Sunday, December 7, 2008


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday December 7th, 2008


“You’d better watch out,
You’d better not cry,
You’d better not pout,
I’m telling you why,
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He’s making a list.
He’s checking it twice.
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice?
Santa Claus is coming to town....”

I suspect that pretty much everyone here as heard this song, and recognize the words; it’s not really a Carol, and it’s certainly not a Hymn.... I suppose it’s best thought of as a Christmas “standard” -- one of those annoyingly repetitive tunes that we will hear over and over again for the next several weeks, until we think that we will never want to hear it again...and then suddenly it will disappear entirely for the next eleven months, only to re-emerge once again at the beginning of a NEW holiday season, to begin the cycle all over again.

But what does it really mean, and where did it come from -- this notion that some semi-mythical, vaguely-super natural, quasi-historical/legendary creature (who lives at the North Pole, of all places) is keeping track of ALL of our behavior (but especially that of little girls and boys) and will in the course of a single evening in the dead of winter visit all of our homes in order to reward or punish each and every one of us, not so much on the basis of whether or not we are good or bad, but rather whether we’ve been “naughty “ or “nice.”

The first part of the legend is about the Turkish Saint Nicholas of Myra, and the gift of gold he left in the stockings of the three beautiful but impoverished daughters.:

Once upon a time there was a father with three beautiful daughters. Although the daughters were kind and strong, the father despaired of them ever making good marriages, because he didn't have enough money to pay their dowries.

One day, Saint Nicholas of Myra was passing through their village and heard the locals discussing the plight of these poor girls. Saint Nicholas knew the father would be too proud to accept an outright gift. So he waited until dark, snuck to the man's house, and dropped three bags of gold coins down the chimney.

The daughters had spent the evening washing clothes, and had hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry. The gold coins dropped into the stockings, one bag for each daughter. In the morning, they awoke to find enough money to make them each a generous dowry, and in time all married well and happily.

As word of Saint Nicholas's generosity spread, others began to hang their stockings by the fireplace, hoping for a similar gift....

Nowadays in place of gold we often see instead a much more affordable and practical gift: fresh oranges, pushed deep down into the toe of the stocking -- a refreshing taste of bright citrus sunshine to be savored in the midst of the midwinter darkness.

But what about the other half of the legend? -- the gift of coal to children who have been naughty. This part of the story seems to have originated in Sicily, in the tale of the so-called “Christmas Witch” La Befana, who according to tradition travels the world on her broomstick for the Feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night, searching for the Christ Child and leaving gifts of candy and toys (and sometimes coal) in the homes of every child she visits.

As the legend is told, La Befana was a widow living in a cottage on the outskirts of Bethlehem on the original Christmas Eve, where twelve days later a caravan led by three Kings from the East passed by and asked for directions into the city. They invited Befana to join them, but she begged off, claiming she had too much housework to do. But almost as soon as they had left she began to regret her decision. So later that evening she packed a bag with a few things that had belonged to her own child (for gifts), and set out to follow the Wise Men from the East.

But try as she might she could not find them, or the baby of whom they had spoken. And so for centuries she has wandered the world in pursuit of this elusive goal. And then one year, she noticed inside of a church, right there on the altar, a stable filled with all sorts of animals, and standing nearby were the Kings and some shepherds and angels, and then there in the center a young mother and her husband looking down in adoration at a manger made up into a child’s crib. But as she moved in closer to get a better look, Befana suddenly realized that the crib was empty, and that the figures she had been admiring were all simply statues. And so she sat down right there on the steps of the church and began to weep. The story continues:

[and] when she looked up again the church was empty. She thought she heard the figures laughing, but laughing so kindly that she didn't feel a bit hurt, and the old King beckoned her to approach. Then the man who was nearest to the Mother and Child, he whom the shepherds had seen watching the entrance to the cave, turned toward her. "Poor old Befana," he said, "you have been searching for a very long while but you are just a little mistaken. You want to find the Bambino Gesu as He was that night in Bethlehem when the angels sang in the sky, but that cannot be. The Christ Child cannot now be found in one human child, but in all children; He is in each one to whom you give your gifts, for the One dwells in the many, and the searching never ends nor does the finding. Your place is not here, but among all living children." And the laughter ceased, Saint Joseph and the King fell back into their fixed positions and La Befana hurried away quite happily for she remembered how many children were still waiting for her.... []

