A reflection by David Diggs
|It’s getting late on Christmas Eve, and I’m six years old.
My Grandma is staying with us, so I’ve had to relinquish the twin bed in the room I share with my older sister. I’m lying under a quilt on a cot in the living room, just feet from the center of my attention for the past few weeks – the Christmas tree.
My mother keeps checking to see if I’ve dozed off yet, but who can sleep at a moment like this? I’m lying on my side so I can keep my eyes on the tree. Sometime tonight, Santa will be passing within inches of me as he brings his bag of gifts.
I’ve not quite figured out how he’ll get into our house. Our little ranch-style home doesn’t have a fireplace or chimney. I was also puzzled by the Santa I had met on my birthday just a week earlier. He just didn’t seem right. His face was too thin, and his beard hung loosely on his face.
I thought of this skinny Santa one Christmas Eve many years later when I was living in Haiti.
I was on my way to a Christmas party thrown by friends from another international organization and had stopped to get a gift for the hosts at one of the few American-style grocery stores existing at the time.
This store, striving to appear as American as possible, imported almost all its merchandise from the U.S. Its clientele mostly comprised people from Haiti’s tiny economic elite who had developed a taste for American things and the status they conferred.
As I navigated the aisles, I heard a bell ringing. Turning a corner, I came face-to-face with the bell ringer: Santa! While the red suit and hat were unmistakable, it took me a moment to recognize him because the suit was draped over a tall, thin, beardless black man who resembled the stern-faced Haitian security guard usually stationed in front of the store.
The guard’s primary role was to prevent street boys who begged from clients in the parking lot from entering the store. Instead of wielding a nightstick, which the guard used liberally on the kids, Santa was swinging a large handbell. The bell seemed out of place until I recalled that in the U.S., Santa often appeared outside grocery stores ringing a bell beside a Salvation Army kettle.
Here, though, no kettle was in sight, but Santa was making vigorous use of his bell. By the time I had selected a gift and checked out, Santa had moved back outside, seemingly filling in for the security guard and demonstrating to the street boys that the hard edge of a large handbell could be as painful as a nightstick.
The story of my encounter with this beardless, bell-ringing Santa provided some laughs at the party that evening, but I later regretted the smugness in my humor. The grocery store owner’s attempt to appropriate America’s version of Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick resulted in a stern enforcer of Haiti’s class division. Reflecting on it, I realized that the American Santa is also a distorted version of the real Santa, co-opted by advertisers and turned into an icon for our commercialized Christmas.
The historical Santa was born in 280 A.D. to wealthy Greek parents in the Roman Empire. Orphaned young, Nicholas grew up with his uncle, becoming a humble monk and bishop who devoted much of his time to secretly giving away his fortune to help the destitute, especially children.
In the most reliable story of his generosity, Nicholas helps a penniless father prevent his daughter from becoming enslaved by secretly providing for her dowry. He’s discovered throwing a pouch of gold coins in through the window.
The coins land in a stocking hanging to dry by the fire.
As I lie on the cot, I know nothing of the historical St. Nick. I am drowsy when I hear my mom coming in to check on me again. But this time, I pretend to be asleep. A few minutes later, she returns; and through squinted eyes, I see her silhouette against the glowing Christmas tree as she begins placing gifts under the tree.
Strangely, I can’t recall being disappointed by the discovery that my mom was my Santa. While a visit from the North Pole Santa would have been magical, there was a deeper satisfaction in knowing that this spirit of generosity and love was embodied in someone who would be present for me all year long.
Looking back, I see that my mother had more in common with the original Saint Nicholas than the commercialized Santa I was waiting for. While she didn’t have a fortune to give away, I grew up watching her give her time, love, and money to help troubled families and impoverished children in our small town.
Perhaps because she had grown up in poverty, she could relate to them as friends and cared for them without any condescension. She and the real Saint Nicholas resembled each other in their efforts to emulate Jesus, whose birth we celebrate on Christmas.
They sought to honor Jesus amidst those he favored—widows, orphans, slaves, and all those whom the world had marginalized. I never told my mom about seeing her play Santa.
I’m sure the gifts I received that Christmas pleased me. But, by far, the greatest gift my mother gave me then, and year after year, was how she embodied Jesus’ passion for the dispossessed and vulnerable.
I’m grateful for her this Christmas and for you and the generosity you demonstrate to children, women, and families in Haiti.
Like Nicholas, what you share helps families overcome poverty, keep their kids in school and from becoming enslaved, and secures for them the opportunity I had to grow up in the presence of loving parents.
With Nicholas, my mother, and the host of saints known and unknown around the world, you make this Christmas both merry and meaningful—a fitting celebration of the birth of the babe whose first bed was a manger.
Co-Founder & Executive Director | Beyond Borders
P.S. — Saint Nicholas was particularly moved by children in dire need. If you’d like to give a gift in that spirit, please consider supporting the You’re Not Alone campaign by visiting www.beyondborders.net/NotAlone. Gifts matched through December 31, 2023. P.P.S. — Here’s a link to a print version of this reflection — Seeing Santa