What to Do With Santa Claus
By Rev. Mark H. Creech
How should Christians deal with the Santa Claus phenomena? Is Santa harmless or hell spawn? Is the jolly old elf in the red suit pure paganism foisted on an unsuspecting populace? Or does he have Christian roots?
Some may find this hard to believe, but Santa is based partially on Christian principles and the example of a great Christian man. In his book, Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, Ace Collins traces Santa back to St. Nicolas of Bari. Nicholas, born in the fourth century, was the son of wealthy parents. When they died, he took all of the family's money and distributed it to the poor. He became a monk when he was still in his teens and, sometime later, a priest. After being chosen to become the archbishop of Myra, Collins says he "seemed to take on almost mythical heroic qualities." Saint Nicholas was highly revered for being a great prayer warrior, saving many lives, healing the sick, and magnificent generosity.
When St. Nicholas died in the late 340s or early 350s on December 6, his passing was commemorated with an annual feast. On St. Nicholas Eve, the children would place food out for Nicholas and straw for his donkey. It was said the bishop would then come from heaven, unbeknownst to them during the night, and replace the gifts of good boys and girls with toys and sweets.
In time, various derivations of Saint Nicholas evolved. In Germany, he became "Weinachtsmann" (Christmas man). Interestingly, he worked as a helper to the Christ child and together they distributed gifts to the children. "Pe're Noel" replaced St. Nicholas in France. He supposedly placed gifts of cakes, cookies and candies in the children's shoes. Nicholas became "Father Frost" in Russia. He distributed gifts in January when the Russian church observed Christmas. In England, Nicholas became "Father Christmas." Surprisingly he was a tall, thin man, who had a long beard and large sack of toys.
Collins writes: "After the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the veneration of Catholic saints was banned in Germany and England. But people had become accustomed to the annual visit from the gift-giving saint and didn't want to forget the purpose of the holiday. So in some countries the orders of the church were defied, and the festivities of St. Nicholas's Day were merged with Christmas celebrations."
This practice also spread to the New World, specifically New York, which was originally established as New Amsterdam by the Dutch. Eventually St. Nicholas became known as Santa Claus because English-speaking children in New York had difficulty saying the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, "Sinterklaas." They would say it so quickly it came out sounding like "Santy Claus." After several years of mispronunciation, St. Nicholas ultimately evolved into the Americanized "Santa Claus."
Since the fateful decision to merge the celebration of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) with Christmas, many Christians have struggled with Santa's horning in on the holiday. From their arrival to North American shores, the Puritans made it illegal to even mention St. Nicholas's name. Today most Christians don't feel anywhere near that strongly about excluding Ole St. Nick. Most have special childhood memories associated with the anticipation of Santa's arrival on Christmas Eve. And they would like very much to offer these same joyous holiday memories to their own children. But they are also rightly concerned about linking Santa Claus, who is now nothing but a mythical figure, with the reality of the baby Jesus who was born in Bethlehem of Judea. They have good reason to fear they may weaken the validity of the Christmas story by mixing it with fantasy.
So this is the quandary -- Santa is magical and tremendous fun for children, but he could also be confusing for them. What are Christian parents to do?
I personally believe this is a judgment call to be made by parents. Kim (my wife) and I chose to play the "Santa game" with our children, and we had no difficulties in teaching them about the reality of Jesus. However, other Christian families have said they regret having mixed the two.
Although I doubt it will be taken seriously, a happy compromise for Christian parents who want to have Santa, but don't want him associated with the birth of Jesus, might be to move the day when Santa visits. He could visit sometime before or after Christmas. In my opinion, the critical time occurred when St. Nicholas's visit was moved from December 6 to Christmas. I don't think there should be any problem with a make-believe custom about St. Nicholas bringing gifts on his own day. However, numerous Christians have a major problem with associating St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) with Christmas Day.
Whatever Christian parents decide about Santa Claus, one thing is for certain. The real meaning of Christmas needs to be stressed over and again to children. Santa is not Christmas and Christmas is not Santa. In fact, they need to be told that even the heart and spirit of Santa were inspired by the love and generosity of Christians like St. Nicholas. Moreover, it should be stressed that each gift the man in the red suit gives is a living testament to that "unspeakable gift" God gave in His Son to redeem us from our sins.