In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ Acts 20:35.
Giving makes us better people. Churches that ask for tithes know this. Your manager at work knows this. Political campaigns know this (ok, maybe not so much). Your teenage kids know this (ok, not so much again, though we hope they’ll learn it).
In 21st century America, the most popular symbol of Christmas is Santa. He’s at the center of what we consider Christmas to be. But when you scratch off the red velvet and ring the jingle bells you see that the center of Santa is Christ. It’s impossible to reach any other conclusion without rejecting the words here in Acts 20. Whether the inspiration is Coca Cola, Hollywood, or pop culture, our notion of Santa Claus always goes back to Saint Nicholas of Myra, the bishop of Myra (in Turkey) who lived from 270 to 343 AD: only about 240 years after the life of Jesus. According to Wikipedia, Nicholas is the patron saint of many tradesmen, and his life spanned persecution and torture by the Romans, pardon from the Emperor Constantine (who split the Roman empire) and sitting in the council of Nicaea (in which the early church was reorganized and from which we received the Nicene Creed).
But his greatest gift was in giving. A most likely true legend has it that Nicholas gave a bag of gold to each of a poor man’s three daughters because the father was too poor to afford a dowry. Some versions of the legend have him throwing the coins through a window, others down a chimney and landing in stockings. No matter how it happened, over time this morphed into the concept of Santa Claus that we know today. In the 1800 years since Nicholas died, his tradition has been compounded with that of Father Christmas (dating the Tudor England of the 1500s), practices of Martin Luther (to focus kids on Christ instead of Saint Nicholas), Sinterklaas and Pere Noel in Europe, and Scandanavian Yule traditions. Here in America, Clement Moore’s famous poem from the 1820s popularized the idea of Santa as did advertising pictures from Harper’s Bazaar and Coca Cola in the late 19th century. And don’t forget the popular editorial response which said “yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
Giving is the glue that binds together those representations of Santa; self-less giving to children and the poor. All along the timeline from Saint Nicholas until today the saint of Christmas gives to those who have not. He blesses others by giving to them things they want and need. In doing so, what he’s really doing is giving them the love of Jesus. He inculcates a gift to a stranger with the strange gift that God gave us. You and I don’t deserve grace any more than a child ‘deserves’ an extravagant gift under the tree. We don’t earn gifts but God gives them anyway. We weren’t looking for the Christ child in Bethlehem but He came there anyway and the angels then sang of His glory.
Without the spirit of Jesus, there is no giving. Our very concept of Santa is thick with giving and, therefore, replete with Jesus.
Giving makes we better people because it puts aside ourselves. Gifts are acts of mercy to other people, reflections of what we believe. To give to someone with no expectation of anything in return is righteous, it is Christ-like. To give is to share God’s grace. Nicholas of Myra understood that when he gave gold to women who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to marry (something that would likely have resulted in their resorting to prostitution). If you separated the concept of Santa Claus from giving, you wouldn’t have Santa anymore. You wouldn’t even have a good advertising gimmick. Santa gives to share, to make others better, to give things they wouldn’t otherwise have. If the center of today’s celebrations is Santa, then the center of Santa selfless giving. You can’t give selflessly without first having the love of Jesus in your heart. Apart from Him we can do nothing. Therefore, apart from Jesus, Santa could give nothing. s The next time you get down about how commercialism is ruining Christmas, remember that the spirit of Christmas is still Santa and still, therefore, all about Jesus.
For further reading: Luke 6:38.
Lord, thank You for how giving makes us better people. Thank You for giving us this gift of mercy, of sharing, of Your Spirit.