Santa Claus is definitely more popular than Jesus. Whether people want to admit it or not, he's just as much the face of Christmas as Jesus, if not more-so. From cartoons to songs to the type of decorations people place in their yards, Santa dominates the scene. People who don't even believe in Jesus still celebrate Christmas and play Santa for their kids. There are no alternative names to differentiate between Santa's holiday and Jesus' birth. Santa and Christmas are completely intertwined to the point that people say things like "the kids missed Christmas" or they have to "do Christmas for the kids." It seems to me that during this season Santa has replaced Jesus. So, let’s talk about the man in red, where he came from, and the problems that arise from believing in him.
Who Is Santa?
Most people know that the character of Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas. The Catholic Church canonizes people it thinks show exemplary character and thence forth they are referred to as Saint Whomever, which means the man snatching the spotlight, was created by the same church that is supposed to be worshiping and proclaiming Jesus as the Son of the Most High. Santa Claus is named after a man who was, in fact, exalted by the Catholic Church. St. Nicholas is the Catholic Church's patron saint of bakers and pawnbrokers (which sounds a lot like the greek gods being over a particular area of life, but that's a post for another day). The feast meant to venerate this saint occurs on December 6 (please note that worship is listed as a synonym for venerate).
While this may be the reason many Christians see no harm in teaching their children to write wish lists to and leave out cookies for Santa Claus, it actually makes the truth more disheartening because you're venerating (i.e. worshiping) someone other than God at the bidding of the church meant to steer you toward Him.
Names of Santa
One of the points I make in my post
St. Nicholas/St. Nick
St. Nicholas was probably the first name attached to the myth, and as I've already mentioned, it is the name of the person the persona of Santa Claus is based upon. The real St. Nicholas was born in Turkey around 280 AD and grew up to be a Christian bishop in a city called Myra (now known as Demre). It is said that he was very active in helping the poor. He died on December 6, 343 AD and was subsequently declared a saint by the Catholic church. His death was commemorated by the annual feast of St. Nicholas, which took place on his death date. On this day, children would leave out their shoes in anticipation of receiving gifts from St. Nicholas. Though many Protestants reject the idea of honoring saints (rightly so, as the Bible never shows God's people exalting the dead, or you know, anyone other than God), the Dutch continued the tradition and brought it to America.
The Dutch name for St. Nicholas was Sint Nikolass, which was shorted to Sinter Klaas. This eventually morphed into the name Santa Claus.
Interestingly in Spanish, the word "saint" is translated as san (masculine) or santa (feminine). For instance, St. John becomes San John and St. Teresa becomes Santa Teresa. One person uses this to accuse Santa Claus of being a cross-dresser. While the connection is humorous, the fact that the name has Dutch origins and not Spanish origins renders Spanish translations both inaccurate and invalid.
Santa Claus, or the shortened Santa, is probably the most common name in the United States.
The name Kris Kringle, which comes from the Swiss and German, translates to Christ child (suspicious, right?) and was actually attached to a separate entity originally. This name was used to identify a sidekick (described as angel-like) that accompanied Santa Claus on his rounds.
Father Christmas, another name for Santa Claus, though a little less common—at least in the area I'm from. This name comes to us from England; "Father Christmas" was said to fill stockings with gifts on Christmas Eve.
Of all the names, I think this one bothers me most. Yes, calling someone who is not Christ "Christ child," as is the case with Kris Kringle, is erring on the side of blasphemy, but most people, I would wager, don't know what they are saying. While I'm sure God is still less than amused, at least it is not a deliberate snub to God. Using the term "Father Christmas" to refer to Santa Claus means you are deliberately and willfully denying and mocking the one true God.
And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.
We are told to call no man father but the Father in heaven. On top of being explicitly forbidden to call this man father, it is illogical. If Christmas is about Christ, the father of the holiday would either be Christ, the reason for the holiday, or God, the Father of all and Father of Christ who we would be honoring. How can a fictional man in a red suit be the father of holiday meant for Jesus? Either the holiday was never meant for Jesus or Santa is not the father of Christmas.
Inspiration from a Witch?
As you can probably guess, the myth of Santa we have today is a conglomeration of many myths, legends, and fables. One such example in Italy, is likely how we came to believe Santa enters homes via a chimney. La Befana, per the Italian legend, was a good witch who flew down the chimney to deliver gifts. In addition, La Befana's backstory suggests the reason for her doing this is that she is seeking the baby Jesus. She is said to make her rounds on the night before the Epiphany.
Epiphany takes place on January 6, and is a holiday still observed in Italy (schools, government agencies, etc. are all closed on this day). The holiday is meant to commemorate the divinity of Christ with respect to wise men visiting Him and bestowing upon Him gifts. Of course, this takes us back to the question of dates—January 6 is just the other contested date for Christmas. Likely people in the East didn’t want to give up their tradition so the Catholic Church dubbed it the Feast of Epiphany and claimed it was related to the wise men visiting. Matthew 2 tells us it may have been as long as 2 years after His birth that they showed up. La Befana is just as popular as Santa Claus in Italy.
