Robinson College, Cambridge, Christmas Day 2015
In the mid 1980s at RAF Swanton Morley, there was a very large Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer, who every Christmas would dress up as Santa Claus for a children’s party, after which he was rewarded with a bottle of Whisky. Sadly in 1988, somebody made the mistake of providing the whisky prior to the children’s party – with hilarious consequences. Or probably not very hilarious if you were one of the children. It was even less hilarious later on, especially if you happened to be the unfortunate recipient of that’s year’s Santa Special: a Yule-tide Royal Navy right hook … delivered by approximately 16 Stone of angry Santa. Now I’m sure the Queen’s Regulations condemn such behaviour as ‘conduct unbecoming a Santa,’ but was it really inappropriate?
In the year 325, when Saint Nicholas was still a mere Bishop, he stood up at an international church conference in Nicea, and – in the middle of a heated debate – he punched one of the other delegates. This is absolutely true - the whole incident has been captured on a medieval iphone:
And on a Nokia 3210:
Nicholas eventually apologised to the church council – and they made him a saint!
However, it wasn’t simply on account of his pugilism. Because Saint Nicholas was also renowned for his generosity. He was from a wealthy family and he would give generous benefactions, and he would do it anonymously. (So anonymously, in fact, that it’s been celebrated throughout history! How do you get a reputation for being anonymous? Maybe that was the miracle that justified his sainthood.) But the anonymous giving of St Nicholas is the reason why even today Father Christmas creeps into your home, and quietly leaves Christmas gifts.
In any case, despite all the flaws and failures, the Santa Claus tradition is rooted in the Biblical notion of Gift-giving. Because Saint Nicholas had a genuine concern to address the plight of the most poverty stricken inhabitants of Asia Minor where he served as Bishop. He tried his best to serve Christ, by serving the most marginalised, impoverished, nobodies.
Christmas, after all, is when the God of Scripture reveals himself precisely as the marginalised, impoverished, nobody. A child born to peasant refugees in a place that was not their own. Don’t tell Donald Trump, but it’s the trailer-trash, the chav, the immigrant, the outsider, the rough sleeper, the refugee, the nobody – it is here that the God of Scripture makes himself thoroughly at home. Santa Clause gave himself to changing the plight of these folk.
Okay, Saint Nicholas was no Saint… but he understood that true gift-giving simply means – the long term, life-changing, grace that draws the attention of everyone who experiences it to something greater.