Wise men from the East . . . of Lewis?

My father was Santa Claus. I didn’t realise this until, one evening when I was about eight years old, he and my mother went out one evening ‘to visit friends’. Less than an hour later, I answered the door to a tall, portly gentleman, dressed in a red robe, and with a flowing white beard. His laughing green eyes gave it away – this was not Father Christmas, but mine. The costume was property of the County Hospital, where he worked and by virtue of being the only man on the staff, the festive duty fell to him each year: dispensing talc and soap to the cailleachs and aftershave to the bodachs.

And then, years after, my future husband was Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve 2002, he donned the red suit and stood in front of his mother, who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She recognised him immediately, however. I don’t know how, but I suspect that it was the same thing again – the eyes. He had kind, brown eyes and an expression of mischief unique to himself when he was in the process of one of his beloved ‘wind-ups’.

Later on that same evening, he asked me to marry him. We had met at Christmas two years previously and the timing of our engagement was somehow appropriate. He had not wanted to choose a ring himself, so gave me a locket in the meantime – a tradition of giving a small item of jewellery which he kept up every Christmas Eve thereafter.

Having had the great privilege of knowing and loving two Santas, I am well-placed to write a critique of the jolly cove. His image is everywhere at this time of year and children are giddy with the excitement of meeting him, prior even to his magical visit on the twenty-fourth. He has become the great focus of Christmas, the kindly, all-good fulfiller of wishes. If you ask Santa for something, then he will not refuse, because he is good.

I can remember what it felt like to believe in this mythical figure. It was lovely and it was magical, and there is certainly a place for that in the life of every child. But he was not always the ubiquitous figure that he has become, and I think that he has changed into something much more sinister than many of us realise.

It isn’t that once a year we positively encourage a complete stranger to enter our homes during the night, help himself to our food, before leaving without being seen. Surprisingly enough, that still seems to be an acceptable part of the Christmas narrative.

No, it’s more that he has displaced the person who really gives Christmas its meaning. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild is all very well, but he doesn’t give presents, or grant wishes. He is just a nice wee adjunct to the main event, which is a frenzy of greed. Far from being the benevolent bodach of my childhood, Santa is now some sort of god of consumerism, granting wishes and handing over whatever goods your little ones may desire. How can Jesus hope to compare with that?

His birth was most unlike that of lesser kings. It had none of the costly trappings of rank or display because from the very first, He was gently telling us that none of that matters. If it was of any real consequence, His would have been the richest of surroundings.

Yet, when the wise men came from the East, they brought expensive gifts. Tradition assumes that there were three wise men because three gifts are mentioned, but I cannot agree with that assessment. I find it unlikely that there were more gifts than men, but have absolutely no trouble in believing that the number of men exceeded the number of gifts: there were bound to be two or three who simply ‘forgot’, or ‘didn’t know what to buy’. At least, that’s how it would be if they were from the East of Lewis. Then again, wise men from Broadbay . . ?

Why, though, would a child born in such lowly circumstances require such costly and seemingly impractical gifts? They may have been mere men, but they were wise, after all, and their gifts were a recognition of who this child was.

Gold was for His kingship; frankincense for His deity; and myrrh, commonly used as an embalming oil, recognised His mortality as one who was God, yet fully human. These gifts, which have become the background noise of ‘the Christmas story’ are actually a very significant part of it because they foreshadowed what this infant would be to mankind.

Last weekend, I was in Glasgow, which was a boiling frenzy of consumerism. People rushed about, beguiled by adverts promising the perfect Christmas day, with the cosiest pyjamas, the most fragrant perfume, and the bubbliest champagne.

But it is not the presents we will open next Monday, brought by the jolly man in the red suit which make Christmas perfect, however. That perfection was attained two thousand years ago, and began when a little child was offered gifts representing what He already possessed: deity, kingship, and the keys to death.

Those gifts already in His possession are now offered to us to share. We may benefit from His kingship and from His Godness, and we may accept His offer of freedom from the bonds of death. There will never be anything on Santa Claus’s sleigh to compare with that.