Santa: Secular or Santa?

By Canon Baxter Park

Just SOME of the Park collection of memorable Santas.
Just SOME of the Park collection of memorable Santas.

A few years ago I met Canon James Rosenthal, who was then the Director of Communications for the Anglican Communion and the editor of Anglican World.  We immediately connected because of our shared belief in the importance of the legends of St Nicholas to the church.  We believe that St Nicholas can be a powerful voice pointing people to the babe at Bethlehem.  Every year in early December, I wear a St Nicholas pin on my lapel, given to me by Canon Rosenthal.

I am all too aware of the debate around the commercialism of Christmas.  Still, I have learned that Santa can be a powerful ally for the church if we embrace his saintly origin and educate people that he was not a creation of Coca Cola.  In fact the present North American Santa Claus is a direct descendant of the traditional St Nicholas whose feast day is celebrated on 6th December every year.  In many parts of Europe it is still St Nicholas who delivers the gifts to the children.  In the small community of Stahe in Germany where I lived, near the Dutch border, St Nicholas would deliver small gifts to the children on 6th December and then the Christ Child would deliver the bigger gifts on Christmas Eve, while the family was attending church.  This tradition dates to the Protestant reformation when Martin Luther felt it was imperative to give Christ a larger role in the celebrations of the season in the home.

Many of my friends and family know that I collect St Nicholas or Santa figures.  I have between two and three hundred of them ranging from religious icons of Nicholas right up to more contemporary images of Santa Claus.  Starting the 6th of December I begin decorating the house with them and I love mixing the images of Nicholas with historic and more modern Santas.  I also enjoy telling the stories of how each of these figures became part of my collection and I love seeing people’s reaction to them.

I believe I was called from the womb to collect Santas.  The one I have had the longest in my collection was actually purchased for me for Christmas 1962, 5 days before my birth.  I have commissioned a couple and one of my favourites is St Nicholas, wearing the robes of a bishop and towing a sleigh in the style of a Bayof Islandsdory (properly painted orange) and laden down with the simple toys that St Nick might bring to outport homes during my childhood.  (See the image at the top right of the front page of this newsletter.)  This was done by CapeBretoncarver Imelda George whose work is featured in Kevin Major’s excellent children’s story, House of the Wooden Santas.  The memory of those simple Christmases has inspired me to collect a number by well-known NL artist Kevin Coates.  I also have several in my collection byOntario artist, Charles Heseltine, whose depictions of Santa always remind me of the Santa who came to my elementary school (St Nicholas Anglican School) for Christmas concerts.  He was a jovial trickster who hopped around as intent on scaring you as giving you a gift and sitting in his lap or on his knee could be a bumpy ride.

My most unusual is a painted terra cotta piece from the Grand Bazaar inCairodepicting St Nicholas as a Coptic bishop.  I also have two from military friends, one a chaplain and the other a Military Policeman, in the style of matryoshka dolls that they purchased inAfghanistan.  There was something really quite satisfying about what they separately said to me. “I saw these Santas and I thought of you.”  One of the few factory created figures that I have is a praying Santa with a Bible sticking out of the pocket of his red fur-trimmed jacket.  I have to confess I love that depiction and I have used it often in my children’s story in church in this season.

One of the things that I have always admired about the teachings of Jesus and particularly in his parables was his ability to connect with people using the common images in their daily life.  For the last two months of the calendar year we are bombarded with secular Christmas imagery, except it is not really secular.  We have allowed our stories and our figures to be commandeered, but we can take them back.  The Santa who loves children is the same image as Nicholas the patron saint of children.  His reputation for generosity and kindness was earned because of his faith in Jesus.  Santa or St Nicholas should not remind us of Canadian Tire. His image should point us back to Bethlehem.

Canon Baxter Park is the Formation Chaplain in Halifax and the Anglican Canon Recruiter. He and his Santas reside in Lakeside, NS with his wife Nancy.

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