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SANTA CLAUS AND RELIGION CAN BE RECONCILED

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It's that time of year for all righteous Christians to screw up their faces and scowl at the Darth Vader of Christmas present.

As Dec. 25 draws near, that cheery figure known as Santa Claus will be eliciting plenty of frowns and disdain from those intent upon "keeping Christ in Christmas."To these, Santa is a symbol of all that is wrong with the contemporary celebration of the birth of Christ, an observance that, they say, seems to grow more secular with each new year.

But some Christians would offer another view of Santa, one that imbues him with the spiritual qualities of St. Nicholas, on whom the red-suited American figure is modeled.

It is time, these voices say, to reclaim Santa Claus as the kindly bishop of Myra who was generous to the poor and loved little children.

"What was once a story which encouraged people to generosity . . . became a Madison Avenue business, but that's not the origin of the whole business," said Don Huber, professor of church history at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. "We can reclaim it and probably should."

St. Nicholas is believed to have been a fourth-century bishop who secretly gave gifts to the poor. His story, which includes several miracles attributed to him, has been handed down through legend and oral tradition, but Huber said the evidence seems fairly strong that he was a real person.

Even if his story is pure myth, Huber said, the values of generosity and concern for others attached to St. Nicholas are worth communicating through him.

Given the cultural reality of the omnipresent Santa Claus during the holiday season, Huber said, he was worked hard to connect Santa with St. Nicholas for his own children, who now range in age from 12 to 23.

"The only alternative we have as Christians to that is some kind of attempt to isolate children from the whole thing. And that's almost impossible in this culture."

Huber said he has used the 1977 book, "Santa Are You For Real?" (Thomas Nelson), as a resource in teaching his children about the historical understanding of St. Nicholas before they began asking questions about Santa's existence.

The book is about a little boy named Todd whose friends taunt him by telling him there is no Santa. When he asks his dad if his friends are right, the father responds by telling him the story of a boy named Nick who loved Jesus and secretly gave to poor people.

Nick, he relates, grew up to be Nicholas, a bishop in the church who was called a saint after he died because of his love for God.

The real reason St. Nicholas gave gifts, the father says, was because Jesus came on the first Christmas to give Himself for humanity. Todd is then inspired to "give gifts and not be found out" by presenting wrapped packages to his family as presents from "Santa."

Huber said that using this approach with his children seems to have spared them the disillusionment experienced by their friends who were raised with more secular ideas about a magical, gift-bearing Santa.

The Rev. Paul Mueller, a retired Roman Catholic priest in the Toledo Diocese, said he agrees that Santa Claus can be redeemed by tracing his genealogy to St. Nicholas.

Rather than get rid of Santa, he said, he would simply explain where he comes from and how his character springs from the Christian idea of giving and God's gift of His son to humanity.

The Rev. Thomas Ahlersmeyer, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Toledo, said that since Santa Claus has a Christian background, he, too, has felt comfortable using him to explain the Christmas tradition of gift-giving.

When he was a pastor in Florida several years ago, he said, he invited someone dressed as Santa to come to the church day school for a chapel service. "I said, "Tell us, Santa, why we give gifts at Christmas.' He responded that it was to remind people that this is a time when the greatest gift was given.

Pastor Ahlersmeyer said that Christians who feel strongly about excluding Santa Claus from Christmas seem to feel that he is little more than another marketing tool. "I would guess Santa Claus becomes the embodiment of everything that's commercial about our Lord's birth. Consequently, he becomes the enemy."

A Santa who had been invited by a priest to come to a Defiance Roman Catholic church in 1982 found that out when three parishioners threw his hat outside and attempted to prevent him from taking part in a children's Mass.

A scuffle followed, Santa's entry into the church was delayed 20 minutes, and charges later were filed against the assailants, who said they had merely been doing their "Catholic duty."

To avoid such problems, many clergy simply keep Santa out of the Church.

"I just choose not to talk about him publicly . . . I do preach against the commercialization of the day, and, certainly, Santa is a part of that," the Rev. Thomas Fraser, senior pastor of First Alliance Church, said.