PREFACE: There are great Christian families on both sides of the Santa issue. This blog post is about how our family handles the concept of Santa.
As parents, Julie and I had to decide several years ago what we were going to do with Santa. In the interest of full disclosure – we don’t tell our children that a heavy-set guy with a long white beard is going to magically come into our home on Christmas Eve and bring them free gifts. Here’s why. When I was a kid, I never could sleep on Christmas Eve. I wanted to hear the reindeer on my roof! I couldn’t get over the magic of how Santa could be at the mall, and make it over to Hill’s Department store so quickly. Yet there were rumors that Santa wasn’t real and parents were actually the ones who bought the gifts. Also, I noticed that Santa brought me, an only child, really big and awesome gifts, while my little cousins in a large family down the street only got a few toys. I assumed, of course, they were just really bad kids.
I discovered the truth about Santa around age 8 when I figured I could get to the bottom of the rumors. I told the “Mall Santa” that I wanted all G.I. Joe toys, while telling my parents that I wanted He-Man action figures. When I woke up on Christmas morning, the tree was surrounded with a set of toys that would make Castle Grey Skull proud. The myth was over and my parents were busted. I was disappointed, but I couldn’t wait to go tell my cousins that they weren’t that bad after all!
So what does a Christian parent do with this massive character that’s all over our culture called Santa Claus? What about this religious tradition of celebrating Christ’s birth? How do we avoid developing materialistic children and lying to our kids?
WELL…our conclusion was to do our best to redeem Santa. We teach our kids the stories about St. Nicholas. He was a Pastor just like dad, he did some great things, and most importantly, he loved Jesus.
The late 200’s and early 300’s were an important time in church history. It was during this time that Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire and ultimately became the state religion. It was also during this period that the heretic Arius had developed a significant following in Alexandria and he was teaching that Jesus was not fully God. It was at this time God raised up Athanasius of Alexandria to defend the Deity of Christ, which also led to the council of Nicaea in 325 where the Church came together to formulate a confession on the Deity of Christ.
In attendance at that Council of Nicaea was a Bishop from Myra in Lycia named Nicholas. This Nicholas cast his vote affirming his belief that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh. Like most of the pastors in attendance, Nicholas had suffered persecution for his faith. He had been imprisoned for preaching Jesus and he had been exiled. It was said that the vast majority of the men in attendance at the council of Nicaea were missing limbs and/or were blind, having been tortured for preaching Jesus.
Nicholas was born March 15, 270 AD to a Greek Family in Patara, a village in what is now Turkey. He became the Bishop of Myra in Lycia. Both Patara and Myra were cities visited by Paul during his missionary journeys (Acts 21 & 27).
Nicholas had been born into a wealthy family, but lost his parents to a plague when he was a young child. During a trip to Jerusalem, Nicholas was converted and ultimately leveraged his inherited wealth on behalf of the poor children of his homeland. According to theresurgence.com, “He was known to frequently give gifts to children, sometimes even hanging socks filled with treats and gifts. Perhaps his most famous act of kindness was helping three sisters. Because their family was too poor to pay for their wedding dowry, three young Christian women were facing a life of prostitution until Nicholas paid their dowry, thereby saving them from a horrible life of sexual slavery.”
Because he pastored in a seaport community, he became very popular among the Greek and Italian sailors. He was their pastor. Keep in mind that most of these sailors had worshiped the pagan Roman and Greek gods, so they were accustomed to praying to Poseidon prior to conversion. It was very common for converted Christians to replace their pagan traditions with Christian substitutes. Nicholas became the replacement for Poseidon and a type of Patron Saint for Sailors.
In the late 1100’s, the Catholic Church began to officially recognize Sainthood. It was after this that Nicholas was officially declared a Saint. Dec. 6th became the day when the Catholic Church celebrated Saint Nicholas. It really had nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but rather a celebration of this man Saint Nicolas the Bishop of Myra. Dec. 6th was a kid’s favorite holiday. That is, when parents would hide toys in the kids’ wooden shoes if they were Dutch and in their stockings if they were German.
What does that have to do with Jesus’ birth?
Celebrating births was not a tradition in early Greco-Roman cultures. So, for the first few hundred years of the early church, no mention was made of a celebration of the birth of Christ. According to Clement of Alexandria (200AD), several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar].”
However, the leading theory as to why it was celebrated on Dec. 25 is as follows:
- The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December
- Barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times
- To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of on December 25
- January 6th, the day the Epiphany, was also celebrated as early as the 4th century
Thus, December 25 seemed to be a good move for the church to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
During the Reformation, however, Nicholas fell out of favor with Protestants, who did not approve of canonizing certain people as saints and venerating them with holidays. Over the next few hundred years, the desire of people to celebrate Saint Nicholas wouldn’t go away. The Protestant Church was divided on whether or not to celebrate Christmas. You see, the idea of Sola Scriptura tells us that Scripture is the source of faith and practice. It doesn’t tell us to remember the Birth of Jesus, but rather his death (through communion).
The Puritans in Boston in the 17th Century would fine you 5 shillings if you said, “St. Nicholas”. You would even be fined for singing a Christmas Carol! But this celebrating just wouldn’t stop.
As a result, the Puritans in America began to combine St. Nicholas Day and Christmas together, but they would often celebrate on Christmas EVE rather than Christmas Day. That is why to this day many people exchange gifts the day before Christmas and most Protestant churches have Christmas EVE celebrations rather than Christmas Day celebrations. So there you see how St. Nicholas Day and Christmas sort of merged on December 25 over time. Additionally, about 100 years ago, department stores began to recognize that there was great opportunity for a market in the holiday of Christmas. They began holding grand Pageants and making it a bigger and bigger deal.
Various Secular Traditions that Merged into Dec. 25th
SANTA – Dutch Immigrants came over with the tradition of St. Nicholas (Sinterkaus in Dutch) visiting children. The Germans, however, had a tradition that Christ Kindle (The Christ Child) would do the same thing… bring gifts to kids. The British changed it to Father Christmas. But they were all trying to react against Catholicism.
In America it all got muddled together. What we practice today is the combination of a lot of different traditions that have melted together.
CHRISTMAS TREE – In the 700’s, St. Boniface was a missionary from England sent to the Germanic tribes to teach them about Jesus. When he arrived, he discovered a practice where they would sacrifice slaves on a great Oak called the, “Oak of Thor”. In an attempt to show them the falsehood of their doctrine, he took an axe and began to chop down the oak of Thor… suddenly a great wind came up and blew the tree over. It was perceived as a miracle and ultimately the people began to convert to Christianity.
Boniface did what many missionaries did during that period. Rather than eradicate the traditions of people on the mission field, they would replace them with a Christian alternative. This is similar to what we do as a Protestant church with Parent/Child Dedication.
There was a long standing tradition of evergreen firs symbolizing life because they don’t go dormant in the winter. Remember that 1000 years ago winter was a very scary thing. People died every winter because they froze to death or they ran out of food. So it was common in the winter for people to desire to have evergreens close to their home to remind them of life. He used the triangular shape to symbolize the Trinity. The Germans would cut down fir trees and bring them into their homes and hang them upside down to point to the Godhead.
What does our family to do redeem Santa?
- We honor the man Nicholas and talk a lot about how much Santa (Nicholas) loved Jesus.
- As a church, we have the Christmas Eve Service, where we take communion, read the Christmas story, and all go eat Chinese food afterward (long story).
- We watch the Nativity movie.
- We decorate in a way that reminds our family of the reason for the season.