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SAINT NICHOLAS aka SANTA CLAUS

December 5, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Habitat for Humanity of Spartanburg, 2270 South Pine Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 591-2221.

More than a century ago, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun. Her request was simple.

Dear Editor: I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon

115 West Ninety-Fifth Street

New York, New York

The editor assigned veteran news reporter Francis Church to respond to the child’s question. A few days later, an unsigned editorial appeared in the paper and has since become the most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time.

Because we have a granddaughter named Virginia, Clare and I recently read the New York Sun editorial from 1897. Here is a portion of Church’s response to Virginia. The entire column is readily available on the internet.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

For Clare and me, the newspaper column is a Christmas keepsake.

The closer we get to Christmas, the more I see of Santa. I see his likeness depicted on sweaters, neckties, and billboards.  A favorite Christmas ditty declares that Santa is everywhere.

He sees you when you’re sleeping. 

                                                 He knows when you’re awake. 

     He knows if you’ve been bad or good,

            So be good for goodness’ sake. 

Because Santa is so much a part of the holiday season, maybe we ought to know more about him.

The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born late in the third century in the village of Patara, located in what is now Turkey. While Nicholas was still young, an epidemic known as the Plague of Cyprian took the lives of his wealthy parents. Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage, an early Christian writer who witnessed and described the plague. The source of the plague is highly speculative, but suspects have included smallpox, pandemic influenza, or viral hemorrhagic fever like the Ebola virus.

Following the admonition of Jesus to the rich young ruler, “sell what you own and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), Nicholas used his entire inheritance to assist the poor, the sick, and the suffering. Nicholas had a heart of love for all people, especially for children and all who were needy.  He became a beloved priest, known for his kindness. 

Beyond historical facts, legends about St. Nicholas abound. One recounts that Nicholas heard of the plight of an impoverished man whose three daughters were not eligible for marriage.   Because they had no dowry, the culture dictated that they could not marry. The poor man could have sold his daughters into slavery but refused, vowing, instead, to take responsibility for them for the rest of his life.

Moved with compassion, Nicholas rode his white horse past the man’s humble home. He tossed three bags of gold coins into an open window to provide a dowry for each of the three daughters.  One bag of coins fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fireplace to dry. From this act of kindness developed the legend that St. Nicholas comes secretly to fill stockings with gifts. 

Nicholas eventually became the Bishop of Myra. He dressed in the typical clothing of a bishop: a red cap and a long, flowing red robe.  Following his death, he became known as St. Nicholas, once he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.  The feast day of St. Nicholas is December 6.  St. Nicholas is called Père Noël in France and simply Father Christmas in England.

The legend of St. Nicholas came to the United States through Dutch immigrants.  They referred to him as Sinter Claus, a derivative of St. Nicholas in the Dutch language.  In time, the spelling of Sinter Claus became Santa Claus.  Santa Claus, then, is a continuation of the legendary fourth-century priest who cared about the poor and children. 

The priest who became St. Nicholas was actually a thin man, but over the years, his image changed. In 1931, the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia, used Santa Claus in some of their advertising at Christmastime.  The company’s graphic artist created an image of a jolly old elf based on Clement Moore’s poem entitled “The Night before Christmas.”  In that poem, Santa is described as smoking a pipe and having a tummy that “shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.”  The commercialized Santa Claus became a plump, cheerful symbol of overconsumption.

Several years before her death, my mother gave me a gift, a ceramic figure that depicts Santa Claus kneeling before the baby Jesus in the manger and bowing in prayer. Santa had doffed his cap and folded his hands. I have found that image appropriate because it removes Santa Claus from the center of Christmas.

            In the true spirit of Christmas and in the enduring legacy of St. Nicholas, we need to concentrate on those who are needy, those who are poor. We need to recapture the original spirit of St. Nicholas.

I followed a tradition learned from my dad and granddad when I was a boy. When my children asked, I always told them that I was Santa Claus.  Telling the truth as a principle of parenting was ingrained in me.  When the topic of Santa Claus came up at our house, I would declare, “You know, I really am Santa Claus.”  Then I would force a deep-voiced laugh, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” 

Oddly enough, my children responded just the way I did when I was their age.  “You’re not Santa Claus!” they would say.  Then they would give all of the reasons why I could not possibly be the jolly old elf.

            “You don’t have a red suit.”

            “You don’t have any reindeer.”

            “You can’t make all of the toys for all of the boys and girls in the world.”

