The Night Santa Came to Church

By Andrew D. Scrimgeour | 12.20.2017

When the parish newsletter announced that Santa Claus would be visiting our church on Christmas Eve, I was not amused. He would not be participating in the actual liturgy. In fact, he would not be in the sanctuary at all but rather in the Great Hall following the early service—a time geared for families with young kids. Even so, I was conflicted. Was it appropriate for Santa to come to church at all?

My wife Dot laughed at my discomfort and called me hopelessly old-fashioned. “You wouldn’t deprive our kids of this fun would you?”

Excited by the news that Santa was coming to church, our three-year-old announced he needed to talk to him. He wanted reassurance that Santa received the letter he had dictated to us and then crayoned with a rainbow border. As our daughter was only five weeks old, Santa was simply an early photo-op for her.

In some families, an uneasy truce exists between the biblical stories of Christmas and the tradition of Santa Claus. I grew up in a home where the story of the manger-born baby reigned supreme. From the pulpit and from the head of our table, my dad, a fundamentalist preacher, warned his congregation about the secularism of the market place. It was elbowing the Holy Child aside, enthroning instead the Giver of Gifts from the North in the prime real estate of a child’s fantasy world. There was no more repugnant word in the lexicon of his sermons than “secularism”—the beguiling force watering down the purity of religious tradition.

Yet Dad relented when we kids pled with him to let us, like all our friends, petition the man in red, and took us sixty miles down the Columbia River to the large J.C. Penney department store in Portland. Little did we know he had driven the twisting road from Hood River so as to be out of the range of discovery by any of his parishioners. That junket was recounted by us over the years as one of the rare times Dad briefly unlocked to us a tightly guarded room deep within himself where more than hymns were sung. A place where he was just Dad, not our pastor.

Santa was never welcome inside his church. A sacred barricade separated the church and its secular competitors. That I was an heir of this tradition, more than I had ever thought, was becoming clear, even though we now attended a church that embraced modernity. What mattered to me were the lasting impressions the rituals of Christmas would make on our kids. Despite Santa’s saintly origins, I wanted the angels and the shepherds, the stable and the magi, along with the other beloved sacred fictions surrounding the birth of Jesus, to populate their memories and imaginations.

While Dot and I sorted out the religious options, we were clear on one topic: We wanted this Christmas, our daughter Meghan’s first Christmas, to be perfect. The prior Christmas had not. It had pulsed with tension and worry. In the weeks leading to Christmas, I tottered on the brink of losing my job. I had strained my relationship with my boss and lost his confidence. My attempts to regain his favor failed, so my employment was in jeopardy as we decorated our tree, completed our holiday shopping, and headed to church on Christmas Eve with our then two-year-old son.

The world of a toddler is a powerful distraction from the woes of adult life. Seeing Drew looking around the sanctuary from his perch in the pew, taking in all the pageantry with great somberness, then thoughtfully choosing a Cheerio from his little stash of provisions, brought waves of gratitude. I was blessed beyond measure. Yet as I sat in the candled darkness, the familiar words from the Gospel of Luke turned sour and jarred me from my reverie: “And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” A family without a proper roof over its head. A young husband unable to properly provide for his pregnant wife. And what of me? Could I keep my family secure in our Denver bungalow? Could I keep a paycheck coming and not miss a mortgage payment? Not the most uplifting meditation for Christmas Eve.

During the Lord’s Prayer, Dot grasped my hand, giving it a squeeze, reassuring me that she knew my turmoil and had confidence in me. One of those unbidden gestures or glances that passes wondrously, wordlessly at timely moments between intimates.

While it took until spring to resolve my job issues, happy news bounded onto center stage around Valentine’s Day. Dot was pregnant. And mid-November, Drew became a brother. My Aunt Helen, a nurse who loved to keep close watch on all our affairs, noted with astonished admiration our daughter must have been conceived during the dark days of my employment crisis. “Did you think I would allow Andy’s boss to interfere with our love life?” Dot said.
+ + +

As we entered the Great Hall, Santa was not hard to find. Encircled by a crowd of families, he was holding court from a large ornate chair near the front of the stage. The chair looked surprisingly like one that usually resided near the altar in the sanctuary. Perhaps the bishop’s chair. And not inappropriate at that. Was not the original St. Nicholas a Fourth Century bishop?  While not altogether convincing, this Santa seemed a reasonable facsimile for the very young in attendance. A youthful face peered from behind the billowing white beard. A pillow or two filled out the girth of the red velvet suit. His eyes seemed less than confident. It was the rector’s son, barely out of his teens, gamely performing his out-sized role.

