Growing up, I had two very favorite Christmas movies—one just for the holiday season and one that was a year round obsession. The first, “The Town Santa Forgot,” was a 1993 illustrated special in the vein of “Frosty the Snowman.” Though more obscure, it featured the same Dick Van Dyke narration as the other classics, but it just so happens that my mother had recorded it at some point, so even when it didn’t play on TV, I could still watch it each year. While I liked the rhythms of “The Town Santa Forgot,” it didn’t hold a candle to my real favorite, “Wee Sing Christmas.” My poor grandmother suffered through that film over and over, all year long, as the featured family helped salvage Christmas by traveling to the North Pole and assisting an elf who, it turns out, needs prescription glasses to start making toys again.
Of course, the thing about Christmas movies, the relative obscurity of my favorites notwithstanding, is that they are all essentially the same. Whether we’re talking about “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “The Grinch,” just about every Christmas movie operates on the same premise: it’s better to give than it is to receive. And for that, we can thank Saint Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, sometimes known as Nicholas of Bari, lived during the fourth century. Like most figures from that time period, navigating his story means juggling the unique combination of what we know, what we think we know, and the great accumulation of myths surrounding his life and works. Among these, the core stories emphasize the tragic death of Nicholas’ wealthy parents during his childhood and his resultant dedication to charity. Living into the Gospel’s call to give everything to the poor and follow Jesus, Nicholas used the money he inherited to help others, and went on to become a priest and then a bishop.
When we tell the story of Saint Nicholas in Godly Play, it’s a simple tale and relatively tidy. We tell of his parents’ deaths, his desire to give a gift to the Christ Child, and his search for the nature of Christ in each person, especially each child. We tell of his adulthood as a priest and how he gave gifts in secret, and how the gifts miraculously kept arriving well after his death—morphing Saint Nicholas into our contemporary Santa Claus. But as much as I love Godly Play, this is just one way to tell the story. I wonder what other ways we could think and talk about Saint Nicholas?
Taking inspiration from my favorite childhood Christmas films, as well as the current pop culture landscape, I wonder what Saint Nicholas’ story would look like if it was remade for the Hallmark channel. We open on young Nicholas, his parents in a lavish residence yet on their deathbeds amidst a pandemic. Tearfully he says his goodbyes and we see flashes of his growth into an adult man, his steady devotion to the church, his easy hand with his wealth, as he gives freely to the poor, until we arrive at the big story, the transformative plot point that forms the backbone of the Saint Nicholas story.
You see, the most famous story of Saint Nicholas’ generosity tells of him throwing bags of gold through the window of an impoverished man who couldn’t afford his three daughters’ dowries. In the Hallmark version—not the Diocletian-era empire version—you know that the cleric who performs these marriages is really the generous Nicholas, local Bishop serving his flock, offering a sly wink to the knowing audience. With the look so familiar from countless Christmas films, the clever, kind-hearted Saint Nicholas offers the assurance that it was he who has ensured these families get to celebrate happy endings.
One of the other wonderful things about having so many ways to tell a story is that we can think creatively about how to share them in our own families and communities. While many of the most common ways that people celebrate his feast day include setting out gifts in children’s shoes or baking treats like Speculaas cookies, there are plenty of other ways of lifting up Saint Nicholas’ life. Some English churches have brought back the practice of naming a “youth bishop,” creating a sort of upside-down day that echoes the words of the Magnificat, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
As an early, popular saint, Nicholas has had plenty of time to spread into different regions and find his footing within local cultures—you may even find that there are particular Saint Nicholas practices tied to your family’s heritage. What story will you tell about the man who eventually came to be Santa Claus?
[Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]