I believed in Santa Claus before I believed in God.
And when I was taught first about the baby Jesus, the story to start with was the one about the little poor baby who got presents for Christmas, brought by men who looked a bit like Santa in their colourful robes and head gear, who came from very far away, following a star and probably said things like Ho Ho Ho.
I didn’t think much of the gifts that Jesus got, the gold and frankincense and a mirror. I doubt he was keen on them himself. But the lesson of the story was that, like Jesus, you should always be glad of what you get and not complain, as I should be glad of the things Santa had brought me, which weren’t exactly what I had asked for.
So, my first religious faith was in Santa Claus, not in Jesus, who was just too complicated, who set an example for children that was not really attainable.
This was not how the nuns had intended to direct me, but if they had thought it through they would have seen that this was an inevitable consequence. What child wanted gold, frankincense and a mirror for Christmas? None that I knew.
There were other mysterious fat men in big coats in the Christmas stories. Like Good King Wences who last Last looked out on the feast of Stephen. I had trouble placing King Wences in the narrative. How he actually met his end was not clear to me either.
All I knew was that he never looked out again.
It was as well we weren’t relying on him to deliver the presents.
Or on God either.
When my theological education advanced a little further I understood how the story of Santa Claus integrates with the Christian one. He was St Nicholas. Say it quickly and Sanicklaus is Santa Claus.
This reconciliation of the two mythologies saved me for a time for Christianity and without it my entire spiritual development would have been focused on Santa Claus, a divine being who was bountiful and good and uncomplicated.
There were no stories in the lore about Santa which presented him as smiting cities, sending plagues, even asking people to sacrifice sheep for him. True, Jesus was an improvement on the old God, for when shepherds brought lambs to him he didn’t asked them to kill them. But he was still a moody God.
I have heard of a Japanese department store in which the intertwining of the stories of Jesus and Santa was so confused that Santa was depicted crucified. Santa was never crucified; he never would have been crucified because – well he never annoyed anybody – not anybody at all.
In recognition of the integration of my faith in Santa with my faith in Jesus, when the time came round for my confirmation and I had to choose a name by which to be more fully inducted into the church as a soldier of Christ, I chose the name Nicholas.
I am Malachi John Nicholas O’Doherty.
In some countries little boys could take or be given the name of Jesus, or Haysoose, as they pronounce it. And in Hindu tradition almost all boys have a name of God, Vishnu, Ram, Ishvar.
I was very young and I wasn’t declaring with any heretical confidence that Nicholas, Santa Claus, was senior to Jesus in the celestial hierarchy; but essentially that is what I felt.
For, if we wanted Jesus we went to his house, the church, to pray to him and to receive him in communion.
But, Santa came to our house.
Jesus gave you this little bit of bread which wasn’t like any bread we ever ate at home. And you were supposed to be very solemnly grateful, though it stuck to the roof of your mouth and you weren’t supposed to use your finger to get it off but to let it dissolve.
Santa gave you plastic helicopters, guns, Indian head dresses, games of Ludo and Snakes and Ladders and books.
And yet, despite this obvious contrast between them, the church and your teachers and even your parents told you emphatically and over and over again, that the one who would look after you and get you into Heaven if you were nice to him was Jesus. Jesus would give you a harp and a cloud to sit on after you died.
Santa would give you a chemistry set.
The two men even looked starkly different from each other. Santa was big and jolly and fat and Jesus was scrawny and he bled. I began to wonder if Jesus’s problem was that he didn’t believe in Santa.
For all that Jesus was good and cured sick people and woke them up when they were dead, he never seemed exactly happy. And I knew who I would rather spend a dark and wintry night with.
In truth though, Santa had his limitations too.
In the weeks before Christmas my mother would take me to Woolworths and the Co-op to see what presents I might like Santa to being me.
That is where I discovered the Johnny Seven gun. This was an amazing toy. It fired seven different types of projectile.
‘You’ll only lose them’, said my mother. ‘Why don’t you trust Santa to bring your something that will last you longer.’
She even brought me to see Santa in the Co-op. We had to go in a space ship. Or rather, we had to get into a spaceship, which then rocked about and discharged us through a different door when it stopped.
I was beginning to understand that there was an element of make believe about this, that this wasn’t really a space ship, and that therefore this wasn’t Santa, whose knee I was sat upon, but that if I went along with this pretence, I had a better chance of getting what I wanted for Christmas.
For it was also coming clear to me that not all of my presents came from Santa.
My mother was buying some of them.
I also began to realise that some people stopped believing in Santa Claus altogether and were content to only have the presents that their parents bought for them.
Many of them, indeed, carried on believing in Jesus after they had stopped believing in Santa Claus. They preferred, or found more plausible, a God who might punish them, who had a rule book, who wanted you to suffer with good grace and trust to everything being better after you died.
How could this, I wondered, be preferable to Santa who, come what may, would every year bring you gifts.
People bemoan the something for nothing culture but that’s only because they don’t get enough for nothing themselves. There is nothing better than getting something for nothing. And I think the followers of Jesus who open food banks and give to the poor embody Santa Claus.
True, your parents said he would only come if you behaved yourself through the year, but this patently wasn’t true, for the gifts came whether you were good or not.
Jesus said, inasmuch as you fed the hungry and clothed the naked you did it onto me, and that’s what gets you into Heaven. Santa does that too, but he also brings gifts to children who aren’t hungry, who aren’t naked, who aren’t in prison.
He’s the one who’s looking after the likes of you and me.
And they still gifts come. There are still times when life surprises me with unwarranted bounty and good fortune.
I have been that person who, stuck for a bob, found a pound note down the back of the sofa. I have been lucky many times in life, and unlucky too, I suppose.
But whether good things come to me or not seems little to do with justice.
I know about the world that demands obedience and patience and stoical acceptance of the bad breaks, the world that Jesus talks about, that we should put up with because we’ll be better off when we die. Much of what he teaches me, life teaches me anyway, though what he promises me I still can’t be sure of.
He forgives us as we forgive others – there’s too much of the balance sheet in that thinking.
But Santa Claus still happens along occasionally without a tally in his hand, without an accountant at his side, and gives you what you don’t deserve, and that is what I hope for most in life.
Therefore do I still place my hopes and faith in him.