Welcoming Santa with G. K. Chesterton


St. Nicholas of Myra

Tomorrow’s the Feast of St. Nicholas.  When our oldest was born, we were unsure what to do about Santa.  Afraid he’d usurp the meaning of the season, we toyed with the idea of banishing him, sending him back to the North Pole for good.  We thought that maybe we’d instead like to invite the Three Kings over and really play up the Epiphany.  We knew, though, that our house might be one of their few cold weather stops and in time it might be a tough sell for our children who would inevitably lack friends who could share in their excitement and help along the story line.  In short, they just weren’t part of our culture.  We waffled for as long as we could, and then when our daughter was approaching her second Christmas my husband came across “The Other Stocking” by G.K. Chesterton who so beautifully makes the case for Santa that he’s been warmly welcomed in our house ever since.

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good–far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me.  What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still.

I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now, I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea.

Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.

I understand the reasons that a mother and father might not welcome Santa at Christmastime, as it is all too easy for him to overshadow the holiness of the day and season.  For us, though, it was enough to see a great thinker and faith-filled man not hampered in his spirituality but actually assisted in it through his belief in Santa.  It resonated with me, a lifelong Catholic who believed in Santa well up to seventh grade and who was eager to pass along such fun memories to her children.  Game’s on, thought my husband and me, as we happily began to incorporate all the fun associated with the jolly spirit into the season.

He is, though, very definitely St. Nicholas, who our children, accustomed to praying to saints, naturally welcome on his feast day.   CCC’s made a great video about St. Nicholas and how he became Santa Claus.  That seems to be a natural progression for a saint in my children’s eyes, going from being wonderful on earth to being wonderful in eternity, which manifests itself in gifts for them—that is, after all, how their mother approaches the communion of saints.

This year, however, my daughter learned from the Macy’s Day Parade about Mrs. Claus, who muddies the waters a bit.  My daughter was very curious about her and asked what her maiden name was.  I told her I didn’t know and pondered how to work Mrs. Claus into it all.  I held my breath, wondering if this new element would push my daughter’s belief to the edge, but it didn’t.  In fact, she and her little brother seemed happy for Santa that he had some company.  I think having befriended Ukrainian Catholic friends during our stay in Canada, dear companions who would eventually become Fr. and Mrs., really helped things along on that account.

So, in our house, Santa is St. Nicholas, the bishop, married to Mrs. Claus of a rather somewhat mysterious background.  He will be filling stockings and dropping off a special gift for each child; the rest will be from Mom and Dad.  Our children are looking forward to the birth of Baby Jesus, enjoying the anticipation with their chocolate Advent calendars, praying and singing around the Advent wreath at night, and helped along in their excitement by the intercession and special presence of St. Nicholas.  Whether or not we got Santa right at our house probably won’t be clear until the children are grown, if even then.  But for now anyway it seems like all is well.  Except that, as my Ukrainian friends tell me, Eastern rite bishops can’t be married.  But here’s hoping that St. Nick doesn’t put the Eastern Code in my daughter’s shoe tomorrow.

Copyright 2012 Meg Matenaer


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  1. Thanks Meg! I’m always looking for new info for my arsenal! It’s very tricky to teach first grade and be respectful of 20 different perspectives and sets of attitudes and traditions. St. Nick…Santa…Baby Jesus…when your 7 it sometimes becomes difficult to keep it all straight and in perspective! Makes for an interesting December! Generosity and a spirit of love are the constants thought. Blessings on your day!

    • Meg Matenaer on

      Hi, Sheri–that is a tricky situation! I’m sure you’ll do a great job, though, of keeping little hearts on track. And how convenient for us that Santa IS St. Nick who IS totally in love with the Christ Child (and us, too, that he would go to the trouble of visiting twice!) A blessed Feast of St. Nick to you tomorrow!

