Presvytera Melanie DiStefano lives with her husband Rev Fr Joseph DiStefano and their son Michael Seraphim. Together they serve the parish of St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Youngstown, Ohio. Melanie has a background in Chemical Engineering and graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology with a Masters of Divinity in 2003.
As a child I remember him – the warm, benevolent visitor who magically ate our Christmas cookies and left behind a slew of beautiful presents for my brothers and me. But more so, I remember him as a god-like figure. He was all-good, all-knowing, all-loving and I just imagined him holding me sometimes with his heart pouring into my own a love real and pure.
And then the fateful day came. A classmate told me something horrible: Santa wasn’t real! “No! It couldn’t be true!” I thought. But the seed of doubt was planted and I confronted my parents when I came home from school. They would surely not have lied to me about Santa! But I knew from the moment I posed the question that this nightmare was true – their faces said it all.
“Melanie, Santa was a good person – St Nicholas – who lived many, many years ago, but he died and….blah, blah, blah, blah…” I heard my mother’s words but could not get beyond “he died”. The floodgates opened, sobbing ensued; and my bewildered, well-intentioned parents tried to console a child who was inconsolable.
“Why did he have to die?!” I cried. “WHY, WHY?!!!” It was as real a heartbreak as any I have experienced in my life. It was the first time I had “lost” someone I loved deeply. As a seven year old, I was only able to see death as a very sad ending – even if my beloved Santa Claus was “in heaven” as my parents said.
Over the years I’ve considered how I might handle the melding of Christmas and Santa Claus with my own children. Let me preface my thoughts by saying that my opinions on this subject are personal and not intended to be a condemnation of other families’ customs. We all have our reasons and seasons of reasons. But, I digress… As much as I loved dear St Nick, I believe we risk taking the focus off of the birth of Christ by magnifying and embellishing his person –especially on Christmas day. I mean, as a child I was aware that Christmas was about baby Jesus being born; but it was Santa that I waited for with anticipation and excitement. For these reasons I decided that I did not want to confuse my children about Santa (as our culture portrays him), nor did I want the Lord’s Nativity to be overshadowed in any way.
I’ve told my child nothing about Santa Claus. One might argue that he wouldn’t understand or even like all the hype anyway. I can just imagine my autistic, sensory-impaired son sitting on “Mall Santa’s” lap. He would squirm against the hot, red velour suit, pulling at the curly white “strings” hanging off of the stranger’s face. Screaming might accompany the scene; or at best he would grab the treasure of soft strings and make a run for it.
For Michael, however, knowing St Nicholas is another story.
This past September our family moved closer to extended family; and my husband (who is a priest) is now serving at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. A few incidents have occurred in the past few months that have made me wonder if dear old St Nick may be making himself present in our home and to our child.
Before we moved I created a “social story” for Michael about the upcoming changes. For those not familiar with the term – a social story is a tool used for those on the Autistic Spectrum to help them become familiar with a new place or a new task. So on his iPad he would play the story about our move to a new house and a new church. I inserted pictures of the house and church and an icon of St Nicholas.
On the Sunday of our church feast day – December 6th, Michael woke up with a horrible- looking pink eye! I didn’t want him to miss church that special day – especially not to miss out on a blessing from St Nicholas! But every time he would look up at me with that seeping, swollen eye I knew I could not bring him. My dad stayed home with him. It was a beautiful liturgy and luncheon for our community. Later, the day went on as normal at home. After I put Michael to sleep I began cleaning up after the little messes that he left behind. I grabbed his iPad to plug into the charger. There staring at me was an image of St Nicholas! Michael had opened his “Photos” icon and enlarged the picture of St Nicholas that I had stored in his files when creating the social story. Michael tends to scroll through the saved photos on his iPad and I will find pictures of people he loves – like his grandparents and great-grandparents – opened and being viewed. On that day he opened up St Nicholas’ picture. Could this dear Saint have visited a special, sick little boy on that day so that he wouldn’t miss out on a blessing from him? It seems like something St Nicholas would do, doesn’t it?
This isn’t the first time Michael has shown a connection to St Nicholas. When we moved, initially we stayed with my parents until our new home was ready. My mom has a small icon stand in the guest bedroom where all the grandchildren sleep when they visit. It is child-height and has a few icons – St Nicholas being one of them. Michael would sometimes go upstairs to play with the toys in that room and come downstairs carrying the icon of St Nicholas. He did this quite a few times and not with either of the other icons.
St Nicholas seems to be “meeting” us at every turn these days. When we were looking at what is now our house – the seller, who is an Orthodox Christian, told me a beautiful story. She had a dream when she was a young girl. In it she had been singing and after she finished, she felt someone tugging at her arm. She turned around and saw a man in a black robe with gray hair and a long gray beard. Without saying a word, he tried to lead her somewhere but she became frightened and woke up.
Time passed and her mother kept asking her to go and light the vigil lamp in front of St Nicholas’ icon. The family had an icon of him in the corner of a room in the basement. However, after having the dream which frightened her, she avoided going into the basement. Her mom was persistent and so she obeyed. As she was attending to the candle she looked up into St Nicholas’ image and recognized him as the man in her dream who had been trying to lead her somewhere. In her heart she understood that he wanted her to keep his oil lamp lit.
Reflecting on this experience of our home’s prior owner- especially as my husband and I begin our service to St Nicholas’ Church – I can’t help but think that it’s my turn to “keep his lamp lit”. What a gift to be under his protection! What a blessing to sense his connection with my son. My heart is warmed by his sweetness, and I am so grateful to reconnect with this holy man who was so special to me in childhood. How truly he must have visited my soul so many years ago for I knew him to be as the Church in his Apolotikion describes him “…the image of gentleness…”
The grief of “losing” my childhood benefactor is now replaced by the joy of knowing without a doubt that “Yes, there IS a Santa Claus!” He lived many, many years ago. And he remains – and will be – alive in Christ forevermore.
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