If you're an avid reader of your Bible, then you know that in Exodus 22:18, God tells the Israelites that they are not to allow witches to live. In Galatians 5:19-21 witchcraft is listed as an abomination and we are told those practicing such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God. So, we've gone from teaching the children to stay away from witchcraft, to exalting and celebrating something God clearly didn't approve of.
The legend and tradition of Santa Claus gained popularity through a poem and the story of Rudolph. In 1822, Clement Clark Moore wrote the ever popular poem, "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" which is more commonly known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas." After publishing the poem, Thomas Nast put a face the man in the rhyme. Mr. Nast is credited with inventing the red coat, elves, and Mrs. Claus. In 1939, another poet invented Rudolph to gain business. Shortly after a song was written and recorded by Gene Autry, which only garnered more popularity for the myth.
A Harmless Lie?
Most people think Santa is just a harmless tale meant to bring children fun and joy during the holidays. Well, Eve thought it was harmless to eat the forbidden fruit and look where we are…
I once was a child, I grew up with parents who played Santa, and I got excited about Christmas every year. My excitement had nothing to do with Jesus; despite the words that came out of my parents mouthes, my church families' mouthes, and my own mouth, the reason I couldn't sleep on Christmas Eve was because I was excited about the gifts I would find under the tree. The reason I woke up at 5 or 6am ready to go was because I wanted to open those gifts. In fact, it probably wasn't until the newness of said gifts wore off that I thought about Jesus again.
On the once popular show "7th Heaven," there is an episode that follows the youngest member of the family's discovery that Santa isn't real. Upon realizing her parents lied to her about Santa, she doubts that God exists as well. While I never went through this phase, many children do in fact doubt God's existence after learning Santa isn't real. Further, parents are lying (bearing false witness, and thus breaking a commandment) and inadvertently teaching their children that lying is ok. After all, our parents lied and it worked, why shouldn't we?
Then there is the message we internalized: "be good to receive." Sure, Jesus promises us our reward for being obedient believers, but this reward will be in Heaven waiting on us. We aren't to be obedient Christians because we want the latest iPhone, we are to be obedient Christians because we love God. Furthermore, after being rewarded with mountains of gifts for behaving as a child (which is significantly harder once puberty's hormones and teenage peer pressure kick in), having no physical reward for your obedience to God may be disheartening. As a child with "Santa," you managed to not show off in the store and keep your room clean, so you wake up on Christmas day with the all these wonderful toys you asked for and a brand new bicycle. However, as a teenager, you listen to God (and probably your parents) and abstain from sex and drugs, but you won't be rewarded with popularity. Now that you have no use for toys the best your parents can do is buy you a car, but then you have no friends to hang out with so it doesn't turn out the way you thought it would. While I firmly believe that throughout life you are rewarded for the good you do, rewards don't pay out in a clockwork fashion like a paycheck. You may be rewarded instantaneously, or ten years laters, so why form the habit of reaping the benefits on a set day?
As I said, I was a child; I remember the excitement, but there are many alternatives that don't involve turning our backs on Jesus. Just as God rewards us at what seems to us like sporadic and spontaneous intervals, why can't we do that to our children? Instead of giving a child a mountain of gifts once a year, why not do spontaneous gift giving. Perhaps one week your child ate all of his vegetables, cleaned his room, and aced a test. Maybe one night at the end of the week you buy him the video game he's been dying for, tip toe into his room and leave it on his nightstand for him to find when he wakes up the next morning. With these gifts, you would leave a note confirming the behavior you are rewarding so that the child knows what he is being rewarded for. Can you imagine knowing that at any given time, simply being good could mean you wake up to a surprise? Wouldn't that be exciting too? It wouldn't always need to be monetary and it wouldn't always need to be wrapped. Maybe the reward is letting him choose what you watch on TV or a trip to the park/zoo/etc. Just like people do coupon books for gifts, maybe the surprise is a "get out of washing dishes free" coupon or something of the sort. My point is, you don't need a fat man in a red suit to encourage children to be good or to make them happy.
Other Posts in this Series
- "St. Nicholas". Catholic Online. 2015
- "Venerate". Merriam Webster. 2015
- Moody, Steve. "Names of God". Life, Hope, and Truth. 2015
- A&E Television Networks. "St. Nicholas Biography". Biography.com Website. 2015
- "Saint in Spanish". SpanishDict.com. 2015
- "Is Christmas Christian?". Presents of God Ministries. 2015
- "History of Santa Claus". History. 2015
- "The Legend of ‘La Befana’". John D Calandra Italian American Institute. 2000
- "Epiphany". Time and Date. 2015