By Frank Wessling
For everyone alarmed by the shift of Christmas from religious feast to commercial highlight of the year, a group of German Catholics offer a model of resistance.
The Bonifatiuswerk, an aid organization, wants “Santa Claus-free zones” where children and their parents won’t be assaulted by that icon of consumer society and the advertising industry. Instead, they want a revival of attention to St. Nicholas, a historical figure and representative of quiet gift-giving.
The religious feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6, was once widely observed as a morning for surprising children with small gifts in their shoes. This practice has almost disappeared, swallowed in the great sales-boosting campaign to make December the “Holiday’s shopping season” and the last weeks of the year salvation time for retail balance sheets.
These German Catholics point out with some accuracy that the Santa Claus we know today is “a representative of consumer society” directing children to the nearest toy store. He is more likely to excite feelings of greed than generosity. It’s not that the jolly-fat-man idea is bad in itself; only that he has been inflated to an importance that makes it extremely hard to see Christmas as a celebration of God-is-with-us.
If we revive St. Nicholas as our representative of the Christmas spirit for children, Bonifatiuswerk points out that we’d be raising up “a helper in need who reminds us to be kind, to think of our neighbors, and to give the gift of happiness.” Much healthier for children of all ages. A German TV personality, Nina Ruege, noted that “Unlike Santa Claus, Nicholas wants to give children inner riches and not just encourage them to strive for material wealth.”
Trying to replace Santa Claus with an obscure saint seems the height of folly. Who is going to settle for gifts that fit in a shoe when the Toys-R-Us cornucopia is available? How are we going to make “inner riches” attractive when there are new iPods to be had?
It would be easy to scorn and ridicule what the Bonifatiuswerk organization — named for St. Boniface, the Apostle to Germany — wants to do. But it’s not so easy to ignore the concern that inspires Bonifatiuswerk. Sure, there can be a good side to the Santa phenomenon, but taken as a whole, it drives the religious significance of Christmas so far to the sideline that it barely registers in the experience of most children — and for too many nominally Christian parents.
Modern economies depend on constant buying and selling. The Christmas shopping season has become an essential engine for that process. Behind it are jobs, investments, security — all that goes into the success of modern life. When these material goods are missing, it becomes difficult to also sustain the human spirit. The virtues of hope, generosity and charity are hard to hold and practice when we don’t know how today’s bills will be paid or when a good job will be found.
So it seems that we must keep Santa Claus alive and very busy.
OK, let Santa have his day, but for the sake of the children, balance him with activities that at least cut into the dominant commercial spirit of Christmas.
Make the feast of St. Nicholas a family event. Children can understand stories of the kindly bishop, especially the one about him secretly leaving gifts for the daughters of a poor man so they would have dowries for marriage.
Use the Advent Calendar. Examples can be found in religious goods stores and online. Keep it up all the way to Dec. 25. Make a family ritual of opening each day’s window on the calendar.
Rituals can also be set up with the family nativity scene, adding figures, moving them closer to the crib as Christmas approaches.
It isn’t necessary either to let the commercial Christmas overwhelm us or to fight it directly. With a little determination, persistence and imagination we can keep the religious feast alive and give our children the incomparably richer gift of experience pointing to God.