Gene Stoltzfus in Ekklesia:
Santa Claus was never a big part of my life until I let my white beard grow long. That was twenty years ago. My beard sometimes closes doors for North American Caucasian who think I never got out of the 1960s. But the beard opens more portals to wonderful conversations in places like Viet Nam where they called me Karl Marx.
Elders in Afghanistan admired my beard and apparently trusted me. They addressed me as Baba (Uncle) Noel. Once in Mexico City airport I got stopped eleven times by mothers with young children who wanted their child to meet Senior Noel. It was summer and I didn’t have a single gift to give, not even a piece hard tack candy.
When late November arrives I know I am in for surprise greetings every time I go out. The words from strangers carry positive energy because people have good thoughts about Santa except for children age seven and older who have become suspicious that Santa talk is a ruse and he can’t be trusted to be what they were taught about him.
The home I grew up in acknowledged Santa. We didn’t have a fire place so it was confusing to me how Santa would get into the house by way of a chimney that went to a coal furnace. Somehow he made it and the stockings were full when I awoke on Christmas day. There was at least one small present, an orange and some hard tack candy, not my favourite but I didn’t complain because I didn’t want to stop a good thing.
I first really became aware of the power of Santa and St. Nicholas, during the 1990s when I regularly visited Palestine where Muslims, Jews and Christians alike used my appearance as a conversation starter. When the second intifada (uprising) broke out in 2000 there were violent exchanges between Israelis and Christian villages like Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. In Beit Jala I was seriously introduced to St. Nicholas, their patron saint who gave special protection to the villagers since the 4th century.
The story is that St. Nicholas was a pilgrim to Beit Jala in the years 312-315 and he lived in buildings and caves built by monks a century earlier. The people of Beit Jala told me story after story about how St Nicholas had saved their village over the centuries up to and including modern intifadas.