Santa Claus

What do you know? Washington Post runs 'news you can use' feature about real St. Nicholas

What do you know? Washington Post runs 'news you can use' feature about real St. Nicholas

First things first: A blessed Feast of the Nativity to one and all, especially for those in church traditions that follow the liturgical calendar rather than the calendar of the Chamber of Commerce. Christmas is here and, well, Donald Trump has nothing to do with it.

So, thinking about church history, I was worried when I saw a Washington Post analysis piece with a headline that proclaimed: "Five myths about Saint Nick."

I was, of course, worried about that word "myth." Quite frankly, I was worried -- in the context of St. Nicholas of Myra -- about either of the most common definitions of this term:

1. A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. ...
2. A widely held but false belief or idea.

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, calling St. Nicholas of Myra a "myth" is, well, fightin' words. At the same time, connecting the secular superhero named Santa with St. Nicholas the saint would present trouble for other people. I've written a whole lot about both sides of that tension (click here for more).

Some Orthodox folks might quibble with a few words of this piece, written by Adam C. English, a Christian studies professor at Campbell University, a Baptist campus in in North Caroline. He is the author of “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.”

However, the big idea of this piece is spot on: Yes, there is a real St. Nicholas. However, he is not the man at the shopping mall.

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Archaeology as click bait: Is the news 'Santa is dead' or 'Tomb of St. Nicholas has been found'?

Archaeology as click bait: Is the news 'Santa is dead' or 'Tomb of St. Nicholas has been found'?

Let me start with a kind of religion-beat emotional trigger alert.

WARNING: Members of ancient Christian communions (and lovers of church history) should put down any beverages (hot or cold) that are in their hands before reading the following "Acts of Faith" feature in The Washington Post. It may help to take some kind of mild sedative.

Now, let's proceed. First there is the headline, which is both clever and totally outrageous, in light of the actual news hook in this story. Ready? Here we go:

Santa dead, archaeologists say

The New York Post headline? You do NOT want to know.

So can you say, "click bait"? Of course this is click bait and I understand why. However, the question is whether this report contains key information that is useful to readers who are interested in the real story -- which could turn out to have major implications for church history as well as ecumenical relations between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox churches of the East.

The "Santa" in the headline is actually St. Nicholas of Myra, one of the most beloved saints and bishops in ancient Christianity. Before we get to the real story, here is the creative (to say the least) overture of the Post report (which was not written by a religion-desk pro).

First the good news:
Whoever told you that Santa Claus was an impostor with a fake beard collecting a Christmastime check at the mall or a lie cooked up by your parents to trick you into five measly minutes of quiet was, at minimum, misinformed.
The bad news: Santa Claus is definitely dead.
Archaeologists in southern Turkey say they have discovered the tomb of the original Santa Claus, also known as St. Nicholas, beneath his namesake church near the Mediterranean Sea.

Pause: This man is "also known as St. Nicholas"?

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New York Times pays timely visit to ancient, threatened home of the real St. Nicholas

New York Times pays timely visit to ancient, threatened home of the real St. Nicholas

Let us now pause to offer a word of thanksgiving and modest praise for a New York Times story about religion.

Of course, this particular news report has nothing to do with sexuality or religious liberty, so the editorial bar was set a bit lower. However, this story does have a few kind words to say about Russian Orthodox believers, which is a kind a miracle in and of itself right now.

The dateline for this report is the city of Demre, in southern Turkey, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Taurus Mountains. In other words, this comes from a region that is absolutely crucial to the history of the early church and the people of the New Testament, although most readers (the story takes this into account) would not know that. 

The headline focuses on an all-to-often overlooked hero of the Christian faith: "In Turkey’s Home of St. Nick, Far From North Pole, All Is Not Jolly."

Now, why is this story appearing in the Times on Dec. 19th? I would assume that this is because a Times correspondent noted an increase in the number of Christians coming to Demre for events celebrating the life and faith of St. Nicholas of Myra.

But why Dec. 19th? The story never tells us why.

This raises an interesting question: Does the reporter, or the Times copy desk, even realize that Dec. 19th is the Feast of St. Nicholas, according to the ancient Julian calendar used by the Orthodox Church in Russia and in many other Eastern lands? In the West, the feast of St. Nicholas -- with its emphasis on almsgiving for the poor and small gifts (think chocolates wrapped to look like gold coins) -- is celebrated on Dec. 6th, on the newer Gregorian calendar.

