Archive for December 21st, 2009

December 21, 2009

Is It Time For Santa To Hit the Egress In Our Traditions?

Santa Claus. Now there is a controversy. It is funny to consider the different arguments concerning traditions because no matter where they start they end with this jolly ol’ man. No doubt as you read the title to this blog and are reading this first paragraph you are hoping that I will endorse your view on what we should do with him. Keep him! Throw him out! Have your santa cookie and eat it too!

 Maybe I’ll regret doing this, but I’ll throw my opinion gauntlet down a little later. The whole topic of Santa Claus is part of a bigger discussion, which is what should the ostensive outcropping of our traditions be and not be? Same coin; two different sides.  A better way of thinking about this issue brings us to our two points today on what a tradition should have and accomplish.

 4. Our Traditions Should Help Form Our Identity.

This is the positive side of the ostensive issue. One of the strengths of traditions is not only do they teach us about God, but they also teach us about ourselves. Knowing who we are is of great value. For example, God’s call in the Bible to remember specific events is not just a reminder of who he is, but also who we are historically.  For example, 1 Corinthians 11:2 “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” 2 Timothy 2:8-9  “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel,  9 for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” John 15:20 “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.”

 This “are” in “who we are historically” is a little tricky in our day. Identity is something that is under attack. Historical Revisionism and the need to rewrite history through a deconstructive narrative of life obliterates historically anchored truths too often for too many people today. Also, our desire to elevate the “me” is too often done at the complete neglect of our ancestors. Simply, we just don’t know where we come from.

You can see how big of a deal this issue is to the Jews in Ezra-Nehemiah. One of the themes of the book is tracing God’s faithfulness through Israel’s generations. But in the Diaspora not all Jews remembered their forefathers. Not all of them were able to maintain records of their forefathers. This was a problem – so much so that many who claimed to be from the lineage of Levi could no longer serve as priests (see Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7). Imagine the great grief this new reality meant for these families.

The impact is not as pronounced today, but perhaps that is a detriment in this sense that we fail to recognize this historical treasure. To think that each of our families has its own precious history, where we can see how God has worked through the generations of our forefathers, be it by their disobedience or faithfulness, but today – to your family he is faithful.

Don’t lament today if you think your family history is lost. Today’s technology is marvelous. For example, my dad has traced our lineage back to the 1400s. Now, there are parts of that lineage that are more certain than others, but it is a very interesting collection. On my dad’s side of the family we have prided ourselves in being Scotch-Irish. Discover our delight – or lack of – when my father found some English descendents in our recent heritage.

Not only has my father made this collection of his side of the family, but mother’s side too. Hers is a little more sketchy because although we know she is Jewish both sides of her ancestry are refugees from pogroms in Europe and the Middle East. But what a joy it will be for my children to trace their Jewish roots as my mom’s parents were gone by the time I was two.  

My father has begun to put my wife’s family’s immigration history together, so our children will know their story as best we can tell it too. And think of this, my niece, which has an African heritage, by ways of DNA testing on her grandmother’s side can tell, with precision, the tribe she comes from – a test that only costs a few hundred dollars.

Identity matters. It informs. It shows our family’s story. It teaches how we each will contribute to this story. We can trace God’s faithfulness through these stories and years. We can connect with our ancestors through memorabilia, heirlooms, memoirs and oral stories passed down from generation to generation.

Identity also heals, if we let it. Perhaps we don’t talk of our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters who are gone because it hurts too much. If we orient our traditions in such a way so that we have to recount our family’s story then perhaps healing will occur as we share in the struggles, failures and victories of those who have passed on. Let me make this cry out to you – Do not let yourself hide the joy to be had by forgetting instead of remembering– we honor when we are joyful, even if it is a tearful remembrance. Do not let your children grow in a shadow of absence that is brought on because you hurt too much to share the wonderful stories that have been given to you.

A friend of mine reminds me of this last reality. Every Saint Patrick’s Day he emails out a story of his father. Imagine my delight when he included me in his annual email blast to commemorate his father. Through the years now I too have shed tears over his loss although I never knew his father. But I grieve and rejoice with my friend. With his permission, I have posted his story following this so you too can share in this precious tradition of remembrance.  I share it because I want you to read it and think of the powerful impact this has on my friend, his children, his friends and now – you. Traditions are powerful indeed.

