by ProfDave, ©2020
(Dec. 18, 2020) — Some years ago I did a little not-too-professional research on why we give at Christmastime. I say not-too-professional not only because the internet sites used are not-too-scholarly but because nobody knows for sure. The general practice of exchanging presents or giving to the poor has long been a way of celebrating a glad occasion. It seems that at the Roman holiday of Kalends (early January) the Emperor Caligula required symbolic gifts of homage from his high officials. “Caesar is Lord!” With the conversion of Constantine, the Emperor stopped pretending to be god. “Jesus is Lord!” So Jesus should get the presents, right? There is also an old tradition that it was the Christ Child who brought presents – that’s what Kris Kringle originally meant [“Christmas Presents”]. These traditions tend to be mingled and mixed with another strand of stories surrounding legendary giver-bishop (St.) Nicholas of Myrna, whom we commemorate on December 6.
The commercialization of Christmas actually began early in the 19th century with Christmas advertising. Santa Claus appeared in the 1840’s and Macy’s New York started staying open until midnight Christmas Eve in 1867 [Sarah Dowdey].
“Yes, Virginia, there is a real Santa Claus.” I came to believe in Santa late in life, and in an unorthodox, de-mythologized manner. My parents did not believe in Santa Claus and had conscientious problems teaching me about him. At some point I would lose my faith in Santa and they did not want me to lose my faith in the Christ child at the same time. Frankly, to them Mr. Claus was the icon of Mammon, the commercial rival of Christ. “Keep Christ in Christmas!” This left me the only smug unbeliever in first grade, exposed to proselytizing teachers, peers, and some relatives.
As parents, Marie and I emphasized the much more wonderful meaning of the Savior’s birth. We celebrated with singing carols, a birthday cake for Jesus and a reading of the original Christmas story before “the tree.” Santa Claus was a historical person whose real name was St. Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He lived long ago and is now in Heaven – not the North Pole. He loved His Lord very much and gave gifts secretly, as he believed Jesus taught. He would be horrified to know that we now give gifts in his name, by the way. He represents the spirit of Christmas and secret, selfless, giving. Our kids were both “naughty and nice” without being blackmailed by “the list,” but no telling what consternation they caused at school!
What has Santa Claus to do with Christmas? It is a long story! Little has survived of the records of early Christianity except the Bible, but we know that the original St. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, a Greek port in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), at the time of his death on December 6, AD 343 and that he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. Before that, tradition tells us he was imprisoned and exiled under the Emperor Diocletian before Christianity became legal under Constantine. His wealthy Christian parents died of a plague when he was young, and, like St. Francis a millennium later, he gave his inheritance away to the poor and was legendary for his concern for children and sailors. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that we should not give alms in such a way as to be seen by others. The good Bishop took this literally, we are told, sneaking about at night tossing gold into windows and down chimneys (!). Some of which reportedly was found in shoes and stockings left drying on the hearth (!). Not sure such chimneys and stockings had been invented yet, but the medieval mind – through whom the traditions came – tended to translate the past into their present terms. I rather think he must have had a great time doing it, but he must have gotten caught, or there would be no basis for the legends [“Who is St. Nicholas?”].
In Germanic and Nordic Europe St. Nicholas was transformed over a thousand years into Sinterklaas, a semi-Roman Catholic saint, semi-mythical spirit who traveled about on foot on St. Nicholas Eve (not Christmas) with his black assistant, Zwarte Piet – a Moorish touch perhaps. He wore a red cape, bishop’s headdress, and carried a golden bishop’s staff. He gave treats to good children and took the bad ones away to (Moorish) Spain. Elsewhere, Pére Noël (France) and Father Christmas (Britain) emerged to represent the spirit of Christmas and giving more directly linked with December 25. Under Communism, he was renamed Father Frost [Anise Hollingshead].
Sinterklaas came to America with the Dutch settlers of New York. “St. A. Claus” appeared in print in 1773. Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809) has him arriving on horseback on St. Nicholas Eve (without Zwarte Piet). Santa took on his modern Christmas Eve form in the 1823 poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” or “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Now he was no longer an eastern bishop, but an elf with sleigh and flying reindeer (from Lapland?). An elf? Elves were a race of demi-gods from Germanic and Norse mythology – comparable to angels, good and evil – revived and miniaturized by Romantic novelists. The picture was completed by cartoonist Thomas Nast (Harpers Magazine, 1860’s-80’s) and Coca Cola advertising (in the 1930’s) – no longer an elf but in charge of elves. Rudolph was invented by Montgomery Ward’s in 1939. More recently Santa quit smoking the pipe [Brian Dodd].
What has Santa Claus to do with Christmas? Not a great deal, directly, in his modern commercial and completely secularized form. While no pagan contribution is alleged, he is really an advertising gimmick – like the Abraham Lincoln who sells used cars in February. The name is Christian, the day is Christian, and the giving to the poor and to the children is certainly Christian. Secret giving is uniquely Christian. But the greed and the materialism certainly are pure evil, no matter what your faith! St. Nicholas is tired of turning over in his grave! All he wanted was for Christ to get the credit and to have a little fun on the side. Even “the list” is questionable. The message of Christmas is that God’s naughty children – all of us – have been given a Savior! Let’s restore the real St. Nicholas!
“Christmas Presents,” Christmas-time.com, retrieved 12/4/11 from http://www.christmas-time.com/cp-presents.html
Brian Dodd, “American Origins” Quote from ENCARTA 95. Retrieved 12/8/11 from http://www.the-north-pole.com/history
Sarah Dowdey, “How Christmas Works,” How Stuff Works.com, retrieved 12/4/11 from http://www.people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays/christmas2.htm
Anise Hollingshead, “St. Nicholas: The Story of Santa Clause,”Kaboose.com, retrieved 12/8/11 from http://holidays.kaboose.com/christmas/traditions/st-nicholas/xmas-around-stnicholas.html
“Who is St. Nicholas?,” St. Nicholas Center, Retrieved 12/8/11 from http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.