Ho, ho, ho! Is that you Santa Claus?
Christmas time is a season for joy and commercialism, nativity scenes, and a man in a red suit. It can be easy to see Christmas as a divided holiday, with Christians trying to remember the “reason for the season,” and striving to not embrace the commercial – “taking Christ out of Christmas” – aspect of it. There’s seems to be an escapist mentality many believers buy in to which usually results in churches and Christian communities demonizing numerous Christmas traditions as “distracting” from the “true spirit” of the season. However, what if quite a bit of what we see as secular Christmas actually stemmed from Christian beginnings?
Here’s a little story about a man, wrapped in legend, who has a bright red jacket, a cheerful face, and long white beard.
Ol’e St. Nick.
So according to research, there are only a few facts that are actually certain about the life of Saint Nicholas. Born in Patara (present day Turkey) around 280 A.D, he lost his parents as a young man and gained a great inheritance which he used to help the poor and sick. Later in life, he became Bishop of Myra, a city in Lycia, a province of Asia Minor and was imprisoned during Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, but was released under Emperor Constantine.
I know what you’re thinking: How does this figure of Church history relate to Christmas? Hold onto your reindeer, we’re getting there.
Because there isn’t too much documentation on the life of St. Nicholas, numerous narratives surrounding Saint Nicholas emerged, turning him into a legend. This is where the Santa Claus story comes from.
Arguably one of the most significant of these stories (possibly true) is about a poor man with three daughters. The man couldn’t afford dowries for his daughters, which at this time, would result in a life of servitude for the women. However, one day, a bag of gold was tossed in through his window (by St. Nicholas of course), landing in stockings or shoes that were by the fire drying. The next day there was another bag of gold, and the next, another. The poor man eventually had enough money to pay for his daughters’ dowry, and save them from a life of servitude.
A legacy of generosity
You see, St. Nicholas believed greatly in obedience to Jesus’ words of “sell what you own and give to the poor” found in Matthew 19:21. He didn’t lack because of his parent’s inheritance, and wanted to live out a generous life of giving. Though are many other stories about his generosity and desire to give all that he had for others, this tale about the poor man with three daughters demonstrates his generosity, as well as the start of many recognizable Christmas traditions. Those stockings hung by a fireplace? May sound familiar. Also, sometimes the story is told with the bags of gold being a large ball of gold, which is represented by an orange at Christmas. This is why some people have adopted the tradition of putting an orange in a stocking at Christmas.
After the Reformation, the amount of people who celebrated St. Nicholas dwindled greatly. For a while, the only people who truly celebrated and embraced him as a figure were the Dutch. They celebrated the holiday, St. Nicholas day, on Dec. 6 (the day he died), upon which they would give each other gifts. The purpose of giving gifts early in the Advent season was so that the rest of Advent and Christmas, individuals would be focused on the Christ Child. Little Dutch boys and girls were told that if they left their shoes out the night before this beloved day, St. Nicholas would leave gifts in them.
The Dutch continued to remember St. Nicholas, or as called by them, Sint Nikolass. He was also known by his nickname, Sinterklaas. When Dutch immigrants brought the tradition of St. Nicholas to America, his name changed from “Sinterklass” to “Santa Claus,” and began to be associated with Christmas.
The first person to describe him as the jolly, heavy man we know and love was Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote a poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1820. Moore also described him as climbing down chimneys to leave presents for good children, and driving a reindeer-pulled sleigh. In 1881, the cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa wearing the red suit with the fur trim, and the image we recognize as Santa Claus came into being.
It all leads back to Christ
St. Nicholas has come a long way; a humble bishop who lived his life in generosity became the symbol of commercialized Christmas. It is common in the Christian community to demonize Santa, saying he takes away the focus of Christmas and only leads individuals into lust for material things. I suppose in some ways that is true. However, I feel it is an injustice to St. Nicholas to assume that of his legacy. St. Nicholas dedicated his life to serving Christ, and desired to live out his convictions, which were rooted in Scripture. Despite the opinion that Santa takes the focus of Jesus away from Christmas, Nicholas’ intent was for Christ to be glorified through his giving.
This Christmas, know that many of the fundamental aspects and traditions of the season are still rooted in Christ’s teachings. We don’t have to dig trenches, polarizing and separating those who hold certain traditions as materialists, and those who hold to others, as true believers. The tradition of Saint Nicholas, as well as other, more religious traditions, came from the same place: Jesus.
So have fun sipping your eggnog and licking candy canes, watching Elf for the 7,456,589th time, and know that Jesus is at the root of it all. All you must do is search.
P.S. There is also some rumor of Saint Nicholas punching a heretic at the Council of Nicaea, but I can neither confirm nor deny this claim. However, if true, that makes Santa so much cooler.
Danielle Crowley is a Staff Writer for the Daily Runner.