            “You don’t have enough time to deliver all of the Christmas presents.” 

Never once did anyone say, “You’re not fat enough to be Santa Claus.”

When I said that I was Santa Claus, they never believed me, until they were ready. 

For several years, I had the rare privilege of playing the part of Santa Claus. At a Christmas gathering for the church I served, the children presented a Christmas musical program, including a Nativity tableau.  Then, Santa Claus, yours truly, entered the Sanctuary with a hearty, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” 

With children gathered on the floor around his chair, Santa shared the original story of the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story from Luke Chapter 2, as told by Santa, had a remarkable effect on the children.  When Santa bowed his head to pray, they took note. 

Following the program, Santa lingered, allowing the children to crawl upon his knee and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.  The children always looked surprised when Santa Claus asked each child, “Do you know what I want from you this Christmas?” This was probably the first time they had ever heard Santa make a request of them.

Santa explained, “I want you and your family to remember that Christmas is the birthday of Jesus. For his birthday present, I want you to do something kind for someone else.”          

Through the years, I have received occasional comments of disapproval for playing the part of Santa. Some question whether this role is appropriate for a pastor. Others who wanted to eliminate the presence of Santa Claus altogether at this annual event believed my participation was nothing short of promoting a pagan tradition. I respectfully disagree on both counts.

The original Saint Nicholas was a caring pastor whose heart’s desire was to teach others about the love of God. My motive in playing the part of Santa was exactly the same. 

I no longer play the part of Santa outside of our own family. But to our granddaughter, Virginia, and to all of our thirteen grandchildren, I say, “Yes, indeed there is a Santa Claus!” Then I share with them the story of Saint Nicholas, a lasting example of love and kindness, especially to children.  

If we can recapture the heart and spirit of the loving man known as St. Nicholas, we will rediscover a part of the real joy of Christmas. Then we will understand that Santa is one of the surprising mysteries of Christmas love.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

EXPECTING A BABY: The First Sunday of Advent

November 28, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Miracle Hill Rescue Mission, 189 North Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29301, (864) 583-1628

The season of Advent presents several challenges to a pastor. The first is to tell the old, old story to people who have heard it over and over again as well as to those for whom it is only vaguely familiar. The preaching task is to retain and restore the mystery and wonder of the original story. We have the responsibility of liberating Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the Angels, the shepherds, and the Magi from confinement as stained-glass icons in a cathedral window, freeing them to be real people again.

The Holy Family was displaced. They were homeless travelers to Bethlehem and refugees in Egypt.  Mary was probably a teenager. Her first labor was intense, with sweat and blood. Joseph was a faithfully Jew, a carpenter by trade, now pressed into the role of a midwife.   The shepherds were awestruck that night when all heaven broke loose. The Magi were stargazers weary from their long journey. We sing about the baby as if he were not a child. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Really? I have been around enough newborns to know that healthy babies cry when they are hungry and when their swaddling clothes need changing. 

A second challenge for a pastor is to remember that Advent is a time of sharp emotional contrasts. Many people are happy and have little difficulty finding joy in the season, but December brings sadness to others. For those who are hurting, the coming of Christmas may be filled with dread, despair, bitterness, and anger. Some are freshly wounded; others carry deep scars from years gone by. For them, Christmas is anything but the season to be jolly.  They suffer while others celebrate.

In fifty-four years of pastoral ministry, I have learned that there is no better way to present the message of hope and love that is at the heart of Advent than through stories that parallel and perhaps merge with the original story. 

Long ago and much further away, a young woman was startled by the news that she was pregnant. She had not had the first inkling, nor had she any reason to believe she was with child. She had saved herself for marriage. The attendant dressed all in white was neither a nurse nor a physician. The messenger who broke the news was the archangel, Gabriel. The young woman was Mary of Nazareth.

Advent is Mary’s time. It is a season of expectancy for the young mother who lives in anticipation. But all Christians, men and women alike, share in this pregnancy. This is a time of preparation for the arrival of a child, the nativity of Jesus. As surely as a young couple makes ready to receive a new child, we, too, must be prepared for this new arrival. This is the essence of the season of Advent for those of the Christian faith.

When Clare and I were married, we knew that we wanted to have children.  We prayed that God would give us a child when the time was right.  We became frustrated that God did not meet our schedule.  We went for medical help and were told that it was improbable that we would ever have our own biological child.  We pondered the possibility of adoption.  We were overjoyed when Clare became pregnant but very disappointed when she had a miscarriage three months later.  Again, we were told that for us, the probability of having children was remote.  We began to explore the possibility of adoption more seriously.  After several months, Clare was again pregnant.  The second pregnancy lasted longer.  Our hearts were broken following a second miscarriage.  I was angry.  Clare was grieving. 

