Today, December 6 is the traditional observation of the feast of St. Nicholas. The old Catholic saint has morphed over the years into the modern tradition of Santa Claus. He has gone from having his own religious feast to being a secular symbol of Christmas giving.
I have a photograph of me sitting in a friend's living room with his three wide-eyed children on my lap. Their wonder arose from me being dressed as Santa Claus. I had purchased a Santa outfit from a man that had professionally done the gig for many years.
This was not your standard cheap-o Santa outfit. The custom built suit was made of rich but sturdy red upholstery material trimmed in plush fake white fur. The knees and upper forelegs were reinforced to handle the extra wear that came from people sitting on Santa's lap. A quilted undersuit added the appearance of plumpness. The wig and beard were made of yak hair that could be washed and styled. These pieces were integrated so that the beard did not budge at all when a child pulled on it.
The outfit included a dandy cap, a large padded plush red bag full of cheap little trinkets and candy canes, black boots, white gloves, fake reading glasses, and a black leather bandoleer festooned with jingle bells.
Being a young adult at the time, I had to color my eyebrows and put on makeup that made me appear older. That took some work. I was somewhat chubby back then so that my face fit the Santa persona fairly well. (Nowadays I would just look too gaunt.)
At first I just did a few gigs for neighbors. Sometimes I dropped in on friends and neighbors unannounced. Some of them never realized who it was that was playing Santa. It was a lot of fun. People were always happy to see Santa. I went away from these encounters feeling warm and happy.
Eventually I started doing professional engagements, mainly for family, work, or church gatherings. These larger gatherings sometimes left me exhausted. The multi-layered suit was incredibly warm, and once the headset was in place it was difficult (almost impossible) to drink or eat. It was easy to get dehydrated and overheated.
Despite the fun of playing Santa, some engagements left me far more fatigued than should have been the case. After a few years I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Most people with MS are susceptible to easily overheating and I am no exception. It can result in a serious bout of fatigue that doesn't just go away after cooling down.
I eventually mostly gave up playing Santa for health reasons, although, I did occasionally do smaller engagements. I was able to hide my preparations from my children when they were small. But the older kids eventually found out. I only ever played Santa for my own kids on one occasion. Eventually I gave the entire outfit to a friend whom I thought could better use the outfit.
Over the years I developed mixed feelings about our modern day Santa tradition. Although scholars are uncertain as to whether Nikolaos of Myra ever existed, the legend of St. Nicholas tells of a wealthy man that devoted his life to God, and then spent his wealth secretly helping those in need, sometimes even delivering these gifts in the still of the night.
While our modern jolly Santa figure still delivers gifts at night, he has become a supernatural tall and obese elf that goes around in a sleigh propelled by flying reindeer, dumping more stuff on kids already suffused with so much stuff that they can't take care of it all. Being needy is not a requirement for his largess, and the necessity of being 'good' is so disassociated with his gifting as to beg the question of how 'bad' one must be to be skipped.
The ancient saint carefully watched for those in need and carefully helped out where he could. He did not go around advertising his charity. Today's Santa doesn't ask what is needed. He plops children on his lap and asks them what they want. Unlike the iconic Santa that told Ralphie he'd shoot his eye out, most Santas today promise to try to bring what the child wants.
Can you see the message that is being sent here? The ancient saint is a model of charitably and secretly helping those that are in deep need. He is all about selflessness. The modern Santa is all about promoting and feeding children's avarice. He is too often all about selfishness.
I'm not trying to trash fun holiday traditions. After all, many people find the joy of 'playing Santa' by secretly taking gifts to neighbors and people in need. (No red suit required.) This is the kind of thing children (and indeed each of us) need to learn. Getting is fun. But giving to others—especially those that can't reciprocate—brings joy, which is infinitely deeper than any fun you'll ever have.
Santa is still a fun part of our family's holiday observance, but we try to make Christmas far more meaningful than just the getting of gifts. When our children were young we told them that Santa only filled the stockings, as in Clement Moore's well known poem. The remaining gifts came from parents, grandparents, etc. Whenever one of our children asked if we were Santa, we'd level with them. We wanted our children to be able to trust us when it came to important matters, so we refused to lie to them about Santa.
Even my youngest child discovered the truth about Santa some time ago. Yet my children still enjoy putting out cookies and milk on Christmas Eve before going to bed. Knowing the truth hasn't destroyed the magic of the occasion.
Those three little boys that sat on my lap when I came to their house dressed as Santa are now all grown men, two of them with children of their own. More than a decade has passed since I last played Santa. I admit that our society's current interpretation of the Santa myth gives me some heartburn. But I still feel a warm glow inside when I think about the times I dropped by friends' homes as Santa.