Saint Nicholas vs Santa Claus

Monday, November 24, 2008, 10:54

Bi-partisan politics!

The jury is still out on whether parents should perpetuate the “myth” of Santa Claus. After all, he was a ‘real person’ who wore bishop’s robes before he acquired the familiar red suit with the white fur trimmings…

Santa Claus could be more familiar than Baby Jesus to some people – especially those who do not know the reason for celebrating Christmas, other than as an orgy of conspicuous food consumption and gift-giving. But then, Santa Claus is not a religious symbol, and he therefore cannot be considered “provocative” if he is used in advertising or decorations in public buildings in countries where Catholicism is not the state religion.

There is another facet to this argument, however. The person who was Sant Nicholas has become secularised as almost everything else about this festival has lost its religious undertones. Not many people know that the original Saint Nicholas was a sombre person, rather than a rotund character who goes around ringing bells and uttering ho-ho-ho in a sonorous voice to make us believe he is laughing. In fact, before Thomas Nast drew the 1863 cover for Harper’s Weekly and turned him into the fat super-hero everyone recognises, even Santa Claus’s image was often of a gaunt, tall man.

It was artist Haddon Sundblom, however, who added the final touches towards today’s representation of Santa Caucasus. In 1931, his advertisements for Coca Cola showed an old, overweight, Santa.

Saint Nicholas is the Patron Saint of children – so it is to be expected that children look up to him, under whatever guise he appears. But sometimes, he finds himself in a quandary – Christians object to how he is depicted because he has been divested of his “religious” origins – and others object to him because he did, indeed, have Christian roots.

Santa Claus has become a commercially lucrative icon that is impossible to ignore. And children know this – whether or not they are encouraged to believe in him by their parents, and whether or not they have been told the “truth” about him. Ironically, the same children who hate it so much when they are fobbed off with half-truths, or lied too, willingly accept the myth of Santa Claus… if it means they will acquire gifts ‘from him’.

In homes where the gifts are said to have come from Santa, there will not doubt be comparisons with gifts brought by him to other children. The more street-smart kids may well ask why the rich kids get the most expensive presents their parents could have afforded anyway, whereas those who are less better-off get mundane things they need and not what they really, really want. It may also happen that children who have been “bad” get gifts, whereas those who are always good get nothing.

Some children may show signs of uncertainty about flying reindeer. They find it implausible that fat men could go down chimneys without getting stuck. The inevitable question about how one person manages to travel the world in one night is met with a “just because” reply. Kids who don’t really swallow the take are faced with “irrefutable evidence”- far-off sounds of jingling bells, half-eaten carrots in hallways, and drained glasses of the other Christmas spirit. And the gifts, of course.

If it’s Saint Nick rather than Santa Claus who visits – he rides a horse, and the horse could have eaten the carrots anyway.

Is it fair to “make” children conform and behave because Big Brother, in this case, Santa Claus, is watching them from some hidden eye-in-the-sky? Is it feasible to make children expect gifts because they can innately show charm and are gifted with empathy and kindness?

Christmas is an international celebration, albeit it is supposed to be a Christian festival. Ironically, the very symbols that make it Christmas are deemed offensive in some quarters, because if religious and cultural differences – and a Christmas Tree does not quote “personify” all the jazz as a caricature of a jolly old man does.

Interestingly, in Malta, Santa Claus is rarely depicted as Saint Nicholas – for the chances are that children would then not know who he is. So all the stories about how “blackface”-type makeup is applied by supermarket workers in Scandinavia, so that they can pretend to be “Black Peter”s (zwarte Piet) for the customers’ predilection, would make no sense here.

Would anyone bother going to the beach on his feast day (December 5) to see the Bishop arrive (‘from Spain’)? Why would anyone bother picking up the peppernuts (special biscuits thrown into the room by “Saint Nicholas” when he visits) when there are so many other goodies to be had during the Maltese Christmastide?

Children have made their choice – a pick-and-mix amalgamation of the story of Saint Nicholas and the myth of Santa Claus. In the future, they could well choose to place the latter in the same category as the Tooth Fairy and the Sock Goblin…


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