Santa Claus: Saviour, Warrior, Protector?
Christians have three options when it comes to culture, including culture’s approach to Christmas. We can reject it and try to have no part with it, segregating ourselves. We can receive it and accept it as good. We can redeem it, seeking to transform what we can for good without necessarily endorsing the whole.
Since Santa and Father Christmas are pervasive in our culture it is nearly impossible to reject them outright, especially in terms of our children’s experience at school and nursery and among friends. They are here to stay. That does not mean as parents we can only receive the entirety blindly. The third option is to redeem.
Fact that is better than fiction
The historical roots of Santa Claus are one example of redeeming Christmas. The historical roots behind today’s Santa only increase our children’s excitement and thrill at Christmas. The facts are better than the fiction – by a mile!
We have told our kids these true stories behind the ‘mythical’ Santa Claus. We play-act his heroic deeds, wonder about his motivations, draw pictures of ‘Santa Claus’ not bearded and jolly, but facing danger and saving people and helping others – the true Santa Claus. And of course talk about how that original man was driven to such acts because Jesus was his forever king.
So who was the original Santa Claus?
The Truth about Santa Claus
Santa Claus was a real person, though many of the aspects of today’s character have been added such as the flying reindeer, living in the North Pole, and delivering presents to every child in one night. Today’s Santa is a combination of a true man and some mythical extras.
The myths surrounding Santa Claus derive from the very real person of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was born in the third century in Patara, Turkey to an affluent family. When young his parents died tragically but had raised him as a Christian, which led him to spend his significant inheritance helping the poor. He frequently gave gifts to children, sometimes even hanging socks filled with treats and presents.
A Courageous Leader
As an adult he was a well-loved Christian leader, eventually voted the Bishop of Myra, a port city Paul visited (Acts 27:5-6). Nicholas reportedly also travelled to the legendary Council of Nicaea to defend the deity of Jesus Christ in A.D. 325. He died on December 6, 343 and was canonized as a saint. The anniversary of his death became the St. Nicholas holiday when gifts were given in his memory. He remained a very popular saint among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Some two thousand churches were or are named after him. The holiday in his honour eventually merged with Christmas and moved to December 25th.
A Freedom Bringing Saviour
Nicholas also risked his own life and freedom intervening to rescue young girls and women from being forced into the sex trade. One story records how he saved three sisters by secretly placing gold coins in their stockings, hung out to dry, until they had accumulated enough money to buy their freedom. Their ‘owners’, knowing their example might encourage other girls to do the same, them sort to imprison then. Nicholas led a group of men in a midnight raid, freeing the girls and paying for them to begin a new life elsewhere.
A Forgotten Hero
During the Reformation Nicholas fell out of favour with Protestants who did not accept canonising certain people. In Holland his legend as Sinterklass lived on though most countries gradually forgot him. In Germany, Martin Luther replaced him with the ‘Christ-child’ as the object of holiday celebration called ‘Christkindl’. This became pronounced Kris Kringle and became another name for Santa Claus.
Legends became attached to this historical figure.
There was a myth in Nicholas’ day that a demon was entering people’s homes to terrorize children and that Nicholas could cast him out. There was a Siberian myth (isn’t that near the North Pole?) that a magical-shaman entered people’s homes through their chimneys to leave them mushrooms as gifts. He would hang them in front of the fire to dry where reindeer would eat them and become intoxicated. The shaman and his deer were believed in be able to fly. Hence our modern image of Santa Claus traveling from the North Pole to slide down chimneys and leave presents on fireplaces before flying away with reindeer.
Redeeming Santa Claus
The real Saint Nick was a wonderful man who loved Jesus and served him faithfully, generously and bravely. We do not need to reject Santa Claus nor receive him as culture as defined him. We can and should redeem him, especially for our children as he points to Jesus and true devotion to Jesus. It’s a true story of a great Christian full of adventure and fun and victory – what child won’t enjoy that Christmas reality told them?
How Santa Claus became Father Christmas is a whole other story more to do with popular fizzy drinks and an emerging market of teenagers in the mid-20th century!
*Edited version of an article I first wrote December 2012.