Some time ago a pastor friend of mine incurred the wrath of a squadron of militant mama bears when he preached at a school service against Santa—calling him a “fat pagan elf.” The good priest meant to extol the virtues of Saint Nicholas, but his iconoclasm of a contemporary Christmas icon was not appreciated and the complaints flooded his inbox.
The most extreme form of anti-Santa preaching is the frightening realization that “Santa” is an anagram of Satan. This sort of conspiracy theory linguistic legerdemain is always amusing because its proponents take it seriously—like the loons who argued Elvis must be alive because his name is an anagram of “lives.” The anti-Santa Scrooges have their own tradition. The Puritans of Cromwell’s England famously banned Christmas as being pagan and Catholic. Their denial of Christmas crossed the Atlantic, and tendrils of the same spiky negativity curl into our modern age like some poisonous form of holly and ivy—causing preachers and teachers to call “Bah Humbug!” on jolly old St. Nick and warn that Santa is indeed Satan disguised.
I’m for setting them on one side, and celebrating Santa—remembering that a man is always right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies. Santa Claus is a very interesting amalgamation of various European and Christian traditions. He has adapted and adopted modern ways to perpetuate his myth, and he survives now as a curiously popular and perennial version of our shared European tradition. Why not enjoy Santa?
Where did Santa come from? First of all from St. Nicholas, the feisty and famous fourth century bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey. Feisty because he slapped down the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicea and famous for his work with the poor—dropping gold through the window of a poor man to ransom his daughters, and rescuing poor boys from human trafficking. So Nichaolas became the patron of children and his feast day of December 6 was celebrated with various charming traditions across Europe.
The Dutch were especially fond of “Sinterklaas”. He was portrayed as an old bishop with a long white beard, a red miter, chasuble, and bishop’s staff. He comes on a steamship from Spain and rides a grey-white horse. On his gift giving expeditions across the rooftops dropping gifts down chimneys he was accompanied by “Zwarte Piet”—Black Peter, a master of mischief.
Meanwhile, another bearded old man had been making the rounds in the bleak mid winter long before St. Nicholas arrived on the scene. The god Odin was a Gandalf type figure who bore the alternative name Langbaror, or “long beard”. Along with the beard he wore a cloak and a broad brimmed hat and carried a staff. Odin was the master of the ancient Yule celebration which spread across Northern Europe. The leader of the Wild Hunt—a ghostly procession through the sky, he rode an eight footed beast named Sleipnir to bring gifts to his people.
Thus Odin was gathered up and baptized, if you like, by St. Nicholas who, in Puritan England evolved into the non-Catholic Father Christmas. The Dutch brought Sinterklaas with them to New Amsterdam, which became New York and “Sinterklaas” became Santa Claus.
As the term “Santa Claus” became separated from the Catholic Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas, so the bishop’s outfit disappeared. When they illustrated Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present—the jolly and generous old man—was pictured without all the Catholic bishop-like trappings—wearing the English style green cloak with holly in his hair. Around the same time—in 1863 the American illustrator Thomas Nast portrayed Santa as a rotund figure dressed in warm red winter woolies without a hint or nod to the garb of a fourth century, heretic slapping, children rescuing bishop.
The new image of Santa Claus in the mid nineteenth century sprang from the publication in 1821 of A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore—better known as The Night Before Christmas. In the poem he is first seen as a jolly elf. He has a belly that shakes like jelly and “a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.” His oft-forgotten diminutive stature explains how he gets down the chimney. By the 1930s Santa had fully evolved into the red and white suited, over sized guzzler of Coca Cola who has gone global.
What’s wrong with Santa? Nothing really. He’s an enjoyable part of the Christmas celebration. Some latter day Puritans dislike Santa because he’s pagan or Catholic or both, but their logic doesn’t follow. The vestiges of Catholicism and paganism are scattered throughout our American culture in ways too numerous to mention.
Other grumblers worry that we lie to our children when we tell them the Santa story, and that we don’t lie to them about anything else. I’m a bit sympathetic. There’s nothing wrong with telling the Santa story as we would tell any other fairy tale, and the cookie and milk left for Santa by the stockings is just a bit of fun. To perpetuate the hoax too long and too extravagantly is silly. Children are smart. They figure it out and they soon realize it’s just part of Christmas fun.
There’s nothing wrong with Santa as such, but the problem with our modern Christmas is that too often there is nothing but Santa. The modern Santa Claus is a manifestation of our culture and belief system just as much as Odin was for pagan Germanic peoples and St. Nicholas was for medieval Christians. As such he holds a mirror up to us and our culture, and what we see is a culture that used to be Christian, but which has evolved into a cheerful, consumerist secularism. In Santa we see a culture that is overweight with happy materialism—laughing with oblivious, self indulgent pleasure. Santa’s fine, but it there is no more to Christmas than Santa, then Santa is sad.
Santa Claus should be part of our Christmas as long as it is not the main part. He’s not central. He is part of the wider celebration—part of the extra decoration. His focus on children and gifts is a reminder of St Nicholas’ rescuing of children with gifts. Finally, Santa’s attention to children and his giving of gifts is a pointer to the profound truth that children are a precious gift, and that the Child of Bethlehem is the greatest gift of all.