Santa, St. Nicholas and churches today

So, what did your local church do to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas this past week, on Dec. 6th? The sainted bishop of Myra is a towering figure in the churches of the East, of course, and there are other liturgical churches that recognize that traditions linked to the real St. Nicholas -- the patron saint of endangered women and children, among other groups -- are part of the quiet season of Advent/Nativity Lent.

However, the lovers of holy St. Nicholas the Wonderworker are not used to seeing him mentioned in the mainstream press, in large part because of, well, you know, that other guy. The Coca-Cola guy.

However, the pros at Religion News Service recently put out an nicely nuanced feature about the Santa Claus dilemma that some churches face year after year. The big question: If Santa is real, as the whole pop culture machine insists that he is, then what are religious groups supposed to do with him? And what about the real St. Nicholas? Where do you put him in the picture without picking a fight?

Here's the top of the story, which was written (please note this disclaimer) by Adelle Banks, a long-time speaker in the Washington Journalism Center program that I direct. She's a pro's pro.

(RNS) When the Rev. John McCausland crafted his Christmas Eve sermon at his Episcopal church in Weare, N.H., he always followed a basic formula. There had to be a brother and a sister in the story. Jesus and the holy family played a prominent role. And there was always an appearance from Santa Claus.

"If we never mention Santa Claus, then you create a parallel universe," said McCausland, who retired in June. "What I try to do in this story is to tie the two together, but not make Santa Claus primary."

McCausland kept the Jesus-and-Santa story tradition for 14 years at Holy Cross Episcopal Church. Children would carry the figures to the creche display and sit for McCausland's story, in which Santa often joins in the adoration of the Christ child.

Just where to place the jolly elf in the original Christmas story can be a perennial dilemma for both parents and pastors.

I love the "parallel universe" quote. That says it all. And that, from a journalism perspective, that quote points at the heart of a huge story that is extra hard for journalists to tell. The bottom line: Which Christmas is the real one? And how do Christian leaders say, "Put the Christ back in Christmas" without, in effect, saying that it is time to put "Christmas back in Christmas." Can churches really manage to live in the world of the shopping mall and the world of church tradition at the same time?

Now that's a real Christmas war that affects all kinds of people, as opposed to just the politicians and lawyers caught up in the annual "Christmas wars" that make tired headlines year after year. This is a story that will give parents, pastors and priests sweaty palms.

Toward the end of this RNS story, there is this courageous statement by a Protestant pastor.

Prepare to be shocked.

Michael Chanley, the former parenting minister at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., said he stuck to the Bible and never intentionally taught about Santa.

"When children have asked, as they always do, I simply ask them what they believe. Regardless of what they say, my response is, basically, the same," said Chanley, now the executive director of the International Network of Children's Ministry.

"I tell them Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. Then, I share with them the story of the real Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, and how his generosity inspired many of our traditions."

So, did GetReligion readers see any other mainstream coverage of the St. Nicholas/Santa Claus equation this past week? Please leave us some URLs in the comments pages.

IMAGE: Care of St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Mission in Toronto.

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