We don’t often associate Christmas with resurrection. But we should.
So let’s start by talking about Santa Claus. Christmas is openly under attack in contemporary society where the word has essentially been banned in favor of “holiday” and traditional Christmas carols have been replaced by music that does not even jingle anymore but rather rattles. However, the “reason for the season” cannot be completely erased even if it is deliberately ignored. The apparently innocuous word “holiday” cannot hide its original meaning of “holy day.”
And even though the offensive baby lying in a lowly manger has been removed, the figure that has come instead to represent the holiday is still thoroughly Christian and even more problematically Catholic. He is a fat fellow who magically comes down chimneys and then sneaks away having left all sorts of gifts. But as G.K. Chesterton, another fat fellow, reminds us: “The Santa Claus who commits a sort of saintly burglary at this time of the year is, of course, the St. Nicholas who was the patron saint of children.”
This ancient Turkish saint drew a devotion that spread across the continents and the centuries. He became so beloved in Germany that his Germanized name is used by English-speaking people. And while we’re at it, we should point out that the German Christmas carols are among the best, and they’re not about Santa Claus.
But before we talk about the miracle that St. Nicholas is most famous for, we should talk about magic.
Magic has a bum rap among Catholics. They avoid the word as much as their secularist counterparts avoid the word “Christmas.” And yet the word catches up with them, just as “holiday” catches up with the people trying avoid the Holy Day. Consider that those three mysterious figures we now generically call The Wise Men were originally known as The Magi, and it’s not hard to figure what the word is connected to. They were seekers of signs and wonders. They were wise because they were looking for a miracle, something supernatural.
Magic, that much abused word, has to do with forces that are beyond the natural. If we associate magic with witchcraft, we are referring to the powers that witches derive from demons. But saints make use of supernatural forces, too, we call their works miracles because they are wonders, which is what the word miracle means. But we could also call them magic simply because they cannot be explained by any natural laws. In fact, they defy natural laws. The difference between bad magic (or black magic) and good magic (or miracles) is that bad magic changes something good into something bad, puts it under a spell or a curse, deforms and destroys. Good magic restores and heals, takes a bad thing and makes it good again.
The legendary Santa Claus magically breaks into houses not to steal things but to give presents (mostly to children). The real St. Nicholas was generous (especially to young people) but he also performed the miracle of resurrecting the dead, in this case restoring life (and limb) to some children who had been killed by an evil butcher and tossed bit by bit into a pickling tub. Hence he is the patron saint of children.
Contrast this with Medea, “the great type of the ancient and modern witch,” who promised to make an old man into young man by boiling him in a pot. “But the old gentleman,” says Chesterton,
like many old gentleman who have attempted to renew their youth like the eagles, found that the experiment began and ended with getting into hot water. But St. Nicholas… found two children literally gone to pot (like modern society), and miraculously raised them unconsumed. He not only renewed their youth like the eagles, he also renewed their childhood—as if two live chickens had walked out of the pot…This notion of restoration and resurrection marks the whole difference between good magic and bad. In the first the supernatural is a strong engine for restoring the natural. The only answer to the death of the body is the resurrection of the body. But in all the traditions of black magic there is the opposite idea—the idea of captivity, and not of deliverance. A lame man cured by a miracle merely drops a fetter from his free human leg. The children cured by St. Nicholas merely escape from the ogre’s prison of a pot. But in the opposite and evil tales of enchantment there is always the clank of chains. The princess is imprisoned in a white hind, as if in an ivory turret. The prince is locked up in a green frog, as if in an emerald casket. But from the awful experiment of Eden to the last Trumpet that makes dead men alive again, the light that lights up every Christian conception is the idea of liberty.
Did you see the surprising way in which Chesterton connected Christmas to resurrection? He did it using Santa Claus and magic. A saint and the miracle of restoration. We probably expected him to tie the Christ child, whose birth we celebrate, to the Christ who had to die on the cross and then became the Christ who rose from the dead. That works, too. But we were expecting that. Chesterton uses the unexpected to make his point. Just as best kind of gifts are surprise gifts and not the ones we were expecting, the best kind of truth comes by surprise.
The adventurous route that Chesterton has been taking us on has not even reached its destination yet. He has told the story of Santa Claus and magic to make a further point, an even more unexpected one that could not be more pertinent to the present state of the Catholic Church.
Bad magic, worked by witches and demons, enslaves us. Good magic, worked by God and his saints, sets us free. Freedom is an idea “that lights up every Christian idea.”
But what is the one of the best things we can do with our freedom? Brace yourself. You’re going to be surprised.
Chesterton says, “The most living of all liberties is the liberty to repent.”
Yes, that’s what Chesterton the prophet, like all the prophets before him, is telling us now. To use the great gift of freedom, given by a supernatural act of grace, to do something that will point the world to the God that we all seem to have forgotten. We have forgotten him because we have sinned. We need to get on our knees. As a Church. And repent.
(Editor’s note: This essay was first posted at CWR on December 25, 2018.)
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