Anyway, my essay goes into that, so here it is:
In my house tonight, the children will be waiting for St. Nicholas with eager joy. Not all Christian parents would be happy with this situation.
Some have decided that whether you call him Santa Claus or St. Nick, the Christmas Eve night caller is not welcome in their homes. The real St. Nicholas, they say, was a holy bishop about whom little is known. This jolly fellow surrounded with legends of secret generosity or stories of elves and reindeer is really just a fib. And Christians don't lie to their children.
Are we lying to our children, with our ancient stories and cherished poems of a kindly saint who loves all children and hears their whispered wishes and dreams? Not at all – we are telling them the truth. It's just that some truths can't be found in scholarly lectures or discovered in dry books of facts. When we teach our wide-eyed little ones the legend of St. Nicholas, we are teaching them essential lessons about faith, hope and unconditional love. When we sit by glowing embers to share with them our December stories, we instruct them in such virtues as generosity, patience and the sort of kindness that expects no reward.
And they are able to learn these things from us because for a few short weeks every year, we find it possible to enter the world of make-believe. We fill our homes with songs and stories, and turn ordinary rooms into glittering palaces. The everyday world is swept away.
In the classic novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, Don Quixote lives in a world of his own imagining. But a funny thing happens when he encounters "normal" people; they find themselves pretending to see and believe in the things he does; they must enter his world to communicate with him. In a way, I suppose, they are lying to him by entering into his fairy tales. But if they stay in the mundane world, they can't relate to him at all.
The world of a child is a mysterious and magical place. The blooming of a rose in the garden is an enchanted event beyond all understanding. The weekly arrival of the great noisy garbage truck is anticipated with the fear that it might not happen and the joyous dread that it will. When my oldest daughter, then nearly 1 year old, was brought out of her crib late at night to see the lights on our Christmas tree for the first time, she whispered, "Wow" – an as-yet-unexpressed richness in her tiny vocabulary. She said it a lot that first Christmas, as enchantments she'd never dreamed of appeared all around her.
We adults forget the fairy-tale lace that drapes childhood and screens it from so much of the ugliness in the world. It is our privilege at Christmas to attempt to add a little to the embroidery, with our St. Nicholas and our hidden generosity. We're clumsy at it, no doubt. We're a little like the people in Don Quixote, pretending we see giants and ladies and noble squires instead of the mundane and everyday.
But underneath it all, there's a stirring at our hearts, and I think it's then that I understand, a little, what Our Lord means when He says we have to be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Little children have a special gift. They can easily transcend the merely real and find the truth that lies beyond material reality. But this gift of childhood is lost with age and experience, and all too often, adults, even Christian ones, act as though this present day, this physical world, is all that is. St. Nicholas is not only real; he is as much for us as he is for our children. He leads us back to the time when we knew, with complete certainty, that the world was more than what we could see or touch. He calls to us from the place where he is now and will be forever, aglow not with Christmas lights or moonlight on snow, but with the glorious light of the beatific vision to which these earthly realities point.
He may or may not be jolly, but he is filled with joy, a joy we may one day experience as well. The joy our children feel when they discover that St. Nicholas has filled their stockings will pale in comparison to the joys of heaven.
But if the joys of heaven seem just a little familiar, I think we will have St. Nicholas to thank.
[UPDATE 2011: The essay is no longer available online without a subscription, so this is it's only "free" home at the moment, that I know of. :)]