On a walk into the woods with clenched fists and gritted teeth, I told God that I did not understand why some people had children they did not want and could not care for, yet we could not have a child. 

There was no flash of light, no audible voice, but a message came, clear as a bell, “Kirk, how can you expect to be a father until you learn to hurt?”

We initiated the long process of adoption with paperwork, home visits, and medical tests.  When we were finally approved, we prepared a nursery, and we waited. Within weeks before we were to receive our adopted child, we discovered that Clare was again pregnant.  The choice was difficult.  Should we terminate adoption and risk another disappointment?  Should we continue adoption proceedings with the possibility that we would have two infants just six months apart in age?  Our decision to terminate adoption was yet another grief for us. 

Clare carried our child full term.  We were expecting our firstborn to arrive on December 18, 1970.  As these things often go, the anticipated date came and went, but still no baby.

As Christmas approached, Clare and I waited at our home in Louisville, Kentucky, realizing that we would not be with either of our families for the holidays. We could not travel to New Orleans, where her parents resided, or to Spartanburg, where my family lived. We exchanged gifts with our families by mail.

 Christmas Eve arrived; our child had not. We enjoyed dinner together at our home. Before midnight, we opened one gift each. Then we called both of our families to wish them Merry Christmas.

Just after we went to bed, Clare had her first contraction. Suddenly, we were wide awake! At 5:00 A.M. on Christmas morning, we were on the way to Norton Infirmary in downtown Louisville. Soft, light snow was falling, and the streets were empty as we drove through the darkness.

At the hospital, I left Clare in labor and delivery and went to admissions to check her in as a patient. When I returned, her contractions had stopped, and she was sound asleep. I waited. Then, about noon on Christmas Day, she went into hard labor. We had taken Lamaze classes and thought we knew what to expect. When a mother gives birth in old cowboy movies, they send the husband out to boil water. Lamaze is something like that. It gives the father a coaching job to do while the mother works very hard.

At 3:26 P.M. on Christmas Day, our first child, Michael Kirk Neely, was born. We were overjoyed. Finally, we had a baby! And, he was born on Christmas! Both sets of grandparents were elated when we telephoned to announce our son’s arrival.

The birth of a child is always a miracle.

The word Advent comes from Latin, meaning to come. Some Christian carols become prayers of anticipation: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus.”

This year, the season of Advent begins on Sunday, November 29, 2020.  In a spiritual sense, all Christians are pregnant with anticipation.  Every year, we celebrate anew the birth of a child, not just any child, but the one born in Bethlehem.  To hold a newborn in your arms is a reminder of just how precious and fragile life is.  To cradle an infant in your arms on Christmas Day is a reminder that, in the birth of Jesus, God made himself very vulnerable. 

Because of the COVID-19 virus, this Christmas season promises to be different for many of us. The Gospel account makes it clear that Mary and Joseph experienced the birth of their child in difficult circumstances. They certainly were in isolation. They were confined to a stable out back, no less. 

Each Christmas, we draw close to the manger and gaze into the face of this child.  Look closely.  Did you notice the resemblance?  According to Christian tradition, this baby is the spitting image of his Father in heaven.

And so, we who are Christians kneel with shepherds and Magi. “O come, let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.”

Blessed Advent!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

IN EVERYTHING GIVE THANKS

November 21, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to The Salvation Army, P.O. Box 172557, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29301-0062, (800) 725-2769.

Twenty years ago, just before Thanksgiving, our twenty-seven-year-old son, Erik, died suddenly. Some people lamented that our Thanksgiving would be ruined. We found just the opposite to be true. Beyond the parades, the football games, and the turkey, Thanksgiving became more meaningful. This year, amid a COVID-19 crisis, Thanksgiving will be different for most of us. It will also be difficult for many of us. How shall we approach this national holiday under our current circumstances?

Thanksgiving in this country has often been linked to times of hardship. For the Pilgrims of New England, the first winter in the New World was severe, and disease was rampant. Pneumonia and scurvy decimated the ranks of the colonists. By spring, fifteen of the eighteen wives had died, as had five of the twenty-eight children. Nineteen of the twenty-nine hired men and fifteen of the thirty sailors died from hard work in the harsh weather. Only five Pilgrim Fathers remained alive. Teenager Priscilla Mullins lost her entire family.

