the secret life of Santa

Photo by Elizabeth Conley, the Detroit News.
Photo by Elizabeth Conley, the Detroit News.
On Christmas Eve The Detroit News covered my Santa persona, crafted over the years as a bit of mischief to encourage imagination and fantasy among small children and child-likeness (not childishness) in adults.

Kim Kozlowski, the reporter, started out to write about my book on the life of St. Nicholas, a 4th century pastor with a legacy of generosity that’s lasted centuries. But she became intrigued by the idea that I claim to be Santa.

With good cause. Any number of nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren, former students and friend’s children could assure you it’s true. And any number of church members and university administrators don’t quite know what to make of it.

But I assure you I’m quite grounded in the idea that we can cultivate a legacy of generosity toward those around us, and that Nicholas/Santa is a working metaphor for a life of generosity and goodwill.

Christ, of course, is not a metaphor at all. He is the real deal, the fountain head of grace. I would rather be like Him than anyone. Nicholas would clearly have agreed.

But there are ways each of us would like to be like King David, or the Apostle Paul, or our own parent or grandparent. And I’d like to be a little more like Nicholas. You’d have to read the book to see what I mean.

My purpose here, however, is to say that thinking about this has made me more thoughtful about how I share what I have with others. And so, a couple of thoughts about gift-giving.

First, the best gifts are given in secret. It’s not just about waking up on Christmas morning to a pile of present under the tree that weren’t there when you went to bed either, although that can be great fun.

Generosity is not an annual obligation but a daily responsibility after all. My wife was surprised and delighted Christmas morning, I think, by a couple of inexpensive but thoughtful gifts. But I hope she has that experience every day.

You see, when you get surprise you are on the right track. Anonymity is even better. The central legend of Nicholas is about him dropping bags of gold in the window at night to provide the dowry for three girls who were about to be sold to pay their families debts. He had learned what Christ taught—to give in secret.

The greater challenge, however, is not to give people what they think they want, but to try and give them what they don’t yet know they want. Or at the very least, what they don’t remember that they wanted.

The latter is doable. You just have to remember what they linger over or long for until they forget that they did. Hope restored is always a fine gift. But it’s even better if they never knew or said they wanted it in the first place.

Unfortunately, all our kids and grandkids live somewhere else. It’s hard to know them well enough (in-laws and grandkids at least) to have this sense of what they would love but not expect.

I’ll keep working on it. I figure I have another 15 to 20 years to get it right.

I’m not a fan of Amazon “wish lists” for this reason, although I depend on them more than I care to. And faddish toys I hate. Really. No “My-Little-Ponies” under my tree.

But this year my son Michael got his brother Pilgrim, who just acquired a sailboat, a nautical pocket knife, an object of unexpected delight. I saw several examples that my kids have learned to give thoughtful, appropriate, enduring and surprising gifts.

This is how it should be.

The incarnation itself was unexpected and unearned. Yet it was exactly what we needed. In a small corner of nowhere the Light came suddenly into the world, witnessed by shepherds and worshiped by kings. And to be remembered all these years later Nicholas must have modeled that generosity and hospitality which he —and we— first found in Christ.

It’s difficult to be a generous person without other people knowing about it, of course. That made the interview with the Detroit News a little awkward. She kept wanting me to give examples of what this looks like in our lives, but generosity ought not be about drawing attention to ourselves.

I will say, however, it is possible to do more for others than they realize you are doing, more often than they know you are doing it.

And that is the secret life of Santa.

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