Our identity does not just rest with the past but also the present, and if we have children – their future. We do traditions to inform and influence this identity. To know oneself is a great treasure, but part of knowing yourself is realizing you are not an island. Traditions are meant to remind us of this fact.

5. To examine and be critical of fruitless traditions

While the positive side of the coin is to know your identity, the negative side is to recognize that which is not part of your identity and remove it from your tradition. Our traditions should make us think. They should make us ask questions. They are meant to cause a dialogue. We are meant to be changed by our traditions. Traditions are not here to keep the status quo. A good tradition wages war against outside forces that seek to subvert your thinking, identity and well-being.

Traditions help us forge a coherent and cognizant worldview. If we are lazy with our traditions then they will help us forge a worldview that is a melting pot of competing “axioms” and presuppositions that will not dwell peacefully together. We will be confused, non-critical and unaware. In short, you will not know yourself. Can you see why traditions are first for you and not the child in the other room? You first, them second.

Just like spring cleaning, we should be comfortable with critically thinking through the various traditions of our lives and evaluate what they do. These traditions can be annual, like Christmas or they can be daily.  For example, we can think of our daily prayers over meals as a tradition, but what about your television habits. Are they so regular that they count as traditions? What do these viewing habits say about you? How do they inform you of who you are? Are you watching just to watch indiscriminately? Etc….

If we have kids and we come home from work and turn on the tube and tune them out – not only are we informing ourselves of what is important, but we are also informing ourselves and them of what is not – them. Traditions should call us to count the cost.

Santa Claus. What’s the big deal? The answer depends on what else is going on in your life and how you treat Santa Claus in comparison to Jesus Christ. Is your home decorated with Santa, but not a manger scene can be found? That is a problem. However, are you teaching the historical value of Saint Nicholas and how God worked in his family – that is valuable. You are only invested in the discussion of Santa Claus if you have children. As parents, part of your responsibility is to protect and encourage the innocence of your child. Is pretending and having an imagination bad? It absolutely is not. You absolutely should encourage it. So, for my family as we evaluate our Christmas traditions, here is our answer:

Overarchingly, our Christmas traditions are overwhelmingly focused on the birth of Jesus. We work on a mural every night for 25 days up to Christmas Day of the manger scene. We read Scripture and sing songs related to the portion of the mural we are working during this time. We do an advent calendar with verses each night. We light our advent candles and discuss why we light them each night. We have a manger at the focus of our advent candles, etc. But, we are not so remiss to the fanciful delight of a fictional character so as to remove the idea of elves and reindeer bringing the world wonderful gifts. Yes, Santa – as portrayed in pop culture today reflects a lot of God’s characteristics (such as omniscience) – but I do not think it is a bad thing. We use it to our advantage. It is not a perfect illustration, but none are. But we do make this one distinction and we are consistent with it – Santa is pretend. We play the games, dream the dreams, tell the stories, but the seed is there always being nurtured both in time and words – Christmas is about Jesus and Santa is a fun way to consider what a precious gift Jesus is to the world in his own way.

That is my two e-cents for the day.

December 21, 2009


Originally published on Sunday March 14, 1999 in the St. Louis Post Dispatch

By Bill McClellan

Nobody, not even an Irish kid, grows up thinking that he’d like to become a leprechaun. It’s something that just happens.

For Hap McAlevey, it began to happen 17 years ago.

Wait a minute. This is an Irish story, and no real Irish story would admit to starting as recently as 17 years ago. So let’s back up to sometime in the middle of the last century.

That’s when Timothy Clancy came to these shores from County Clare. He came here so many years ago that nobody now living knows when or why. Or even where he settled. What people do know is that his son, Frank, came to St. Louis.

And this first Frank had a son named Frank, who also had a son named Frank. This third Frank Clancy was born in 1927 and was to become great and good friends with the aforementioned Hap McAlevey, and was to become instrumental in his friend’s transition from man to leprechaun.

Let’s stick with Frank for a moment.

