Published as "A Reason for the Season (Off The Wall With Padre James Bhagwan) in the Fiji Times, Wednesday, December 21, 2011 http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=188911
Last Sunday was the fourth Sunday in the Christian Season of Advent. Advent, as shared in last week’s column means preparation, preparation in this case for Christmas - the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ, and preparation also for Christians – for Christ’s return.
Last Sunday fourth candle of Advent, the Candle of Love, will be lit. Its light is meant to remind us of the love that God has for us. This Sunday will be Christmas Day when the “Christ Candle” signifying the birth of the Light of the World, will be lit.
Last Sunday afternoon, I joined the members of Gaepo Methodist Church in Seoul, as they took to the street to spread some Christmas cheer and spread the message of God’s love through Jesus Christ.
Braving the cold, we sang Christmas carols on street corners and handed out small gifts to those we met, many of them non-Christian. In keeping with my taste for the theatrical, I donned a Santa Claus outfit (fortunately I was able to find a jacket that fit) and so a number of people received presents from a “Fiji Santa”.
I noticed that as we approached some people they shrank back (I’m not surprised... many would if some strange brown man in a red suit strolled loudly up to them..) until we handed them a gift. In a few places, people rushed back in to their homes, workplaces to tell others who came out.
While our motive was to spread the gospel, it was expressed as spreading the joy and love we experience at Christmas. For me that is the gospel, the Good News, the joy of experiencing God’s love. It is a joy and love that we simply wish to share.
When one of the church staff emailed me pictures of my Santa Claus experience, I had to laugh at some of them. But then I began to think about Santa Claus and his relevance as one of the most (in some cases the most) popular images of Christmas.
This week you will see many Santas, outside shops ringing bells, in shop windows, on billboards, in advertisements and even on plastic bags.
How does Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas fit into the story of Christmas?
The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (December 19 on the Julian Calendar).
Over the centuries St. Nicholas became Santa Claus. Santa was then portrayed by dozens of artists in a wide variety of styles, sizes, and colours. However by the end of the 1920s, a standard American Santa—life-sized in a red, fur-trimmed suit—had emerged from the work of N. C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and other popular illustrators. In 1931 Haddon Sundblom began thirty-five years of Coca-Cola Santa advertisements that popularized and firmly established this Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture.
This Santa was life-sized, jolly, and wore the now familiar red suit. He appeared in magazines, on billboards, and shop counters, encouraging Americans to see Coke as the solution to "a thirst for all seasons." By the 1950s Santa was turning up everywhere as a benign source of beneficence, endorsing an amazing range of consumer products. This commercial success led to the North American Santa Claus being exported around the world where he threatens to overcome the European St. Nicholas, who has retained his identity as a Christian bishop and saint.
(To learn more about how Bishop Nicholas became Santa Claus and how we see him today visit: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/origin-of-santa/)
It's been a long journey from the Fourth Century Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, who showed his devotion to God in extraordinary kindness and generosity to those in need, to America's jolly Santa Claus, whose generosity often supplies luxuries to the rich. However, if you peel back the layers that have been added over the years, he is still Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whose caring surprises continue to model true giving and faithfulness.
There is growing interest in reclaiming the original saint to help restore a spiritual dimension to this festive time, for Catholic and Protestant alike. For indeed, St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children, is a model of how Christians are meant to live. A bishop, Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the centre of his life, his ministry, his entire existence. Families, churches, and schools are embracing true St Nicholas traditions as one way to claim the true centre of Christmas—the birth of Jesus. Such a focus helps restore balance to increasingly materialistic and stress-filled Advent and Christmas seasons.
St. Nicholas / Santa Claus would probably agree with the saying, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
This Christmas, spread the love, spread the joy, not just to those who know you but to those who need to experience love and joy, if only for once this year.
Have a happy and holy Christmas Fiji!
Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is a doting husband and father. He is currently a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Read more by visiting http://thejournalofaspiritualwonderer.blogspot.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/PadreJames