Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay, Brett Beasley writes about learning to believe again, via the story of St. Nicholas.
Let me tell you a Christmas story perhaps you have never heard before:
Once upon a time there was a young man named Nicholas who lived in a village called Myra on the Mediterranean Sea. Nicholas was precocious, and though he was still young, he dreamed of one day studying to become a priest.
There was a man in Nicholas’ village with three young daughters. He had enjoyed many years of wealth, but recently had come upon hard times. In fact, he had so little that he knew he and his daughters would not be able to continue to afford food for much longer. The man had decided to do the only thing there left to do: sell one of his daughters into a life of prostitution in order to save the other two.
When Nicholas heard rumors of the man’s decision he decided to do something. He tied several gold coins into a knot in a handkerchief and sneaked up to the man’s house after night had fallen. When he spotted an open window he tossed the handkerchief inside. When the man awoke to find the money the next morning he was amazed. He thanked God for providing. Soon, with the money from the handkerchief as a dowry, the oldest daughter was married and well provided for.
Unfortunately matters failed to improve for the man and his two remaining daughters. Despite his best efforts he could neither provide dowries so that they could get married, nor manage to secure an income great enough to feed the three of them. He finally resolved that he would still, after all, have to force one of his daughters into prostitution. But thankfully Nicholas once again received word of the man’s decision and sneaked up to the house after dark and threw a handkerchief with gold coins in an open window. The second daughter was able to secure a husband and a happy life just as the first had done.
Nevertheless, the poor man’s financial state continued to worsen. Soon the third and final daughter was in danger. However, this time the man was certain that the money he needed would be provided again. This time he waited by the window night after night to see if help would arrive. After only a few nights he watched as Nicholas sidled up to the house and tossed another set of gold coins inside. The man ran after Nicholas, but Nicholas ran as well. Finally the man caught up to him and was able to thank him for saving his daughters. Nicholas made the man swear that he would tell no one of his good deeds as long as he lived. Only after Nicholas’s death did the man reveal what Nicholas had done for him and his daughters.
A wonderful story, isn’t it? However, it doesn’t sound much like a Christmas story. In a sense, I suppose this isn’t exactly a Christmas story because Christmas as we know it today did not exist when these events transpired, most likely around the year 300 A.D. in what is now the nation of Turkey. In fact, the only reason this might be called a Christmas story is because its main character, Nicholas, would later become St. Nicholas, with whom our celebrations of Christmas are now inextricably intertwined. In fact, the story above may actually be the original tale to which all of our gift-giving traditions around Christmastime can be traced.
Yet in all of my imaginings as a kid, I never pictured the Real Santa as a young Turk chucking bundles of gold into windows to save young maidens. As a kid it was my obsessive quest each Christmas to try to sort out the Real Santa from the frauds like a living Where’s Waldo? game. I had decided the skinny beardless santa who rang a bell outside the local Dollar General was definitely not the Real Santa. The Santa I visited yearly in the mall was a major candidate, but I had some cognitive dissonance with the fact that this Santa differed slightly from the Santas I had seen on TV. Some of this dissonance was dispelled by the 1994 film The Santa Clause starring Tim Allen. The film suggested that there was not one trans-historical Santa, but a series of them who each magically inherit the role when another Santa dies. This was an important point of Santa-ology, and I was surprised to have never known about it before. Maybe, I thought, the differences I noted in various Santas could be attributed to the differences in each person’s pre-Santa form. This, or some seven-year-old version of it, made a great deal of sense to me.
In fact, The Santa Clause turned out to be even more right than I had imagined it to be when I was seven. Not only is there more than one Santa, there have been many Santas, each particular to his place and time. It seems, however, that Santas do not come about magically, but are created in word, image, and performance. The current Santa Claus, for example, is a thoroughly American saint. The popular image of the current Santa was cemented by a series of paintings by Haddon Sundblom. Sundblom’s images became the basis for a wildly successful Coca-Cola ad campaign in the 1920s that familiarized us with the image of Santa as grandfatherly, rotund, and jolly. In Sundblom’s images, Santa raises a bottle of Coca-Cola to us invitingly as he works on his list of good boys and girls or builds a model train. Another American Corporation, Macy’s, also helped spread this image of Santa to the nation through their department stores and parades. If Sundblom and Coca-Cola supplied the standard icons of this American saint, then it was Macy’s that furnished him with a temple: their Herald Square location, the world’s largest store, where millions of children make the pilgrimage to visit the Real Santa each year. Macy’s continues to capitalize on Christmas culture. A recent ad campaign issued a simple imperative: “Believe.” But, of course, believing is never simply believing; for Macy’s, buying is believing.
For my own part, when I reached the age when I began to ask my parents seriously if there was a Real Santa at all, or whether the whole idea of Santa was actually the fraud, like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy (I had just discovered the truth about them the previous year), my parents told me the truth—or at least the truth as they saw it. No, they said, there is no Santa Claus. But as I have grown older I have noticed that it is not quite so simple as that. It seems that it is actually we older people who are really the believers. Take, for example, a father who stands in line for hours at a Macy’s Santaland so that his daughter can spend just a few moments with the Real Santa. He also comes up with elaborate schemes in which he buys gifts and puts them under the Christmas tree but makes them appear as though they were delivered by a man on a flying sleigh. He even signs them in his own handwriting “From Santa,” and eats a deliberately staged tray of milk and cookies to prove that, in fact, SANTA WAS HERE! This, I suggest, is the picture of a man who believes in Santa Claus. He does not, perhaps, believe that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and delivers presents to a world of children in one night. And perhaps he doesn’t believe there are elves who make toys or flying reindeer named Prancer and Vixen, but he nevertheless puts his trust in the idea of Santa Claus. He believes in the same way we might say we believe in having cancer screenings or in the value of hard work. In fact, this man is doing more than simply believing, he is participating.
So perhaps the Macy’s ads that market our American saint are right about one thing: we don’t believe in some immaterial, esoteric way. Our belief can be measured in dollars and cents. To paraphrase Jesus, whatever you purchase this Christmas, your trust is already there. That is why this Christmas I am not going to be ashamed to buy and spend. I am not going to pretend that there is something holier about not giving, or that I can purify myself by abstaining from the whole commercialized Christmas culture. Instead I am going to attempt to change, in small but important ways, what gift giving means to me. Therefore, as much as I’m able, I have decided to introduce a new practice into my Christmas routine based not on the Santa of Macy’s and Coca-Cola, but on this strange young man who would become St. Nicholas. I am calling it Guerrilla Gifting. There are just two rules:
- Gifting is about activism. Nicholas was an advocate for the oppressed and marginalized, not a corporate icon. Therefore, my gifts will not be to those who already have enough, but specifically to those who are suffering from scarcity, injustice, or mistreatment of some kind.
- The gift must be anonymous. Don’t sign it. Don’t tell anyone. Nicholas went to great lengths not to be discovered in his good deeds. Perhaps instead of carefully selecting cards and tags, we should just let our gifts float out into the world as inexplicably as the grace that motivates them.
Who knows what might happen if more of us gave in this fashion? I imagine fleets of mail trucks filled with packages with no return addresses and cities full of people, sneaking around looking for poverty in the parts of town they would not normally visit, so that they can slide a few bills under a door or into a mailbox. Maybe it is just a dream. But it is the kind of Christmas I would like to believe in.