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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Santa Magic

The Hallmark Channel has become Must See TV for Americans who can’t get enough Christmas movies.

This fall, the folks at Hallmark began screening holiday movies 11 days before Halloween.

We’re not talking about cinematic favorites like Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life, or that most poignant of all Christmas classics, Diehard. Hallmark annually produces an astonishing number of homegrown made-for-TV movies. This year alone the two Hallmark outlets are debuting 42 new titles for the Christmas season.

A few things are typically missing from these two-hour holiday extravaganzas.

There is no violence. No raw language. No sex. No car chases. No terror attacks, serial killers, flying saucers, or genetic experiments gone terribly wrong.

There are also no surprises during the last 10 minutes. The nice girl will end up with the nice guy and they will finally share that nice kiss we’ve been waiting for. It might also turn out that he is the crown prince of a small kingdom hidden away somewhere in Europe (where everyone, helpfully, speaks English).

A few other things are also missing from the typical Hallmark Christmas movie.

Jesus, for instance. And Joseph and Mary. And any serious engagement with the reality of the Incarnation that launched our celebration of Christmas in the first place.

That’s not to say the supernatural is absent from Hallmark movies. Miracles and magic abound. A particular film might feature time travel, guardian angels, loved ones communicating from beyond the grave, Christmas wishes that miraculously come true, and even the miraculous acting comeback of Henry Winkler.

Hallmark’s chief supernatural plot device, however, is the phenomenon of Santa Magic.

When in doubt, Santa Claus will come through. He will provide guidance, encouragement, hope, and direct answers to heartfelt pleas.

Which, when you think about it, sounds a whole lot like God’s job description.

A number of Jesus-followers have therefore become increasingly irritated by Santa Claus. How did this pale figure of fantasy end up taking center stage during the Christmas season, while Bible-inspired scenes are excluded by law on public property?

Before we push back against the Jolly Old Elf, however, it’s worth noting that St. Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus, was definitely not a pale figure of fantasy.

According to well-founded traditions, Nicholas (270-343) was the Bishop of Myra, a thriving community in what is now Turkey. The only child of wealthy Christian parents, he received a large inheritance when both his mother and father perished during an epidemic. He spent much of his life giving away his personal fortune to the sick, the suffering, and the poor.

The most celebrated account of Nicholas’ generosity concerns three little girls who were growing up in a poor family.

Their father would never have been able to afford dowries for his daughters. Without a dowry, a young woman would have been hard pressed to find a husband, and might be forced into prostitution or slavery.

When the oldest girl came of age, Nicholas anonymously threw a bag of gold coins through the family’s open window. He did the same thing two more times as the others grew up. All three were thus able to marry. The story circulated that the bags of coins landed either in shoes or stockings that were drying by the fire. Children have been hanging up stockings or setting out shoes in the hope of receiving gifts ever since.

Miracles were associated with his ministry. He became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.

Today he is not only the Catholic Church’s patron saint of children, but of those trapped in sex trafficking (because of his intercession on behalf of those young girls) and of pawn brokers (which is why the traditional signage identifying a pawnshop features three bags of gold).

Nicholas became the prototype for Santa Claus, whose name derives from the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” a transliteration of “Saint Nicholas.”

Santa gradually morphed into the waistline-challenged, chimney-rappelling, reindeer-loving resident of the North Pole under the influence of American writers and commercial marketers.

But behind the seemingly trite façade lie the historical echoes of something real.

There once was a man who devoted his life to raising the hopes and improving the lives of poor children.

That’s authentic Santa Magic.

And you don’t have to star in a holiday movie to be the one to make it happen.


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