  2. I think it’s important not to seperate Santa from Saint Nicholas. I didn’t know about St. Nicholas as a child. I found out Santa wasn’t real when I was 5 on Christmas Day. My brother told me. My mother broke down sobbing saying I can’t do this lie any more. She was so devastated and yet relieved to let go of the lies. I felt totally and utterly betrayed. I became a skeptic at the age of 5. As parents now, we feel that telling our children about a mythical character, Santa that flies around the world delivering toys in one evening vs. Saint Nicholas, the true saint they too will feel betrayed. Truly this fantasy of Santa made me doubt the truth of Jesus. If they lied to me about Santa, what about Jesus?
    I am happy to say I don’t have any faith issues today but it was after a longer struggle than I would have liked. I had trust issues with my parents for a long time as well. I don’t get why anyone would lie to their children. When the kids see an image of Santa, we tell them this is based on Saint Nicholas. They know very well what Saint Nicholas did and why he is a Saint. Best not have Santa-believing children play near ours because though they won’t try to burst a bubble, they won’t be ones to keep the myth going. I have talked to many Moms that regret the initial year of lying and felt trapped by keeping it going. Saying “what can you do?”
    God Bless and Happy Advent.

  3. Meg Matenaer on

    Thanks for writing! I’m so sorry to hear about that very sad Christmas when you were so little and the resulting difficulties that ensued. That must’ve been really difficult. I’m sure your children will see clearly your love for them through the decisions that you do make in your home with such love. They are blessed to have such conscientious parents!

  4. Dale Ahlquist on

    Meg! Could you ask your husband where he found that Chesterton essay? We have no record of it here at the American Chesterton Society. We are always/never surprised to find new Chesterton material. God bless!

    • Meg Matenaer on

      Hello, Dale! Thanks for writing! I am working on getting to the bottom of it. I believe that it was a letter he had written to the Tablet, but I don’t know when that was. The Tablet is currently working on its online archive search, so I wasn’t able to dig too deeply there. But I’ve emailed one of the editors and hopefully he’ll point me in the right direction. I’ll let you know what I find!

      • Dale Ahlquist on

        Many thanks, Meg!

        Here are a few Chesterton quotes for today’s feast day:

        Personally, of course, I believe in Santa Claus; but it is the season of forgiveness, and I will forgive others for not doing so. (“The Red Angel” Tremendous Trifles)

        The chimney is, so to speak, the underground passage between earth and heaven. By this starry tunnel Santa Claus manages – like the skylark – to be true to the kindred points of heaven and home. (“The Two Curates” Manalive)

        Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? (“The Ethics of Elfland” Orthodoxy)

        Santa Claus, of course, is only St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children; but he has, in some ways, become more of a goblin than a saint. There have been many thousands of Christmas cards and Christmas books printed to depict him; and I doubt whether five of them depict him with a halo. (Illustrated London News, January 7, 1911)

        • Dale Ahlquist on

          London Tablet, that was the key. “My Experiences with Santa Claus” was printed in the Tablet in 1974, and was a reprint of an article Chesterton wrote in a magazine called Black and White in 1903!

          Problem solved.

          God bless you, Meg!

          • Meg Matenaer on

            Oh, wonderful! Thanks so much, Dale. I’m so happy you were able to find it. Blessings to you as well–happy Advent!

        • Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given a human form, like a snow man. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens; so that snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold. (“Man and Mythologies” The Everlasting Man)

  5. We too waffled even before our children were born. We decided since we do “up” a lot of feast days in our house, that stockings would be filled on December 6th. The Christmas tree would be lit and decorated on the feast of St. Lucy, preceded by the purple lit Jesse tree. Christmas music could begin to be played on the third Sunday of Advent. Jesus’ birthday party would be on December 25th. And our family gift exchange on Epiphany. How do we answer why we are different. It is simple and not hotly contested, people celebrate feasts and other such things differently.

    • Meg Matenaer on

      Hi, Jenni! Thanks so much for writing with all your family’s beautiful traditions. The symbols during this time are so powerful, it’s wonderful that you’ve been able to make use of them so well! A very blessed Advent to you!

