“A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement C. Moore: The Doctrine of Santa Claus

Twas only a matter of time.

And it came—as it comes to all.

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, a small creature was stirring—my seven-year-old daughter.

“Dad,” (I knew the time was come,) “does St. Nicholas bring us presents at Christmas, or is it just you and Mom?”

“Daughter,” (I knew the time would come,) “the world is full of mystery—things that we do not understand, but still believe in. St. Nicholas does indeed come on the night before Christmas, but he holds a special and strange partnership with mothers and fathers. He comes and fills all the stockings hung by the chimney with care, but he uses the hands of parents to do so. Santa Claus is real—believe it—but like a great many things we believe, he works invisibly through visible things.”

My daughter yet believes in Santa Claus—as I do. The simple intuitions of childhood very often provide the solid touchstones that adulthood requires to remain rooted in the wondrous mystery of things. In the worthy words of Wordsworth:

So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!

What childhood expression of Christmas is written more deeply in our hearts than Dr. Moore’s beloved “A Visit from St. Nicholas?” There is none. The poem is the central doctrine of the belief in Santa Claus. This verse is the eternal echo of nights that every man and woman has shared, when they were “nestled all snug in their beds; While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” The miracle of Christmastide is rooted in the playful, innocent tradition of the “right jolly old elf” that bounds down the chimney with gifts to celebrate and signify the Miraculous Gift of Christmas.

thomas-nast-santa-clausNeither should the celebration and significance of this immortal rhyme be lost on those once-children who read it to their children before a long winter’s nap. It is to grown-ups that a grown-up meaning is divulged—a tremendous confidence to be guarded and cherished. Mark. When St. Nick mounts to the housetop driving his miniature sleigh full of toys drawn by eight tiny reindeer and descends to the sooty hearth, the paterfamilias is bidden to attend. The most dark and delightful of Christmas mysteries is one that must involve a parent. It is the father who hears “the prancing and pawing of each little hoof,” and springs from his bed to stand witness and impart his blessing on the mystical proceedings over his children’s stockings. It is the father who welcomes St. Nicholas as a visitor into his home, and a grave meeting it is not—but one where laughter is exchanged. The first shakes a certain belly like a bowl full of jelly, and the second chimes in in spite of the laugher. Father Christmas and the Christian father are well met indeed. And so are they every Christmas Eve whenever toys appear beneath the tree.

This mystical meeting is central to the magic of Christmas—or rather, the miracle of Christmas. Fathers and mothers are really and truly invited to participate in the secret of the saint who comes to eradicate Want and enthrone Abundance on the night before Christmas. St. Nicholas, the patron of youth, forms a necessary alliance with parents to minister to his charges with due affection. Though a merry consortium it is, it is yet a holy one. The familiar events of the poem bear the tone and order of a religious ceremony. Silence. Smoke. Gifts. Nods. Communion between the material and immaterial worlds. And let us not forget that finger laid aside of that nose like a cherry. With benediction from the father, the elf stuffs the stockings and disappears with a “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Though Dr. Moore’s peaceful paean to Christmas mythos is a voice of whimsical sanity preserved in the domestic fortress, insanity presides at large. The Christian battle for Christmas is an uphill one—which is the very reason why it is one worth fighting. “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” are the insipid (yet politically correct) mantras that smilingly strive to keep Christ and all of His kin well out of Christmas. Commercialism supplants Catholicism. The mall replaces the Mass. Santa Claus, however, is quite another matter. Though many Catholic parents reject him as a lie, relinquishing their traditional league, Santa Claus is worth believing in because he is a symbol of truth. Santa Claus represents those unseen powers that are a part of life—the most important part of life, in fact. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for Catholic parents not to “do” Santa Claus with their children on account of the overwhelmingly earthward shift in the paradigms of the modern Christmas season. Those things that the world parodies, however, are very often the very things worth protecting.

As it stands, Christmas has been boiled down to giving and getting: materialism and consumerism sugared over with philanthropic platitudes. The spiritual element has been lost. As can be seen in other holy days, the things that the Church has established as upright are the very things the world turns upside-down. The dark powers, in a startling balance of cunning and confidence, turn holy days into holidays that are silly and specious. Instead of Easter commemorating the most significant event in human history, it is now about an insignificant bunny. Instead of Valentine’s Day commemorating the patron saint of love, it is now about the patron saint of greeting cards. Instead of Halloween commemorating the triumph of life over death, it is now about the triumph of death over life. Instead of Christmas commemorating peace, it is now about pressure.

The question is this: Would any self-respecting Christian cease to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas just because the secular and the satanic had interfered with it? Furthermore, why should any self-respecting Catholic stand idly by and let hell claim that which heaven has instituted or called her own? The world has sold Santa Claus into the slavery of a Christ-less Christmas. Santa Claus’ image has suffered as a result, but only because he was deemed worthy of assault.

But Father Christmas will never die.

It falls to mothers and fathers of faith to shatter the chains, allowing St. Nicholas to wink and twist his head—giving us to know we have nothing to dread. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” plays a vital part in this work because it incorporates the otherworldly through the mode of Christian lore, a creation that brings heaven to earth. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Let us dream, then. Man is not a disembodied soul, and so requires bodily things to draw him to the divine—he needs incarnations just as he needed the Incarnation. There is more to the dogma of Christmas than the Gospel. There are symbols and sacramentals that proceed from this source, and “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is one of them. There are mysteries at work in the world that subsist in the Mystery of the Word made Flesh. Keeping Christmas well, therefore, should include things strange and wonderful—things like elves, fairies, goblins, and whatnot; things that mingle heaven with earth in a perpetual reenactment of that time when heavenly nature took on earthly nature. Ironically, it takes things like the poem Dr. Moore wrote for children to remind adults of their obligation to believe in the Spirits—and especially in Santa Claus.

Editor’s note: The illustration by Thomas Nast of “Merry Old Santa Claus” is from the January 1, 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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