He went to Visitation grade school, and there he met his future wife, Elizabeth Ann. They were fourth-grade sweethearts, and the romance never soured. In 1944, Frank turned 17 and joined the Navy and went off to the war. When the war ended, he came home, married Elizabeth and settled into life as a butcher, which had been the traditional job of Clancy men since at least the days of Timothy.

Shortly after the war, Frank and Elizabeth Ann moved to the far reaches of West County. Frank opened a butcher shop on Manchester in Ballwin. Not long after moving to West County, Frank met Hap at the Holy Infant Church.

The two men had a lot in common. A couple of years older than Frank, Hap had grown up in Maplewood and gone off to the war. He came home, became a plumber, got married and moved to West County. You could get more house for your dollar if you moved to the sticks. That’s the way he felt.

The years went by.

Frank and Elizabeth Ann had 12 children. Six became butchers. One of the six, Patrick, was killed in 1977 when he sliced his artery with a saw While cutting meat. Other than that terrible tragedy, though, life was good for the Clancy clan.

Frank had moved his butcher shop from Ballwin to Ellisville. He had a Place just off Old State Road, just south of its intersection with Manchester. Just up the hill from the shop was an old house that Frank’s dad had built as a summer place back in 1933.

In 1982, Frank took that old house, did a little bit of remodeling and turned it into Clancy’s Irish Pub and Grill. By this time, Ellisville was the heart of suburbia, and Manchester Road was becoming a string of strip malls. It was an unlikely spot for an Irish pub.

Of course, the very best customer was Frank’s old friend, Hap McAlevey. Proof of this came when the city of Ellisville named the road leading into the pub McAlevey Lane. It helped that then-Mayor Ed O’Reilly came in a bit.

Life had been good for Hap, too. His wife, Helen, was a seamstress. They had three kids. As Hap aged, he became less the wiry working man, and more and more began to look like a leprechaun.

People had begun to notice even before the pub opened. When your name is Hap McAlevey, and you stand 4 inches over 5 feet, and you’ve got the eyebrows, well, people begin to notice. But when the pub opened, there was suddenly a reason to look like a leprechaun. You could give your friend’s place a certain style on St. Patrick’s Day.

And so the tradition began. On the first of October, Hap would begin growing his beard. His costume was the best, too. How many would-be leprechauns are fortunate enough to be married to a seamstress? It was for only one day a year — Hap would shave on the morning after– but what a day! Hap was the perfect leprechaun.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1993, a pub in Manchester had a leprechaun contest, with the winner earning a trip for two to Ireland. There were plenty of would-be leprechauns shooting for that trip, but when Hap came sauntering in just minutes before the judging was to end, you could hear an audible sigh from the other contestants. It was as if a real leprechaun had showed up. Hap and Helen went to Ireland.

Other than that, though, the whole show was at Clancy’s. Hap was their leprechaun. Year after year. The two friends, Frank Clancy and Hap McAlevey, led the St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the decidedly unfancy Irish pub in the unlikely West County location.

Hap was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. Still, he was the Leprechaun at Clancy’s. Each year the thought was, One more year.

Frank died a couple of weeks ago.

Cancer it was, and it went quickly. Seven weeks from diagnosis to death. The family gathered for his service, but it’s a tribute to Frank and Elizabeth Ann that the family always gathers. One of the girls, Bridgette, moved to Texas a couple of years ago, but the 10 other kids all live within a four-mile radius of their dad’s butcher shop. There are now 37 grandchildren. The butcher shop and the pub are both still in Clancy hands, too. Matt, the ninth of the 12 kids, runs the pub with his wife, Angie. They are, of course, gearing up for a big St. Patrick’s Day affair.

But it will be different this year. No Frank. No Hap.

“I’m dying,” Hap told me when I visited him at his home on Friday. “I’m not going to be able to get to the pub this year. I think I’ll spend the day at my daughter’s house.”

He’s 75 now. The cancer has cut his weight to 120 pounds, 30 under his prime leprechaun weight. Still, he grew the beard this year, and the smile has not left his Irish eyes.

If you make it to Clancy’s pub this Wednesday, or even if you don’t, you might want to raise a glass to friendship. Have a drink to a patriarch and a leprechaun. Good and great friends they were.


Hap died on April 30, 1999, six weeks after this article was published. Next month marks the 10th anniversary of this story and his passing.

I miss you Dad…