When Wiltshire market towns appear in the British national press, it is usually because their sports teams have done unusually well or a photographer has captured a striking photo of the local children or wildlife. But this year, Canon Simon Tatton-Brown, Vicar of St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham, made national headlines by telling a group of primary-school-children – according to those headlines – that Santa Claus does not exist.
With a nose for reader interest and a somewhat twisted idea of what makes a feel-good Christmas story, the Telegraph (Santa is Not Real, Vicar Tells Primary School-children) and Guardian (Pupils’ Christmas ‘ruined’ by vicar’s Santa Claus origins story) each found a way to suggest that Canon Tatton-Brown had done lasting damage to the children of Charter Primary School by revealing to them that Santa Claus is one of the names for Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century Christian bishop of Myra, on the south coast of Roman Asia Minor, now Turkey.
“Tatton-Brown’s slip came as he delivered his festive address to pupils”, reported the Guardian. “…he told them that many believed the figure of Father Christmas was based on Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century saint renowned for his secret gift-giving.”
I’m confused. How, exactly, does telling children that Saint Nicholas was an early Christian saint equal telling them that Santa ‘”isn’t real”?) Christians have always believed Nicholas to have been an early bishop known for his good works and generosity – medieval legends tell of his leaving money in the stockings that poor families left out to dry, and presents in the shoes that were often left near their doors. It is true that, like all of the Christian saints – and Jesus himself – Nicholas is believed to had the power to perform miracles.
And like all the saints, Nicholas is an absolutely, palpably real person in the here and now, whatever we may know about his historical personality. Christians differ on how to understand the ancient idea that the saints live on, long after their deaths, to watch over later generations. Traditionally, the Communion of Saints represented the idea that we are all called to be saints, and that every living Christian joins an invisible community of those who came before. There are similar debates about what it means to say that the saints are capable of miracles – many believe that miraculous stories capture a spiritual truth rather than concrete historical fact.
It is unfortunate, in a way, that to illustrate the miracles attributed to Saint Nicholas, Tatton-Brown chose a particularly grisly eleventh-century miracle story – which features prominently in the saint’s Wikipedia entry – about a resurrection miracle involving three children who had been killed by a butcher, only for Nicholas to bring them back to life.
What Tatton Brown could also have told the Chippenham children, is that when Dutch immigrants came to New Amsterdam – now Manhattan – they brought with them a special reverence for Saint Nicholas, whom they knew as “Sinterklaas”. To these immigrant communities, the feast of St Nicholas on 6 December was an opportunity for families to keep alive traditions from the old country. Children would leave their shoes lined up on St Nicholas’ Eve, to find them full of gifts the next morning. So “Sinterklaas” found a home in the New World, and became Santa Claus, Bringer of Presents.
It is sad fact that this new Santa has come to have so little to do with the Nicholas of history and tradition, who has brought comfort – and sometimes miracles – to so many over the centuries. And to be honest, it isn’t the end of the world – even for children – if Santa is dead. The good news is that the fourth-century miracle-worker Nicholas of Myra is still alive and kicking. Long live Saint Nicholas!