The Christmas season is upon us. It’s that time of year when you should be thinking about the birth of Baby Jesus, but instead, you’re obsessing about a fat old man who dresses up in a frilly red outfit that would put a drag queen to shame, and who invites your children to sit on his lap and asks them to “tell me what you really want!” Creepy. And you sickos don’t see anything wrong with this? That’s it — I’m calling Social Services!
But seriously, I think it’s time we all think solemnly and seriously about the true influence of Santa Claus. Thoughtful Christians frequently complain that Christmas has become nothing more than an occasion for materialistic merriment, and for gift-giving out of obligation, rather than out of love. Instead of taking the time to appreciate and reflect on the life and works of Jesus, our thoughts inevitably turn to Secular Santa and his godless, technicolor minions. Well, despair not, my devout Christian comrades! I have a Christmas story that will warm your hearts, and put Santa in his place:
In late 1994, I was backpacking through Europe and the Middle East with some friends. On Christmas Eve, we took a boat from Corfu to Brindisi, Italy. We then boarded a train to Bari, where we planned to take another train to Rome. I figured if we were going to spend Christmas in Europe, we might as well be somewhere meaningful for the Big Day. Thus, I was dead set on making it to the Vatican by 12:00 a.m. to attend the Midnight Mass with Pope John Paul.
Unfortunately, there was a train strike that afternoon, and we ended up stuck in Bari for the entire evening. As each hour passed, we began to realize that we weren’t going to make it on time and that we would miss the mass. “Oh, great!” I exclaimed. “Of all the places to be on Christmas Eve, it would be really cool to be at the center of Christendom, but instead, I’m stuck in this stupid little town!” In frustration, I opened my guidebook to see what fascinating attractions the podunk hamlet of Bari had to offer for the evening. My expectations were low.
Then, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but the “Chiesa di San Nicoli,” that is, the “Church of St. Nicholas!” That’s right — of all the places in the world to be stuck on December 24th, my guidebook said I was just a few blocks from the very church where the original St. Nick was buried! “Cool — let’s go see Santa!” I exclaimed with glee. My friends gave me bewildered looks. “Fine, stay here at this boring train station if you want,” I snapped. “I’m going to pay a visit to Santa’s corpse.”
I took off towards the chapel, asking for directions in my broken Italian along the way. I finally found the church and stepped inside, hoping to convince some local to snap a picture of me and Santa for posterity. Alas, the chapel was full of worshippers that evening (what did I expect?), so I wasn’t able to get too close to the burial spot. Someone did point out Santa’s precise location, however, which was up near the front of the chapel. I didn’t dare approach too closely during the service, out of respect for the worshippers, so I just stayed near the back of the hall, finally snapping a picture of the grave from a distance before I left.
As I snooped around the room, looking for my photographic target, I must have looked like one of those awful, shameless tourists that I always like to make fun of. And indeed, asking devout worshippers “Where is Santa?” during their religious services was probably something of a faux pas. Only after I left did it occur to me: It’s hard enough to devote our thoughts to Christ when we’re surrounded by red ribbons, elves, reindeer and snowmen. How much harder must it be when Santa Claus is right in front of us–literally? But these devout Catholics managed to stay focused, even despite crass American intruders like myself.
So, next time someone tells you nobody thinks about Jesus on Christmas anymore, try to remember those devoted Catholics in Bari, taking time out of their Christmas Eve to honor the memory of Christ, even as they gathered round Santa’s rotting corpse.
Doesn’t this just give you warm fuzzies?