In the spirit of deconstructing the holidays (it’s not become a tradition, if you should think that I’ve gone that far, but it is one of the luxuries that we have since we are without children yet), my wife and I talk about how some of these vestiges of Christmas are not understood, and perhaps more importantly, how these cultural stories cloak the true celebration of the birth of Christ in an increasingly anti-Christian society.
We seem to free associate these notions of goodwill and cheer while withholding the fact that we needed and still need a Savior. In our conversations, my wife picked on Santa Claus as one of these such diversions from the birth of Jesus and made the point, “When children find out that Santa isn’t real, and they associate it with Christmas, how much more does that cloud up the notion of Jesus being real?” While Christ Mass is being relegated to one of the many religious holidays that take place at this time of year, I think it is important to bring out the case where we should make the case out of such pluralism, the original story of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, directly reflects a person and faith of Jesus Christ, and is not American nor commercial. Here is where we can develop the narrative of Christmas and re-infuse it with meaning that speaks against the postmodern tendency to re-invent, re-create, and ultimately forget who we are and where we came from. The power of telling story comes from our ability as Christians to re-tell the story.
The notion that God empowered us with a memory is I believe the stake in Nietzsche’s heart, that we will never be satisfied as a vegetable or a cow. Our lives have profound meaning and we live desperately like it matters. I learned this important lesson under the pastorhood of Stephen Mansfield of the Mansfield Group. In his blog, he posts this story of the real Santa Claus. So enjoy the read, and put the “holy” back in holidays.
Nicholas was born of wealthy parents in Patara of Lycia, in what is today the nation of
Turkey. He was converted to Christianity early in his life and during the persecutions under the Roman Emperor Diocletian he was imprisoned. Though thousands of believers were martyred, Nicholas was miraculously released. Following a trip to the Holy Land, Nicholas settled in Myra, a city near his native Patara, where he became a pastor and then the Bishop. He was probably involved in the Council of Nicea of 325 A.D. which gave the Church the Nicene Creed.
Not long after becoming a Bishop, Nicholas learned of a sailor whose three daughters were doomed to a life of prostitution and degradation because their father could not afford a dowry for them. Nicholas secretly gave the sailor three bags of gold to serve as the girl’s dowries. This act of kindness became widely known and with his evangelistic success and the many miracles he was believed to have performed, Nicholas became immensely popular among all classes of believers.
When he died, the church established December 6 as St. Nicholas day. Traditionally, on this day the Bishops of the church would go around their cities in full vestments giving gifts to children and doing acts of charity. This practice continued for many centuries and, eventually, Christians merged St. Nicholas day with Christmas because many of the traditions were the same.
It was the Dutch who first brought their “Sinterklaus,” Dutch for St. Nicholaus, to America. However, some very dramatic changes took place to make Santa Clause the secular figure of magical powers with whom we are so familiar today.
Late in the 1800’s, there was a very famous German cartoonist living in America whose name was Thomas Nast. His political cartoons gave us the symbols of the Democratic elephant and Republican donkey and he even helped to expose the corrupt politicians of Tamany Hall. In one of his cartoons, he included his conception of Santa Claus, a happy fellow had a big beard, a fur lined suit and a pipe of curling smoke. This vision of Santa Claus has stuck with Americans ever since.
Several additional sources converged to produce the modern American elf. The most famous source is a poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, which you probably know by its first line “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Moore. Thomas Nast knew of this poem and probably relied on it in his drawings. Moore wrote the poem in 1823 to encourage his sick child and from it we get the picture of a jolly, fat man in a red suit sliding down a chimney and putting presents around a tree.
The other source is, surprisingly, from the myths of Thor, the Norse thunder god. Strange as it may sound, the godly old bishop St. Nicholas was merged in the mind of some with a pagan god. This explains why certain traditions hold that Santa Claus has magic powers and it also accounts for the flying sleigh with flying reindeer. And think of the names of some of the reindeer: Vixen, Donner, Blitzen, Cupid. These names are from pagan mythology and they show an unrighteous influence in the myths that have arisen about Santa Claus.
Despite what has been added to the story of Santa Claus, the real St. Nicholas was a godly pastor in ancient Turkey who loved his flock so much and cared for them so tenderly that his memory is kept alive among Christians even to this day. His memory is one we can welcome to our Christmas celebrations.