December 6th, The Feast of St. Nicholas
My youngest children are hitting that age where the complete and utter magic of Santa, reindeer, and elves is being replaced by nagging doubts. In fact, because I love this time of year, my kids’ doubts and questions are probably being verbalized later than in some, other families.
To be clear, I watch the movie The Polar Express the week after Thanksgiving. In case you’re not that into this particular holiday movie—which you really should be—let me give you the quick version of the story.
The Polar Express is based on the classic children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. The story takes us into the doubts of a young boy who has grown skeptical about the existence of Santa. As the boy struggles to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, a steam locomotive pulls up in front of his street, and the conductor invites him to get on board the train, which is headed for the North Pole.
Following a series of delays, adventures, and a runaway train, the boy and his companions finally reach the North Pole. When Santa appears, the boy finds he can’t hear the jingling sleigh bells of Santa’s reindeer.
One bell comes loose and bounces on the cobblestone in front of him. He picks it up, and rings it, but cannot hear it. Realizing his doubt is the reason he cannot hear, he tells himself, “I believe. I believe.” The boy begins to hear the bell, and all the bells, ringing. When Santa chooses the boy as the recipient of the first gift of Christmas, he asks for the sleigh bell.
At the end of the movie and the book, the boy, now an old man, says, that the bell has fallen silent for many of his friends through the years. Even his sister, one year, found she could not longer hear it. However, he says, the bell still rings for him, and all those who truly believe.
By this part in the movie, tears are streaming down my face. I am remembering my mother, my grandmother, Christmases past, and lives past.
Because this movie is a family tradition in our home, as is the keeping of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, our four boys are quite familiar with this little tradition. As the movie credits roll, they look at me to see if I’m crying, and I am, and then I say to them, “I believe.”
The Polar Express is a story that, these days, confronts them with their own questions and doubts. Every parent must decide how to discuss questions about doubt, skepticism and faith. Some people may judge me wanting in the complete disclosure category when it comes to Santa Claus because I refuse to tell them outright.
My older son knows that his father and I are the source of the gifts, but we have an agreement not to speak about it because he knows what my answer will always be: I still believe.
What is it that I still believe?
I believe that the tradition behind Saint Nick, based on the life of an early Christian Bishop, Nicholas of Myra, helps me reset the images of a commercialized Santa, the blaring “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and our frenzied spending to the actions of a Christian who lived in the fourth century.
I believe in Santa Claus because his long-ago predecessor has a legendary heart for the poor and the oppressed. Stories arose about Nicholas’ anonymous generosity, a kindness, apparently, that gave rise to his stature and the traditions about him, and, perhaps, those who knew him some how kept the desire to keep giving and sharing as he had.
I recently asked one of our very talented church members to bake some Santa cookies for our church kids. When it came time for our Lesson for Young Christians last Sunday, I told the children about the famous Saint Nicholas, the Christian, and then invited them to think about how we might give to others.
And then I gave them a cookie and a quarter. The cookie was for them, but I requested that, later in the service, they give the quarter to someone they didn’t know.
I believe truth is not merely about facts, but is instead something we experience in our hearts, something we know to be Mystery, and yet real beyond what we can see with our eyes. The apostle Paul once wrote, “If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see?” (Romans 8:24) Paul Tillich, the famous twentieth century Christian theologian wrote that the opposite of faith is not doubt; but certainty.
When we truly believe in love, or in giving, or in sharing with others, then we do it, and, we need no special effects or magic to make it happen, and yet it is no less a miracle.
I believe that Saint Nicholas followed Jesus by sharing and giving, and I will enjoy following in his footsteps at my house, but I will also also practice it anonymously for the poor and the oppressed in my community as did another Christian centuries ago..