The feast of St. Nicholas always brings up the memory of a personal St. Nicholas/ Santa Claus of sorts… My dad. My father of blessed memory, had the perfect qualities to be a professional Santa Claus. As some of you might be aware, he truly was a kind and loving man, easy to talk to, and always willing to help, and pray. He also looked the part, with kind eyes, a round face, stocky build, and most important of all, a long and thick white beard. Yet despite his perfect Santa looks and disposition, he avoided ever being a professional Santa Claus or “St. Nick” as his responsibility was that of a priest, husband, caregiver, and that they were better people for the job. He would then smile and say that he couldn’t be St. Nick, because “I could be defrocked for impersonating a Bishop”. This hesitancy to be St. Nick changed when he was asked by both my brother and sister to help out at the Christmas parties they were organizing. My brother worked as a Child and Family resource worker for Children’s Aid in Ontario, and my sister was a Day Care manager at an inner city YMCA in Ottawa. My dad being a softie around little kids (after all he did have six of his own, and scores of grandchildren), reluctantly agreed.
I called dad after these two appearances, and asked him if he was inundated with long lists of expensive toys and greedy expectations? His answer surprised me. Yes, lists of expensive toys were given; but more than that, heartfelt concerns for family and friends were offered. More often than not, “Santa” was asked to make sure one’s brother or sister had a nice Christmas and was safe, or that mommy or daddy wouldn’t go away, or that they would have a nice home, or that they did a “bad thing” and were sorry that they hurt people because of it.
Dad was struck by how honest and open these children were to a total stranger… well a stranger in the eyes of adults, but in the eyes of every child, a person that cared for them, regardless of where they were from, who their parents were, whether they lived in a foster home, or even if they did “bad things”. Santa Claus, or as we would call him St. Nicholas Archbishop of Myrra in Lycia.
It truly is a tragedy that the closest these children (and many, many other people) had ever come to a Saint was an over saturated and commercialized version of St. Nicholas – Santa Claus. But come close they did, with open and concerned hearts beyond anything most of us could consider. My father certainly wasn’t Santa Claus, St. Nicholas (nor a bishop for that matter) yet for these children from broken and struggling homes and families, he was THAT friend, mentor, protector, advocate, and intercessor; an icon of who St. Nicholas really is. He described it like looking at a badly painted Icon of St. Nicholas “it looks nothing like the Saint, and is sort of hard to stare at, but you know it is St. Nicholas, and you know that he intercedes out of love for each of us”
“The thing is” he continued “is that behind every Santa Claus, is St. Nicholas. And beyond a bunch of presents under the tree, is a loving mentor, protector, advocate, intercessor for all of us… and maybe only children can see that”. “For us as Orthodox Christians, it is the opposite, behind every St. Nicholas there is a Santa. Yet having all these beautiful Icons and services written in his honour, and having witnessed his saving intersessions before the Lord for us, do we ever pray the way those children did?” Well my answer was indecisive “no, we don’t”, to which he replied, “well we better start taking to heart the words of the Lord “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:10).
If St. Nicholas – or Santa Claus- can teach us one thing, it is that the heart of a child can see hope and faith, even if it is masked and disgusted by a old priest wearing Santa Claus suit; and despite what we might think, it looks like the love of St. Nicholas poured out throughout the ages as a witness of God’s saving work and mercy.
Pray to God for us Holy Bishop Nicholas