Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Give up my Rolex for a DREAMER!? Part I

Sinter Klaas

We exchanged gifts last night (Christmas Eve) at my parent's house. When my Mom and Dad were younger and more financially solvent, the gifts were big, flashy, and expensive. Now that they are older, it's little things that are exchanged; socks, candy, DVD movies. We all were just as happy this time - with the small gifts - as we were when the gifts all cost over $200 or more a piece.

On Sunday, the 23rd my daughter told me she needed to buy three more gifts. She wanted me to go with her so she "wouldn't suffer alone." We went to Target. The whole thing was strategically planned. Before we left the car we repeated to ourselves the things we had to buy: 2 movies, a scarf, and a video game. We entered the store, rushed past the people to the movies. In less than 10 minutes we had everything. Then we approached the long lines at the check out. Thank goodness Target was prepared... they were organized too, lots of registers open. We each stood in separate lines and the one who got to the register first would pay (with my money either way). We made it out of the store in less than 20 minutes. We were shocked and very happy.

The new way of gift giving at my parent's, and my last minute venture into the capitalist world two days before Christmas made me think about the whole idea of Christmas. My daughter says she no longer likes Christmas. To her it's all about buying things. I think she has a point.

The NYT has an article today about the old Saint Nicholas. During St. Nicholas' time people give gifts to those who really needed it. For example, in the late Byzantine era, "surplus" female children were often sold into slavery... It was a tradition for those with money to provide money to the families to prevent the daughter from being sold. Christmas was not about giving gifts to everyone around you. The author says he is not so happy with out modern day Santa Claus.


December 25, 2007
St. Nick in the Big City
New York Times


ST. NICHOLAS was a super-saint with an immense cult for most of the Christian past. There may be more icons surviving for Nicholas alone than for all the other saints of Christendom put together. So what happened to him? Where’s the fourth-century Anatolian bishop who presided over gift-giving to poor children? And how did we get the new icon of mass consumerism in his place?

Well, it’s a New York story.

In all innocence, the morphing began with the Dutch Christians of New Amsterdam, who remembered St. Nicholas from the old country and called him Sinte Klaas. They had kept alive an old memory — that a kindly old cleric brought little gifts to the poor in the weeks leading up to the Feast of the Nativity. While the gifts were important, they were never meant to overshadow the message of Jesus’s humble birth.

But today’s chubby Santa is not about giving to the poor. He has had his saintly garb stripped away. The filling out of the figure, the loss of the vestments, and his transformation into a beery fellow smoking a pipe combined to form a caricature of Dutch peasant culture. Eventually this Magic Santa (a suitable patron saint if there ever was one for the burgeoning capitalist machinery of the city) was of course popularized by the Manhattanite Clement Clarke Moore published in “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” in The Troy (New York) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823.

The newly created deity Santa soon attracted a school of iconographers: notable among them were Thomas Nast, whose 1863 image of a red-suited giant in Harper’s Weekly set the tone, and Haddon Sundblom, who drew up the archetypal image we know today on behalf of the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s. This Santa was regularly accompanied by the flying reindeer: godlike in his majesty and presiding over the winter darkness like Odin the sky god returned.

The new Santa also acquired a host of Nordic elves to replace the small dark-skinned boy called Black Peter, who in Christian tradition so loved St. Nicholas that he traveled with him everywhere. But, some might say, wasn’t it better to lose this racially stereotyped relic? Actually, no, considering the real St. Nicholas first came into contact with Peter when he raided the slave market in his hometown and railed against the trade. The story tells us that when the slavers refused to take him seriously, he used the church’s funds to redeem Peter and gave the boy a job in the church.

And what of the throwing of the bags of gold down the chimney, where they landed in the stockings and little shoes that had been hung up to dry by the fireplace? Charming though it sounds, it reflected the deplorable custom, still prevalent in late Roman society when the Byzantine church was struggling to establish the supremacy of its values, of selling surplus daughters into bondage. This was a euphemism for sexual slavery — a trade that still blights our world.

As the tale goes, Nicholas had heard that a father in the town planned to sell his three daughters because his debts had been called in by pitiless creditors. As he did for Black Peter, Nicholas raided his church funds to secure the redemption of the girls. He dropped the gold down the chimney to save face for the impoverished father.

This tale was the origin of a whole subsequent series of efforts among the Christians who celebrated Nicholas to make some effort to redeem the lot of the poor — especially children, who always were, and still are, the world’s front-line victims. Such was the origin of Christmas almsgiving: gifts for the poor, not just gifts for our friends.

I like St. Nicholas. You can keep chubby Santa.

John Anthony McGuckin is a professor of religious history at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia.


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