Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

When Santa Came for Dinner

During the 2008 Christmas season, Santa came over for dinner. He stayed for two weeks. This is a true story.

copyright Stephen Downes (creative commons)

copyright Stephen Downes (creative commons)

Bah, humbug!

I never liked Santa Claus. Growing up, my family celebrated Christmas but avoided anything that might distract from its “real meaning.” Our stockings were full on Christmas morning, but Santa had not made it down our chimney—the flue was closed. “If we lie to them about Santa Claus, they will think we are lying about God also” my Father often said.

I adopted that mentality. I confess that I have called Santa a “big fat faker” and a “usurper.” I have even made the following comparison in my best church-lady voice:

“Santa’s favorite color is red, hum. Who else’s favorite color is red? Let’s see. Take the letters of his name, S-A-N-T-A, and move them around. What do you have? S-A-T-A-N!”

I disliked the fact that he got all the attention on Christmas when it is not even his birthday.

So, when we walked into our local mall a week or so before Christmas 2008 and my wife—who grew up with the reindeer tracks, half-eaten cookies, and notes left by the fireplace—saw Santa sitting at the photo booth, I headed upstairs to the food court. Our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was scared of the bearded stranger, so she came with me. My wife, Taylor, took our 1-year-old son to meet Santa.

Fifteen minutes later, Taylor came up the escalator with a wide smile on her face. My son seemed happy too. “Great,” I thought, “the usurper has weaseled his way into our family.”

“You won’t believe what happened,” Taylor began. “When we walked up to Santa he asked Elijah his name. When he told him, Santa replied, ‘Elijah, what a beautiful name. That reminds me of God’s faithfulness to his people Israel in the Bible.”

I was shocked. “Santa said that?”

Santa likes Jesus too?

As part of our family preparation for Christmas this year, we went through two different Advent programs with our kids. They not only told the story of Jesus’ birth, but also addressed some questions about Christmas—where did the holiday come from, why do we have Christmas trees, etc. One, in particular, caught my attention.

St. Nicholas of Myra

It was the story of St. Nicholas (the man who would become Santa Claus). Nicholas was born on March 15, 270 AD to a wealthy Christian family in an area that is now modern-day Turkey. He was very serious about his faith from an early age. When his parents died in an epidemic, he went to live with his uncle, a bishop also named Nicholas, who encouraged his study of scripture. Nicholas became a priest, and eventually, an influential bishop.

Nicholas also had a secret life—one that played out under the cover of darkness. In the evenings, he would sneak out into the city and throw bags of gold into the windows of the needy. A strange, albeit noble, pastime. He could not live in wealth while others went without. Once, he inadvertently tossed the bag into a wet sock hung by the fire to dry. (stockings?) Throughout the region, Nicholas was known as a generous man who loved giving to those who needed it most.

In 325, he attended the First Council on Nicea, a gathering of over 300 bishops from around the known world. One of the key purposes of the council was to address the teachings of a man named Arius who taught that Jesus was not fully God.  For Arius, Christmas was the birth of a great man, but not the Son of God becoming man. Nicholas staunchly opposed this idea.

In fact, according to legend, Nicholas became so angry with Arius during the discussion that he crossed the room and slapped him across the face. A different picture of Santa Claus than we have today.

The Council produced a statement—the Nicene creed—that Nicholas, along with the majority of the bishops, signed.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.

It seems that Santa loved Jesus too.

Santa came for Dinner

Taylor and I decided to invite the mall Santa over for dinner. We didn’t know much about him, just that he was from up north (as we southerners call it) and that he was staying in a local hotel until the end of the Christmas season. I assumed the mall background check was thorough enough to welcome him into our home.

He showed up a few nights later in his street clothes. His white beard (naturally grown) made him look like Santa Claus in disguise. The kids were ecstatic—even our daughter Izzy who was scared of him before. He was a kind man. I could immediately see why he made a good Santa.

Over dinner and coffee he told us his story: about his wife dying of cancer, his unemployment, and the immense anger with God that followed. He told us that one night he was lying in bed, yelling up at his ceiling, protesting against the ruler of the universe, when a deep calm came over him. At once, he was peaceful. He described it as the night he truly met God.

He also told us about his excommunication from his church. He was part of a Pennsylvania Mennonite branch of churches until he became Santa. His elders agreed with the church-lady about Santa (“just rearrange the letters and what do you get . . .?”). They gave him a choice: Santa or the church. He chose St. Nick. And found another church. One of his children is still a member and refuses to speak with him.

He told us about losing his house—the house he had raised his children in. His new pastor was letting him stay in a back room of the church. His Santa job provided a hotel room and a little money for food, but he was eating canned macaroni every night to save every penny he could.  In one month as Santa, he could make enough money to live (frugally) for the rest of the year.

The money, though, was not why he does it.

“There are a lot of hurting people in the world,” he explained. “For some reason, people will open up and listen to Santa more than anyone else. This week a woman brought her son to see me. I could tell something was wrong. When I asked, she told me all about the problems she was having with her husband. She started crying. I told her how much God loved her and that I would pray for her.

That’s why I put on that red suit. It’s Christmas. People need to know the reason for the season, that God loved the world so much that he gave his son Jesus for them.

As he left that evening, I realized that for the first time in my life I liked Santa Claus.

{Read the second half of the story here. Santa comes to live with us.}

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