ancient world a woman without a dowary might end up in prostitution or slavery. Nicholas did not just love in words, but in deed.
Nicholas was legendary for caring for the virtue of his congregation and evidently he threw the dowries for each girl through the window just when they were needed. These three gifts may form the basis for some of the myth of Santa.
Those three sisters impress me tonight, because I am more like they were than I am like Nicholas. The three sisters were broke and needy. They could not save themselves, but God raised up a champion to make it right for them.
There is an image of God in this picture of Nicholas and an image of how His church should work. God loves the poor and wishes His people and church to care for them. The church does not always reach out to the needy and that is bad, but sometimes the poor fail the church.
Many of us refuse to make our needs known out of stubborn pride.
It is easy to be proud and some of us prefer to fail or even to die quietly than to beg for mercy. This is the pathway of barbarians and not of civilized men, but it has the illusion of dignity and so many of us embrace it.
I am sure that it was shameful for the father of the three sisters to make his bishop aware of his failure as a man and a father. He could not provide for his girls. Yet out of this need came a legend and out of the legend came hundreds, thousands, and now billions of dollars worth of charity each Christmas. One great reason we give gifts at Christmas is because Saint Nicholas gave gifts to these needy girls and so there need was not just met, but became the basis for the meeting of the needs of thousands more.
We don’t know the names of these young women, but we know they were willing expose their shame and out of this openness a legend was born.
Today some should vow to follow the example of Saint Nicholas, the first Santa Claus, but it may be more diffficult for most of us to follow the good example of the three daughters. It is so much more blessed to give than to receive that too many of us refuse to receive.
We have not, because we ask not.
I cannot doubt that somewhere out there someone is making their need known to their home church. This need will be met by a man or woman who will become legendary . . . and greater good will be done because of it. With God’s grace, this one single action will become a tale and the tale a model for good deeds and grace around the world.
So much good was done by three sisters willing to make their needs know to the first Santa Claus.