On a recent Wednesday a few weeks before Christmas, and three days before I planned to spend the day in downtown Leesburg, VA with my two 4-year-old grandsons and two 2-year-old granddaughters, someone erected a wooden cross on our courthouse lawn, at the intersection of the two main roads at the center of our town. They hung a skeleton on the cross, and they dressed it in a Santa Claus suit. The erector stated that the display represented the over-commercialization of Christmas. I was on my way to work and saw it as I drove by.
Contrary to the erector’s statement, the message portrayed by dressing a skeleton in a Santa Claus suit is that Santa Claus is dead. The message of Santa Claus is that giving of yourself to others is good thing. To say Santa Claus is dead is saying that that concept is flawed. The cross was used as a cruel and painful way to kill people, most notably, the man Jesus Christ, who suffered tremendously when he was left on one until he died. The cross was a public way for authorities to warn people to not do what its victims had done. The symbolic message of the courthouse display was that its erectors depicted that you should suffer a painful and public death if you believe in giving of yourself to others. Successful graphic artists can skillfully and effectively convey messages with symbols and art and would likely be the first people to acknowledge that you cannot simply declare a specific meaning upon a graphic display. There are ways to symbolize the over commercialization of Christmas that would actually convey that message. The skeleton dressed in a Santa Claus suit did not. It was an insulting image to anyone who has ever sacrificed their own wants to care for and give to others.
So, who was Saint Nick before he became who we call “Santa Claus”?
Saint Nick was Bishop Nikolaos of Myra in Lycia in the region anciently referred to as Asia Minor (modern day Demre, Turkey). He was born in 270 A.D. and died on December 6, 373 A.D. He was a real person and was a Christian bishop who became famous for secretly sneaking in the middle of the night to give help to the poor. He used to leave coins to those who left a shoe out for him to signal that they needed help. Saint Nicholas became very popular in both Eastern and Western Europe after the 4th century. The Dutch called him Sinterklaas and from this came the English version of the name we’re most familiar with, Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas was a participating member of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. where the current Nicene Creed, a statement of Christian beliefs that Catholics pray every Sunday, was formulated. He was a staunch defender of the teaching that Jesus has both divine and human nature. Without him there would not be today’s Santa Claus and lessons so many have lived about giving of themselves to others would not have been learned.
When Saturday came and I walked with my two grandsons around the corner to the street across from the display I was wondering what they would say or ask me if they saw the skeleton inside the Santa Claus suit, hanging from a cross. Instead, and I don’t know how they saw this, they immediately raced 50 feet down the sidewalk to the front window of the biker bar. ‘Look, Grandpa, look!’ they yelled to me. When I caught up with them they pointed through the window to a miniature toy motorcycle with a miniature toy Santa Claus sitting on the motorcycle seat. Then they started laughing so hard they could hardly stand up! Made me feel wonderful for a few moments. Thank you biker bar owner for creating those moments of joy for a couple of 4-year olds and their grandfather!