the day Santa died

Editors note: This is an essay from a book project I’m finishing, called Becoming Santa. A subset of these essay is called the Santa papers, an unofficial autobiography of Nicholas of Myra, the fourth century bishop upon which the legend of Santa is based. I’m presenting them in a lecture at the university Friday at 10:00 (White Auditorium). You can read them here.

This one is from a different set, a set which tells my own story of understanding Nicholas and the virtue of Becoming Santa.


I’m not exactly sure when I became Santa.

I used to tell kids I was Santa to annoy their moms, especially when their mothers didn’t believe in fantasy generally or Santa particularly. But that wasn’t a particularly Santa-like thing to do.

It grew into a game soon enough. I would pretend to call the North Pole and my kids would pretend to be elves, assuring three and four year olds that I was the real deal. I used to carry a picture of me with a rain deer.

But the game ended when my father died unexpectedly. I wasn’t orphaned like Nicholas. But I was very alone.

Although we lived in different states and usually only saw each other at Christmas, I was able to see him five times that year. Dad visited us about three week before he died and put shelves in our pantry. We played golf, a game I only learned so I could be with him, and he complained of pain in his neck and shoulders.

These five visits were a mercy for which I remain thankful. Three weeks later he preached to his congregation and was carried out on a stretcher. I talked to him on the phone and offered to fly down, but I was supposed to be there later in the month so he told me to wait. He was fine.

Two days later he was gone.

I was honored to conduct his funeral. And grateful for the grace to do it. I chose a text that might have been written about him. And about Nicholas too, for that matter.

Psalm 112: 4-6 says:
Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,
who conduct their affairs with justice.
Surely the righteous will never be shaken;
they will be remembered forever.

Few men have lived that better than my dad, except perhaps Nicholas himself.

Dad will be remembered as the man who gave all the cash in his pocket to a down-and-out nephew who visited him in the hospital the day before he died.

I still remember that Christmas ham on my first birthday, even though I can’t remember it at all. Practically everything between those two events reflected a lifetime of giving himself away, wishing only that he had more to give.

Hundreds, even thousands, had witnessed his gentleness and been objects of his generosity. At times he gave his salary to the ministries where he served. He co-signed for church members (not actually a good idea as I remember) and practiced a grace uncommon in the conservative Baptist circles in which he lived and died. Or in any circle whatsoever.

I still miss him. He may have been as close as any human friend. And at first what I missed the most was talking to him on the phone, since he lived in Florida and I lived in Michigan. For months I would pick up the phone before I realized he was not there.

I sensed immediately that I had gone from being the guy that made the call to being the guy that took the call, that my care for my own children had taken a new turn, and that I could be there for them as adults as he had been for me.

I knew too that I should be that guy for young men with absent or angry fathers, young men who needed to be encouraged as I had been when I worked too hard or took myself too seriously.

This is, as I have said, the story of how Nicholas became Santa and how, for me, he became Nicholas again. It is also the story of what my father taught me about grace.

So far, this is what I know. I know becoming Santa does not always require a bag of gold. Frankly, any middle age, middle class man in America has more to give than Nicholas ever did.

And although Nicholas had rich parents and my dad had poor ones, both of them were gracious, righteous men, generous to a fault. I know good came to them and that they are and will be remembered that way. And I know I want to be such a man.

To cultivate a legacy of grace is not as difficult or as expensive as it sounds. Handing our pocket change to a child from time to time is a cause for delight. Meeting some need without drawing attention to our selves is too. Becoming Santa requires some sensitivity to the magic of grace, and shows itself in the way we share our food, our home and our wealth.

Estate planning may be part of it. Blessing and encouraging others after we are dead is consistent with the thoughtfulness stewardship, although such planning should include others beside our spouses and children.

But becoming Santa is really about being remembered for a good and generous heart and such a reputation starts long before we die. All of us have known such men and women. By the grace of God, all of us can be like them.

I have tried somewhat imperfectly to honor the memory of my father who loved me as a child and respected me as a man. I do this partly by the way I serve his God. I do it partly by the way I try to emulate his virtues.

I have come to honor Nicholas too, a man whose legacy of generosity has spanned centuries. Several years ago we took Santa out of Christmas, as I expect he would have wanted, and returned him to his own day.

We celebrate St. Nicholas Day with family and friends, reminding ourselves of that ancient godly bishop who made boys whole who had been turned into sausage. Or who had at least delighted children, cared for his people and served those less fortunate faithfully and generously.

I think Nicholas and and my dad would have been good friends. Maybe now they are. Neither of them was ever afraid to confront a heretic or to serve widows and children out of his own pocket and his own heart.

So I suppose I became Santa the day my father died.

The stakes are high. Grandchildren and great grandchildren yet unmet will know the kind of man I was, especially if I am not generous and good. This is a legacy we all must nurture, of which being Santa is merely a metaphor.

But it is a powerful one. I certainly hope my grandkids remember that I paid their dowries and recused their ships. I hope my great grandchildren hear I was willing to suffer for the right cause and to lose myself in service to others.

At the very least I hope they remember I gave thoughtful gifts and made meaningful sacrifices.

None if it will be remembered exactly as it happened.

But all of it can be true.

9 thoughts on “the day Santa died”

  1. Beautiful, Wally. Giving what I have, asking God to multiply my meager efforts. I think you’re on your way…I hope to learn to be so, too.

    Barb Ball

  2. I just finished the Santa Papers. I saw a lot of you in his story, Wally. And now I understand it is part of your lineage. Thank you for being you and for your steadfastness in Christ’s grace.

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