The bereavement and hardships of the winter of 1621 bound together Pilgrims and Strangers, the soldiers, sailors, and tradesmen who traveled with them. A hardened soldier, Miles Standish, tended the sick alongside Separatist William Brewster. Sneering sailors and praying Pilgrims now shared a bond of common suffering.

On March 16, a tall, half-naked man walked into the circle of startled villagers. He introduced himself as Samoset. He spoke only a little English. So, he left in frustration. Three days later, Samoset returned with Squanto, who knew English very well. These two Native Americans were largely responsible for the survival of the depleted English colony. Perhaps aware of the hardships the colonists had endured, the Indians taught the Europeans how to hunt and fish.

Following the death of Governor William Carver in April 1621, the Mayflower set sail for the return voyage to Europe. The fifty people of Plymouth Colony, more than half of them children, stayed in America.  Widows and widowers were united in marriage. Priscilla Mullins became the bride of John Alden.

Massasoit, Chief of the Narragansett tribe, befriended the Pilgrims. Native Americans advised the colonists on agricultural methods that enabled the Plymouth community to enjoy a good harvest.  On December 13, 1621, a three-day feast was planned. Massasoit came with ninety Indians. We often refer to that feast as the first Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is the least commercialized of all of our celebrations. It is the one day that all people of every faith can celebrate.

The Thanksgiving Proclamation of George Washington in 1789 during the first year of his presidency encouraged a fledgling country to “to acknowledge with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” 

In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation. Even with a divided country in crisis, the president remembered the blessings of God. 

“They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God…. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence … commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged…”

Our deepest expressions of gratitude come amid our greatest difficulties.

A pastor and his wife from eastern North Carolina suffered the loss of their young adult son.  One dark, rainy night, he was severely injured in an automobile accident.  In the emergency room, the bleak diagnosis of severe trauma to the head prompted a transfer to the neurological intensive care unit.  Over the next few hours, a team of physicians concurred that the young man was brain dead.

The father knew from his experience as a pastor that his son’s death was imminent. The parents were reminded that their son had indicated a desire to be an organ donor.  His driver’s license confirmed his wish. Arrangements were made; paperwork was completed, so that when death came, as many organs as possible could be used for transplants. The following day, the decision to remove all life support was made.  The young man died within a matter of minutes. His organs were taken and distributed to other hospitals where recipients were awaiting transplants.

Organ donation procedure allows the donor’s family to know the names of organ recipients if both the donor’s family and the recipients agree.  The pastor and his wife wanted to know the names of the recipients, and three of the recipients agreed.  The couple received their names about the first of February.  They decided to invite these three recipients to a Thanksgiving meal at their home on the Saturday preceding Thanksgiving Day.

On the appointed day, the organ recipients and their spouses arrived at the couple’s home.  The pastor greeted them at the door and welcomed each one as the pastor’s wife put the food on the table.  Together they gathered to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal.  The pastor related the story of their Thanksgiving experience.

“As we stood in a circle to have the blessing, the woman who had received our son’s heart moved between my wife and me.  As we reached out to hold hands, she placed my wife’s hand on her right wrist and my fingers on her left wrist.  My wife and I could feel her pulse. We realized that we were feeling the pumping of our son’s strong heart, now transplanted in this woman’s body.

“Another of the recipients, a man, asked if he might return thanks.  We agreed and heard his prayer, blessing our home and us, and giving thanks for the life of our son.  We were aware that his voice was strong because our son’s lungs had been transplanted into his chest. 

“Sitting across the table from us during the meal was a young woman.  We realized that she looked at us with steel-blue eyes that were once the eyes of our son.

“It was,” concluded the pastor, “the most meaningful Thanksgiving we have ever had. Of course, we were still grieving. But we also had discovered hope. Our son had died, but he literally left a part of himself to everyone around the table. Our hearts were filled with gratitude as we met the people whose lives had been so changed by our son.”

The Apostle Paul wrote to the early faith community, “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:16). It is not an easy instruction to follow. We find some comfort in noting that Paul did not say that we are to be thankful for every circumstance. Rather, within the difficulties of life, we are to find reason to be grateful.

When life is hard, as it is for everyone, our tendency can be to become bitter and cynical. If we can find reasons to be grateful, even our most difficult experiences can be transformed.

Thanksgiving does not depend on our external circumstances. Thanksgiving is an internal condition of a grateful heart.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.