  6. Two things: First, what we did. I read this in a magazine somewhere, sorry I don’t remember where — When my kids asked me if Santa was real, I told them that they were now old enough to know the big secret about Santa! I said that a long time ago there was a very holy man, Bishop Nicholas – so holy that he was a Saint! — who loved children and would give them presents on Christmas, and that when he died parents decided to keep giving the presents for him, so that he could give presents to children forever and ever. So now that they knew, THEY got to be Santa too for all the other kids in the world. Neither one of them felt angry or betrayed, and they love Christmas. Santa, as your great Chesterton quote shows, is not a lie — he’s a VERY Catholic way of looking at and understanding the world.
    Second, perhaps you would be interested in my review of the new film “Rise of the Guardians,” which (as I say in the review) is the Christmas film Chesterton would write if he worked for DreamWorks. The premise about the “guardians” is VERY Chestertonian, and he would have written something this fun and energetic and vigorous!

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  8. If I am not mistaken, a married man can become a bishop if he and his wife agree to have a ‘white’ marriage (though I think his becoming a monk and her a nun, are usual in such a case). Reading St. Gregory of Tours’s History of the Franks gives me the impression that this used to take place in the west, too, at least as late as his day.

    While I have never encounterd a Vita in which St. Nicholas is said to have been married, a ‘Mrs. Claus’ need not have prevented his becoming bishop.

    • Canonically Speaking on

      From my Ukrainian Catholic canonist friend…

      Certainly in the early Church (and even at the time of St Nicholas) married men (and ACTUALLY married men, not “married” men) were admitted to all three orders. We can see this in the book of Timothy where it actually says that a bishop should be the head of a household and the husband of one wife. Certainly “tradition” holds that St Nicholas was celibate. But in theory he could have been married. NOW. What happens is that in Roman law, around the 6th century (wait, I thought the Empire fell by then?!), Justinian brings in a requirement that bishops must be separated from their wives in his nomocanons. And about a century later, at the Quinisext Ecumenical Council (Trullo in 697) it was decreed that bishops MUST be taken from the ranks of the monastics, and thus defacto MUST be celibate. (And in order to preserve this requirement, in those jurisdictions that lack monasteries, such as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, bishops are frequently tonsured monastics the night before their ordination.)

      So historically, in the Christian East, there are some examples of married priests becoming monastics by mutual agreement with their wives (we at least hope) in order to become a bishop. There is zero provision for that in current Catholic canon law, though. And I am not aware of any modern cases of that in Orthodoxy. Widowers are VERY commonly made bishops in Orthodoxy. I am not aware of any recent cases in the Catholic Church, but they might exist.

  9. Meg, do you know when this was written? At least 80 years ago, right? And it was some 130 years ago that GKC was a child. I wonder if you’re reading things into Chesterton’s essay that he never intended. I wonder what parents actually told their kids back then. He says he believed “in a certain benevolent agency” “whom people called Santa Claus.” He says he “*wondered* who put the toys in the stocking.” He doesn’t say he *believed* it was a fat guy in a red suit with flying reindeer named Santa Claus. I don’t want to be a poopy-pants, mystery and fun is good, but I just can’t bring myself to tell my kids that that kind of stuff is real and true.

  10. …and it has never even really occurred to me to tell them that the bishop of Myra who died 1600(?) years ago comes down to our house (from heaven?) to bring them presents at Christmas time. I guess I could, but I just don’t see the justification.

    • Hi, David,

      I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. Of course, every parent needs to operate and to order his home with freedom and a clear conscience. Acting out of force, duress, guilt, etc. usually yields unsatisfactory results. G.K. Chesterton’s reflection helped my husband and me embrace our desire of wanting to pass on the tradition and fun of Santa that we had grown up with to our children without feeling as though we were undermining our children’s spiritual development, heartened as we were by the truths of love that Chesterton had experienced in his family’s embrace of Santa (which I would argue would be close to our notion of Santa today as Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” had been published already by 1823).

      Thanks for writing–a blessed Gaudete Sunday to you!

      • Hi Meg,
        The real issue with telling your kids things about Santa that are not true is that you are lying to them, and lying is intrinsically immoral.
        I said before: “I wonder what parents actually told their kids back then.” Here is what Chesterton himself says: “Some complain that parents will not tell their children whether Santa Claus exists or not. The parents do no tell them for the excellent reason that the parents do not know.” Now that’s a strange claim, but it tells me that GKC may have been no more comfortable with outright lying to children about Santa than I am.

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