So this explains another part of the legend. But why the coal, and how does she know about who to give it to in the first place? It’s not as if she’s keeping a list, like Santa Claus himself, or his British counterpart Father Christmas. And it may well be that we have misread this portion of the legend. La Befana is said to have a preferential bias toward the poor, and that the greater the level of poverty she encounters, the more compassion she feels, and the more she leaves in the way of gifts. In this context, “Nice” children typically want for nothing: a little fruit, some sweets, a small toy and they are satisfied. It is only the “naughty” children -- those children whose families have nothing and who are therefore in need of everything -- who might appreciate a gift of coal as well as food, so that there might at least be a fire in the hearth, even when there are no stockings to hang by the chimney with care....

Strictly speaking, “Naughty” does not really mean “bad” at all. And “nice” does not necessarily mean “good” either. There are plenty of supposedly “nice” people who are capable of performing great evil when left to their own devices, whereas “naughty” means most precisely having “nought” or nothing. Strictly speaking, naughty children are children who are a little mischievous or disobedient, who push the boundaries of “acceptable “ behavior because “when you ain’t got nuthin’ ya ain’t got nuthin’ ta lose.” Naughty adults are typically those whose attitudes and activities might be considered a little improper, indecent, or even “immoral” by more polite society, whose appreciation of the nicer things in life sometimes trumps every other consideration.

But even more importantly, it’s not just which list you’re on, but WHOSE list that really matters. There are lots of different lists floating around out there, on some of which it is a privilege to be listed, while others you want to try to avoid so far as is humanly possible. Take, for example, the simple difference between being on a “no call” list and a “no fly” list. One of those is going to protect you from a lot of unwanted and intrusive telephone solicitations. The other is almost certain to disrupt your plans or (at the very least) ruin your vacation at a time when you can least afford the hassle.

Furthermore, many times it is impossible for us to know that we are even on a list at all, yet our powerful, computerized list-keeping technology now makes it possible to keep track of almost everything and every one: from the kinds of books we buy or the breakfast cereals we eat to who we gave money to in the last election, and how much. For those of us who are unaccustomed to such high levels of scrutiny, the mere existence of these lists alone can feel very intimidating. And even those of us who have come to accept the reality of these lists as part of the price of 21st century living can feel a little uncomfortable about who is keeping track of our personal information, and whether or not they can really be trusted with such a list.

And then finally, there are the lists we keep ourselves, and the judgments they imply regarding our own opinions of Naughty or Nice. We all keep lists like this somewhere, either formally or somewhere in the back of our head. What we like, and what we dislike; what we value, who we can trust, the things we would like to accomplish in our lives before our lives are over -- the so-called “Bucket List -- or simply a good list of the things we would like To Do today. Sometimes these lists can grow as elaborate as the tasks themselves, while some of the most important lists I have ever made were scribbled down on a paper napkin, or the back of a used envelope. Our lists reflect our values but they also reflect our prejudices -- the things we have made judgments about in advance, and yet hopefully remain curious enough about that we might find the ability to change our minds if the circumstances warrant it. Some things might not be as naughty as at first we thought. They might actually turn out to be kind of nice.

But I hope that sometime in these next few weeks between now and the beginning of the New Year, in between our shopping lists and our “To Do” lists and whatever other lists we may feel the need to keep in this season, that we will each take a moment or two to make a list of the things we truly value: those things that are inherently worthy of our attention, and devotion, and support, and to which we are willing to contribute a significant portion of our “life energy.” It doesn’t have to be an elaborate list. You can write it on an envelope, or a napkin, or even somewhere here on your Order of Service if you can find the room!). But do write it down -- and then contemplate it routinely, until it time it becomes as well a list written upon your heart....