Saturday, December 20, 2008

Santa Claus: Christian, Pagan, or Both?

Most of us would be amazed at the way many of our traditions have evolved to their present practices. In North America, many of our traditions have been handed down to us from our European forebears -- and in recent years, many of the American permutations of those traditions have made their way back to the old country.
Most historians agree that the legend of what Americans call Santa Claus comes from Nicholas, the 4th-century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He is believed to have been extraordinarily kind and generous, so it is not surprising that his persona spawned many different legends and mixed with other historic and mythical figures. In much of Western Europe, St. Nicholas is still portrayed in his flowing bishop's robes.
It was primarily the Dutch who imported the tradition of Sinter Klaas to the colony of New Amsterdam, now New York City, in the 17th century. To this day, the Dutch and Belgians celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6, with the exchange of gifts and other centuries-old traditions (many of which come from early pagan myths, such as Sinter Klaas arriving on a flying white horse). Following the Reformation, German Protestants preferred the veneration of the Christkindl (Christ Child) on his own feast day, Dec. 25. The Nicholas figure would not die easily, however, and his celebration was eventually attached to the Dec. 25 holiday. The term Christkindl eventually evolved to Kriss Kringle, another name for Santa Claus.
In the United States, it was the popular writer Washington Irving who first explained the Dutch tradition to the American people in his History of New York (1809). But St. Nick became a full-fledged American icon with the publication of the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" -- more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas," by Clement Clarke Moore. Amazing, the effects of a single poem.
It's easy to see why we are so confused in our Christmas celebrations today. Now that my children are grown, I sometimes wonder how they arrived at any true understanding of Christmas. I also now wonder what I will tell my yet-to-be-born grandchildren. Even what Christians today consider to be a 'pure' Christmas celebration is often riddled with extra-Biblical tradition and conjecture.
Yes, I enjoy the warm fuzzies of the Christmas season, to a degree. But when all is said and done, one thing I know: Santa Claus -- or even St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, can't redeem this sinner's life.
And that's what I'll tell my grandchildren, if nothing else.


Yolanda said...

Thank you for your review . As a comment just wanted to share that Catholics also celebrate St. Nicholas Day on Dec 6th. Not just Germans and Belgians =)
God Bless

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Thanks for the link. The Orthodox celebrate St. Nicholas' feast day to this day. He is a very revered saint, and many, many, Orthodox name their children after him. At our church, if one were to call out , "Nick!", a fourth of the congregation would respond!

Let me point out another nice coincidence. Today at liturgy, the very same icon of St. Nicholas you featured in your article was displayed in our Church.