But let's look at a key summary of facts early in this story:

Yes, Virginia, you heard that right, Santa Claus is from Turkey. But this year, Christmastime in Demre is far from cheery.

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Yes, Virginia ... There IS more Santa Claus-related Clickbait, and it's context-free!

Yes, Virginia ... There IS more Santa Claus-related Clickbait, and it's context-free!

The lot of a newspaper general assignment reporter these days -- even in the tony precincts of the Washington Post -- can't always be a happy one. You're slapped around by the day's events: a Cadillac TV ad "casting call" for an "alt-right" type one day, the tragic story of a guy who turned his life around, only to die while attempting to help someone in distress the next.

It's a tough spot, particularly when one appears to be tasked with aggregating news that happens far from your desk. That generally involves looking at, collecting, paraphrasing and linking to stories from external sources. (Your commentator does something similar with Utah-related business news five nights a week, Sunday through Thursday; I understand a bit of what's involved. Trust me on that.)

So one can have a bit of empathy for Cleve R. Wootson Jr., the Post reporter in question, when it comes to the question of a clearly idiosyncratic individual in Amarillo, Texas, one David Grisham, who apparently feels led to share the "good news" that there is no Santa Claus.

To children. At a mall. While they are waiting in line for interviews with the aforementioned non-existent Santa.

Can you say "clickbait"? I knew you could! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

At first, the parents try to ignore the screaming man at the mall telling their children they’ve been lied to about Santa Claus.
Then it becomes clear he’s not going to stop.

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Holy ghost in my past: How I blew my chance to explore the faith of the 'real' Santa Claus

Holy ghost in my past: How I blew my chance to explore the faith of the 'real' Santa Claus

Our own Terry Mattingly is no fan of the commercialized, mall-defined Santa Claus.

In a GetReligion post last year, tmatt asked:

Why pass on the beloved lie that is Santa Claus?

I don't disagree often with our editor (who is devoted to the St. Nicholas of the ancient church), but personally, I love the jolly ole elf with the red suit and white beard.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason is that I grew up in a Church of Christ household where we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday, but not a religious one. (For more details on that, check out this 2005 piece I wrote for The Christian Chronicle.)

 

Last week in the Dallas Morning News, I read a feature on a black Santa who has made headlines this Christmas season.

Like me, the Morning News writer obviously believes in Santa. Her lede makes that obvious:

Although his job takes him to the North Pole and other faraway places, this Santa — the first black St. Nick at the Mall of America — would prefer to work closer to home. 
Larry Jefferson, a retired U.S. Army veteran, returned to Irving on Monday after spending four days greeting children and handing out candy canes at Minnesota's Mall of America.
While he said his time in Minnesota was amazing, Jefferson would prefer to keep his workshop in Dallas Fort-Worth, and hopes to one day open a winter wonderland storefront.
In the meantime, he has gigs lined up at the Uber office in Dallas (he's also an Uber driver), the S.M. Wright Foundation's Christmas in the Park at Fair Park, and this weekend at the Irving Wal-Mart.
Jefferson was chosen for the historic Mall of America job after Landon Luther, the co-owner of the Santa Experiencephoto studio in the mall, sent his elves out in search for a more diverse Santa, the Star-Tribune reported.

The potential — and unexplored — religion angle comes later in the Dallas story:

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Hail Epiphany and farewell to Christmas (and white Santas)

First things first: I hope that readers who are into that whole Christian calendar had a great 12 days of the real Christmas season, as opposed to the six or seven weeks of whatever that is that ends with an explosion of wrapping paper on Dec. 25. So this brings us to the great Feast of Epiphany, which in our ancient churches is the second most important day on the calendar after Easter/Pascha. More important than Christmas? Well, it’s hard to rank these things, but the key element of this day — marking the baptism of Jesus — is the scriptural account of the revealing of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. That’s big. In the West, the feast tends to focus on the arrival of the Three Kings at the cradle of Jesus.

To my surprise, Epiphany has been getting a bit more news ink in recent years (surf this search-engine file for a current sample).

Personally, I think it’s the whole photo-op principle at work. I mean, who doesn’t want to show up to put the following into shivering pixels?

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