Bad Santa: how we turned Saint Nicholas into a symbol of greed

Taken from the Guardian – Giles Fraser

The very idea of a press release from the University of Oxford on the subject of Santa Claus tickled my imagination. “Could ancient bones suggest Santa was real?” read the headline, with the contents embargoed until 6 December, the Christian feast day of Saint Nicholas, the saint upon whose name the Santa (imagine the “Ni” bit here) Claus stories were loosely built.

It turns out that a pile of bones buried in a church in southern Italy, bones that tradition claims to be those of Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra in present day Turkey, are old enough to have belonged to him. Carbon dating reveals them to be 1,700 years old – obviously nothing like incontrovertible proof that they have discovered the tomb of Santa Claus, but enough to remind us of the long development of our popular Christmas mythologies, with the Saint Nicholas stories going back well into the middle ages, and before.

Even so, the Saint Nicholas legends – associated with gift-giving and a concern for the poor – only began to take a recognisably Santa Claus shape after the Protestant churches firmly rejected the cult of the saints and the worship of bones as medieval superstitions. As was so often the case, official Protestant rejection of popular forms of religious devotion didn’t mean these cults disappeared, it just meant that the mythology and traditions developed outside of the church and took on a more secular form.

Hence Saint Nicholas slipped his Christian moorings and took on a life of his own, with his first appearance in a sledge being in the American literature of the early 19th century. Now Santa Claus was ready to become the unofficial patron saint of the pre-Christmas period, the seedy saint who hangs around in shopping centre grottoes, blessing our over–indulgence as generosity and bouncing poor innocent children up and down on his knee. As well as being a corporate stooge, this Santa is a creep.

And from a Christian point of view, the worst thing about Santa is that the candles and fairy lights that are lit in his honour are a form of light pollution that makes invisible the sight of that one simple star that hovers over an outhouse in (Roman) occupied Bethlehem. For in that great prophecy from Isaiah, it is the people who walk in darkness that will see a great light. Those who dwell in the shadow of death, on them the light shines.

My friend Michael died this week. I sat with him for a while in the days when he was struggling for breath. And for a few moments after life had left him. During the last few weeks, Michael’s family has gathered round his bedside – crying, laughing, praying, telling stories, waiting – largely oblivious to, and rightly uninterested in, the great circus of greed that was playing itself out all over the county. There are so many more weighty things to think about than what cheap perfume to get for Auntie Dot. And so many easy ways continually to distract ourselves from the important things we have to say to each other. Or the times we might sit alone, doing nothing, listening to what we really need. This is what the Advent period should be all about. Instead we are, to use the words of TS Eliot “Distracted from distraction by distraction/ Filled with fancies and empty meaning”.

Advent is the very antithesis of Santa’s secular pre-Christmas merry-go-round, because advent should release us from the obligation to be continually entertained and entertaining. Advent is not afraid of boredom as the occasional byproduct of doing little and with less, of doing without distraction. Instead, Santa wants to turbo-charge our baser instincts for more and more stuff, filling us up with costly rubbish so that we do not notice the call of that deeper lack for which there is no material consolation. But this call is the ultimate blasphemy to the creepy bearded man who listens only to the insistent nagging of our GDP, believing that growth is the only god of the season. The real Saint Nicholas of Myra, if he ever existed, would have been thoroughly ashamed of what his name has come to stand for.

2 thoughts on “Bad Santa: how we turned Saint Nicholas into a symbol of greed

  1. First James, thank you for these articles you reproduce for us. Christmas is a time when I worry that to a few members of my family this is a time to stock up on beer and prosecco (though I must admit to liking a glass myself) When they celebrate I wonder just what they are celebrating. This article on’bad Santa’ gets down to the nuts and bolts of what has happened. Should I have joined in the myth when my children were little or should I have not gone along with tradition and made them be set apart from their peers?

    1. Hi Shirley, thanks for your thoughtful commentary. I must admit, I do love Christmas with the sumptuous food, red wine or ale on dark nights, carol services, Christmas films and seeing the children get excited over Father Christmas. But at the same time, the greed and consumerism is also rather depressing. Also, and most importantly, as I said to my friend yesterday – you cannot have Christmas without Christ! The real and most important reason for Christmas. Which unfortunately I feel some people do forget.

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