“Jolly old St. Nicholas

Lean your ear this way,

Don’t you tell a single soul

What I’m going to say!”

– Christmas carol, 1881

It started last week with an online survey I saw that asked something like, “Should Santa Claus be banned from public property because he’s too religious?”

I was taken a bit aback, because it seemed entirely mistaken to me to think of the idea of Santa Claus, at least in its contemporary iteration, as a religious figure in the slightest way.

Santa hasn’t appeared at any church worship service I’ve ever attended; he might occasionally sneak in a side door to show up at the children’s Christmas party, but that’s about it, and even that’s a stretch. We certainly get enough of him everywhere else.

That’s because he is said to live at the North Pole, but his real home is in the mall, where he can direct shoppers to the best sales and pose for photos with the young’uns and an elf or two.

In fact, TV ads reliably inform us that he’s given up his reindeer and sleigh for either FedEx’s overnight delivery service or a red Mercedes and a matched team of eight silver ones.

Still, there had to be some reason for the question, and a quick online search found a news story a couple of days earlier from Oregon, where a school district had indeed banned Santa and other “religious-themed” decorations from classroom display.

God knows (yes, He does) exactly why these Christmas-hating educators don’t want any of their charges wondering why the holiday (“holy day”) combines the words “Christ” and “Mass,” and therefore why they ruthlessly stamp it out when it raises its joyful head. We understand all that. But banning that tired old pitchman Santa? Seriously? Why?

Still, the idea didn’t leave me, and I remembered that Santa started out as St. Nicholas of Myra, a 4th-century Greek bishop from Asia Minor who, legend says, helped the three daughters of a poor man find husbands by anonymously giving them each a bag of gold for a dowry.

The Dutch tradition of a gift-giving “Sinterklaas” transferred the idea to the modern age, and we all ended up with the Americanized Santa Claus, who has since spread to many nations.

Thus, there is a religious tradition behind the figure, so maybe the Oregon school district saw his full meaning a bit more clearly than I was originally prepared to.

Then, scrolling through another site I visit regularly, the Mere Comments blog of an ecumenical journal called Touchstone, I found a reprinted 2005 article titled, “Yes, Aquinas, There is a Santa Claus.”

Written by Nathan Schlueter, an associate professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College in Michigan, the article takes the form of a classical philosophical disputation with St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century Italian philosopher who, along with others, created an enduring doctrinal system of theological study called Scholasticism.

The Thomistic argument that Schlueter presents can be summed up as an analysis of the proposition that “the Santa Claus tradition is not permitted by the Christian faith.”

That is, parents are committing a sin by deceiving their children about Santa, and thus children will learn to distrust their parents and become cynical about “the truly miraculous and supernatural.”

That’s not necessarily true, replies Schlueter: “God has often condescended to the human intellect, making use of figures, parables, and the events of history itself to better disclose to human beings the reality of his Nature and to better prepare them to accept that reality.”

Thus, he says, the story of Santa Claus resembles the parables of Jesus, the Miracle Plays of the Middle Ages, or the Christian fantasies of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and it offers three benefits to children: It tells them there is a realm beyond that of the physical world; it “helps cultivate those imaginative powers in children upon which the depth and richness of human knowledge depend, such as a sense of mystery and wonder.”

And finally, “It helps instill in them the moral lesson of selfless giving.”

So there’s more evidence the Oregon Grinches got it right, at least in part. The Santa they’ve banned may not always be a religious figure, but viewed in the light of the true Christmas spirit, he certainly can be. So, I learned something from all this.

And as I sat down to write this on Tuesday for my Wednesday deadline, I looked at the calendar of the church year I have hanging beside my desk and saw this: “Dec. 6, feast day of St. Nicholas, Bishop.”

There really are no coincidences, are there?

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

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