When it comes to the classical American Christmas, it’s not a stretch to say that Santa Claus has become the heralded hero of the holidays for almost every girl and boy with an imagination. He is the seemingly overweight omnipresent bearded resident of the North Pole with a magical sleigh powered by flying reindeer and little helpers who help him check a list that weighs the deeds of the naughty and nice in order to administer the appropriate gifts to all. In the middle of a season in which we are supposed to be celebrating the birth of our Savior, where in the world did Santa first enter the scene?
To even begin to solve this mystery could lead down a variety of trails of truth mixed with tall tales, but we will begin with the birth of a man around 280 A.D. who would eventually become known as Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a bishop of the church in an area near modern day Turkey. He was apparently widely known for his generosity but was also a strong supporter and defender of orthodoxy. One story from history mentions Saint Nicholas attending the Council of Nicea in opposition to the heretical views of Arianism. During Arias‘ defense of his position that Jesus was not equal to God the Father, Saint Nicholas got so irritated by such disrespect for his Lord and Savior that he got up out of his seat, walked across the room and slapped Arias across his face (apparantly naughty kids get a lump of coal and heretics get a hand to the jaw).
Saint Nicholas was born into a wealthy family and inherited a great deal of wealth after his parents‘ passed. However, legend has it that he gave away all his inheritance in order to better the lives of those around him. Perhaps the most popular story of his generosity involves three young girls who were so poor that they were soon going to be forced into prostitution, but Saint Nicholas came to their rescue by throwing three bags of gold through an open windon for each of the three girls to free them from their poverty. In honor of his generous life, December 6th would become known as Saint Nicholas Day across most of Europe, and everyone would celebrate by giving gifts to one another. It became a common tradition that on the night before December 6th, Saint Nicholas would come dressed in his red bishop’s robe and fill up the boots left by little children near their fireplaces with all sorts of candy and gifts.
So what about our modern day Santa with flying reindeer and incredibly chimney skills? After the Protestant Reformation, most of Protestant Europe decided to shut down the Saint Nicholas Day tradition (most reformers and puritans were not fans of Santa Claus or celebrating Christmas for that matter). However, the Dutch did not give it up so easily. If you enjoy the modern day Santa Claus, and his charity through chimneys then you have the Dutch to thank. They shortened the name Saint Nicholas to Sinterklaas (say that fast) and decided that he traveled by horseback with a helper who would visit homes via the chimney. As the Dutch began to slowly head on over to the New World they brought their Sinterklaas tradition with them, and a couple centuries later in 1823 a poem entitled “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written and the modern day Santa Claus was born.
Christianity vs Clause
Should we as Christians embrace the modern day Santa Claus or avoid him at all costs? That is for you to decide. Either way, it would be beneficial to highlight the true character of the real Saint Nicholas as much or more so than the fantastical character of the famed Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas was a gracious and generous man because he served a gracious and generous God. Sure he might have gifted some stuff in little boys boots, but he would have never intended to overshadow the gifting of our Savior in a little baby’s body. So celebrate this season with whatever traditions you wish, but remember, Christmas is about God, the Giver and the Gift.