We joined the queue of parents and watched the familiar rites unfold. Flashbulbs flared transforming the room into a mini-fireworks show, as cameras captured for posterity the bewildered toddlers, the earnest preschoolers, the attentive parents and grandparents, and Santa with his less-than-resonant, “Ho, Ho, Ho!”

Soon it was our turn, and Drew walked up to Santa without coaching and sat on his lap. When asked the prescribed question, “And what would you like for Christmas, little boy?” Drew seemed confused. Looking Santa in the eye, he said, “Did you get my letter?”

“Of course,” Santa replied.

“That’s good.” Drew said, and climbed down, his business satisfactorily concluded.

Then it was Meghan’s turn. Dot placed her in Santa’s arms and stepped back so I could continue my photographic duties. Santa seemed unsure what to do with a customer who couldn’t engage in a basic conversation and kept readjusting her in the crook of his arm. Knowing how to hold a baby was not yet on his resumé. That fact was quickly confirmed.

Like a toboggan starting down a snow-covered hill, Meghan slipped out of Santa’s white-glove hold and began sliding down the narrow ravine of his arm and chest. Before we could dart to her rescue, gravity took full charge. The bundle bumped over the buttons of his jacket then scraped the large belt buckle.  Gathering momentum, it cleared the ridge of his knees, toppled off the cliff, plunged downward, hit the floor, and scooted to a stop, face up, several feet beyond his boots.

There was no sound. No cry. Instantly, all gaiety left the room.

Rushing forward, fearing the worst, we carefully inspected our baby. She was not hurt, nor scratched, not even disturbed.  Her receiving blanket, diaper, and winter sleeper had padded her like a papoose. “What’s wrong with you? I said to Santa, pouring my outrage into a glare that would have frozen a herd of rushing reindeer in its tracks. Looking dazed, he fumbled an apology, his alcohol-laced breath explaining much.

I couldn’t leave the church fast enough. I wanted my family in the protective custody of our car as quickly as possible. Driving home in the snow, relieved we were not following an ambulance to the emergency room, we began to untangle our jangled emotions. Shock and disbelief swirled with the horror of what might have been. Had we been responsible parents in entrusting our new-born to an uncredentialed Santa? Then I heard a voice from a faraway pulpit: “When you lay a violent hand to the tradition, you must beware the falling statuary . . . You brought this on yourself, son.”

The indignation of a new father rose in me, and I heard myself saying, “When you strive for what is best for your family; when you wish to create meaningful traditions for your children, building on those given to you; when you want Christmas to be a festival of gladness; when you want your son to have his questions answered; when you want your daughter’s first Christmas to be marked by joy—you do whatever is necessary to make it so—even expanding the boundaries of the holy on Christmas Eve. I have no regrets, Dad. None.”

In the darkness of the car, I felt a familiar hand coming to rest on mine.

+ + +

Andrew Scrimgeour is Dean of Libraries Emeritus, Drew University, Madison, NJ and is a member of  Westar’s Board of Directors.

A version of this story was published in The New York Times on December 23, 2015 under the title, "One Reason Not to Believe in Santa Claus."

Photo of Andrew Scrimgeour

Andrew D. Scrimgeour is the past Chair of the Westar Board of Directors, the archivist of the Society of Biblical Literature, and the founding archivist of the American Academy of Religion. He earned a Ph.D. from Drexel University; his dissertation was titled "Mapping the Intellectual Geography of Biblical Studies: A Cocitation Study in the Humanities." He also holds a M.Div. and M.Th. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a MLS from Rutgers University. He has published numerous articles in biblical studies, religious research methods, and bibliometrics