It was Frank’s first time as the department store Santa and just before the grotto opened for the day, he looked out through the curtains to see a queue of mums and dads and children snaking all the way from the grotto to the toy department. ‘What am I letting myself in for?’ he wondered. ‘Am I going to be any good at this? I think I look the part, I’ve got the glasses and the white beard, I’ve got the red robe with the white fur and a red suit and I’ve got the black boots, I’ve got plenty of padding. I look like Santa, even if I don’t feel like him. Hope I’m going to be okay.’
Jackie the elf sensed his trepidation. Jackie usually worked behind the makeup counter but every December she took two weeks’ holiday to work beside Santa in the grotto because she just loved Christmas so much. She’d seen plenty of Santas come and go, and she could tell Frank was nervous.
‘Look, don’t worry about it,’ she said. ‘Try to relax and enjoy yourself. Just, whatever you do, try not to scare the kids, won’t you? Be jolly, be Santa.’
Frank did relax, and for a while everything was okay, and he did enjoy himself. For the first half a dozen children, that is. But the seventh one, well, it didn’t go so great.
Frank could tell the wee boy was scared of him. As he came into the grotto he was half hiding behind his mum, looking at Frank as if he were some kind of ogre, not friendly old Santa Claus. And as soon as his mum sat him down beside Frank, he started bawling and crying. You could probably hear him in the menswear department, and that was on the floor above. He just wouldn’t stop. And his mum just looked at Frank expectantly, as if to say, ‘Well, you’re Santa, deal with it.’ Frank looked at Jackie the elf, but he didn’t get any support there – Jackie just folded her arms and looked amused. She’d seen it all before.
None of Frank’s ‘Ho, ho, ho’s’ seemed to be having any effect. And telling the wee boy he was definitely on the nice list and not the naughty one didn’t help either. But then Frank had an idea.
First he took off the glasses, and the boy could see the eyes that were looking back at him weren’t the eyes of an old man, but they were young and they were twinkly. Then he took off the white beard and the wee boy stopped crying and looked at him curiously. Then Frank took off the red robe and jacket, leaving him in just an ordinary t-shirt. The wee boy looked at him and laughed, the tears all gone.
Now both of them, Frank and the wee boy, were quite relaxed and happy in each other’s company. And now they were the best of pals, Frank told the boy a story. It was a story about how once, a very long time ago, God decided he was going to come down to earth to live alongside the people there, to be among them. He didn’t want to frighten the people, so he was born the same way as they were, he wore the same clothes as they did, he lived an ordinary life just like them. The wee boy listened, hanging on Frank’s every word, his eyes getting wider and wider. And as Frank told the story, he started to put all the Santa gear back on again. He put on the red jacket and the red robe, the glasses and, finally, the long white beard. Eventually, dressed as Santa again, Frank gave the wee boy his gift and then, all too soon, time was up. There was a whole queue of children waiting to see Santa, so the wee boy and his mum had to leave. As they went, his mum turned to Jackie and said, ‘That was nice, but it’s a shame that your Santa spoiled all the magic.’
Looking back at Frank, the department store Santa, Jackie smiled and said, ‘Maybe it ended the magic, but I think it’s started a whole lot of wonder.’
We dress up Christmas in all sorts of ways, we give it a red suit and a white beard and, sometimes for us, like the wee boy in the department store, it all gets a bit overwhelming. This year, maybe more than any other we can all remember, Christmas is pared back, stripped down – you could say it’s like Frank sitting there in his t-shirt instead of his Santa gear. But I think this year gives us the perfect opportunity, if opportunity is needed, to remember the true message of Christmas – that God is with us, God is among us. And next year, well, next year we’ll put all the gear back on again and Christmas will be just like we’ve come to know it. But the message will still hold true, no matter how much we dress it up.
The birth of a child brings about emotions in the parents that cannot be described by words. Emotions that overwhelm, deep love, intense joy. After months of waiting, after all the pain that comes with giving birth, there is pure wonder.
And the child itself, as it grows, he or she discovers all sorts of things, with amazement, watched by its parents.
Pure wonder is something that happens to you, you’re captured by it. In our bible readings, it happens to the shepherds, and to the people who hear from the shepherds what has been told about this new born child in the stable.
The story doesn’t say that they believed what they heard. It says that they wondered.
But then, can faith begin without wonder?
There are people who wonder about things a lot. There are people who do less so and there are people who just don’t.
How do we hear the story of the birth of Jesus; the story about Jesus’s mother and Joseph; the story about the shepherds. How do we hear the stories that follow from there? The story that tells about the twelve year old Jesus in the temple. Only twelve years old, He amazes the teachers of the Scriptures with his insight. And Jesus continues to amaze people when He heals the sick, when He speaks to people words that make them aware of new things.
Words that regularly amaze, shock His disciples, for instance when they stop children to come to Him. Jesus reacts to that by doing the opposite. He called the children to Him, saying:
“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17)
The little boy in John’s story was scared until Frank removed all the layers that made him Santa. That stripping off layers, that made the boy calm down. And then when Frank told the boy the story about how God chose to come down to earth to be with His people, the boy heard every word Fank was saying. And hearing them, the boy’s eyes got wider. He was amazed.
Just like the shepherds when they were told about the new born king by the angels; just like the people who, through the shepherds heard about the new born baby in the stable.
In the midst of all those wondering people there is one who starts to think deeper,
‘Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’
Would she have begun to see connections between what she was told, knew, came to know, what she felt? All her pondering was brought about by that wonder, that came to her when she was told the Good News that she was going to give birth to God’s Son. The news that she, humbly, received, without understanding how that could be.
How much of our thinking allows for; is triggered by wonder? Is it not all too often played down, stifled even, by the layers that we are not so willing to remove: the layer of the insistence on self-protection; the layer of ‘wanting to fix things’, the layer of ‘wanting to stay in control’.
That would be the reason why Jesus took a child as example for his disciples and for us now. For a child is free from those layers. Therefore, for a child, there is so much room for wonder.
As Frank could see in the eyes of the little boy who listened to Frank’s story about God coming down to earth; about how He chose to do it: as one of us, to be with us.
Following this new born boy in Bethlehem’s stable, we’re taken into lots of stories with people who wonder, amazed about what Jesus does, what He says, when He refers back to what has been said in stories that tell about His ancestors, in the Old Testament; to what has been said by the prophets who foretold His birth.
May the story of Jesus’ birth with all those other bible stories, kindle in our hearts a whole lot of wonder, encouraging us to discover more and more about the Holy One, who chose to come down in the vulnerability of new born baby, for us, to be with us.