The “Kansas City Secret Santa” is making waves again this year, as he deputized police officers to give out $15,000 to unsuspecting Missouri residents. The Secret Santa tradition in Kansas City has been going on since 1979, with an overall estimated $1.3 million dollars given away. The original Secret Santa, Larry Stewart, got started because someone gave him $20 for a meal when he was “down and out” and unable to pay for his own meal at a Texas diner.
About the same time that Larry Stewart got started in Kansas City, my own family began our Secret Santa tradition. My mom and dad would have us draw names out a hat, and for the whole month of December we would do special things for the person that we picked. Unlike the Kansas City Secret Santa, we would never give cash. We would do things like cleaning, making beds, washing dishes, writing encouraging notes, and buying small gifts like gum or candy. And of course, we would do all of these things in secret, until everything was revealed on December 25th!
A few weeks ago, I decided to resurrect this tradition with my own children because of the spiritual lesson I felt it could teach us. For the past two months we’ve been studying the servant nature of Jesus, and we were particularly convicted through the Apostle Paul’s description of Christ’s nature in Philippians 2:3-11. In verses 3-5 Paul says,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus . . .
Especially around Christmas, most children’s focus is only on themselves. And this isn’t only limited to children . . . everyone struggles with selfishness, pride and sinful ambition. The Secret Santa tradition has been a way for our family to consistently think about someone other than ourselves. When we enter a store, it’s a reminder for us not to think what we would like, but rather to think about what another person would like. When we see a messy bed or a dirty floor it’s an incentive for us to serve instead of just passing the problem by.
For one of our children in particular, this has been a huge challenge. He has a sinful tendency to be very self-focused and has a natural bent to see what others can do for him rather than seeing ways he can help others. Our Secret Santa exercise has been a useful way for him to examine the humility and servant nature of Christ that Paul describes in Philippians.
Secret Santa doesn’t naturally point to Christ’s servant nature, though. It could end up just being a nice thing to do, generating little more than temporary good feelings. But when tied with worship and Scripture studies that are focused on serving, we can participate in a Christmas activity that causes us to grow in humility while focusing on the needs of others.
When the mother of two of the disciples asked Jesus if her sons could sit at his right and left hand, Jesus told her how a truly “great” person lives. Jesus said,
“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:26-38).”
It is my prayer that this Secret Santa tradition, embedded in worship, prayer, and teaching, can help us to capture even a small part of the heart of Matthew 20, and that it might ultimately teach us how to serve others in light of how Christ become a ransom for us.