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The Origin of Santa Claus and the Christian Response to Him
By Dr. Richard P. Bucher
It's my turn to author an article that claims to penetrate the dark and obscure recesses of the origin of Santa Claus. How shall we understand the Santa Claus phenomenon? Is it pure paganism foisted upon an unsuspecting populace? Is Santa Satan in disguise (there is after all, the same letters in both names, as some guardians of all that is good remind us). Or is Santa a Christian after all, since he really is St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop of the fourth century? So which is it? Is Santa Claus harmless or hellspawn or something in between? Though knowing his origin can't decide all these questions, it still is an important point of departure.
Actually, the truth of the matter is that the modern Santa Claus is a conglomeration of sources, a legendary being that has evolved over the years. Along the way, pre-Christian legends, the story of St. Nicholas, Dutch immigrants to America, Washington Irving, Clement Moore, Thomas Nast, and the Coca-Cola company, all made their contributions.
The Saint Nicholas Connection
It is well known that the name "Santa Claus" comes to us by way of the Dutch "Sinter Klaas," which in turn, was a form of Saint Nicholas. Our modern Santa Claus took his name from the Christian Saint Nicholas so we need to begin with a look at this Christian bishop of the fourth century.
Throughout history Nicholas of Myra (d. 350) has been one of the most beloved saints even apart from the Santa Claus context. In fact, George McKnight claims that both in the eastern and western Church, Nicholas is "the object of extreme veneration, to a degree unequaled in the case of any other saint."1 The first historical record of his veneration is the fact that the emperor Justinian built a church in his honor in Constantinople around the year 540. Nicholas is the patron saint of entire nations, including Greece, Russia, Sicily, and Lorraine, and many cities throughout Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, and Italy. He is also patron saint of children, bakers, merchants, and mariners.
Ironically, very little factual information is actually known about this most popular saint. In the words of Weiser,
there is scarcely any definite historical fact known about him except that he was bishop of Myra in Asia Minor; that he was cast into exile and prison during the persecution of Emperor Diocletian and released by Constantine the Great; that he died in Myra about 350, and in the year 1087 his body was brought by Italian merchants from Myra to the city of Bari in Italy, where his relics are still preserved and venerated in the church of San Nicola.2
The Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 has been observed with great enthusiasm throughout Medieval Europe over the centuries. This enthusiasm was due to the many legends that had grown up around Nicholas: that he had distributed gifts to the poor at night through their windows, had fasted while a baby, had helped dowerless maidens, saved a city from famine, had aided a ship in distress, etc.3
Because of the gift-giving legends associated with Nicholas, it was held (especially in Belgium and Holland) that on the Eve the Feast of Nicholas, the bishop himself would come from heaven and visit children in their homes, giving gifts to those who had been good. Nicholas, decked out in full ecclesiastical garb (bishop's vestments, with miter and crozier), would arrive on a flying gray horse (or white donkey, depending on the custom). In some variations of the legend, he was accompanied by Black Peter, an elf whose job was to punish children who had been bad.
It is held by some scholars that the legends of Nicholas as gift-giver drew in part from pagan, preChristian sources. For example, the Teutonic god of the air, Odin, would ride through the air on a gray horse (named Sleipnir) each Autumn - so did Nicholas; Odin had a long white beard - so did Nicholas; a sheaf of grain was left in the field for Odin's horse - children left a wisp of straw in their shoes for Nicholas.4 Others claim that attributes of the Germanic god Thor, the god of thunder, were transferred to Nicholas. Thor was supposedly elderly and heavy with a long white beard; he road through the air in a chariot drawn by two white goats (called Cracker and Gnasher); he dressed in red; his palace was in the "northland;" he was friendly and cheerful; he would come down the chimney into his element, the fire.5 No definitive correlation has ever been found between the "visit of St. Nicholas" and pagan gods such as Odin and Thor. However the similarity is striking and some relationship seems likely.6
After the Reformations of the sixteenth century the Feast of St. Nicholas was abolished in many countries. Throughout northern Germany, for example, the Protestants encouraged veneration of the Christkindl (Christ-child) instead, who, it was said, brought gifts to children on Christmas Eve. As an example of this, a Protestant Pastor of the seventeenth century complains about parents who put presents in their children's beds, telling them that St. Nicholas has brought them. This is a bad custom, he says, "because it points children to the saint, while yet we know that not St. Nicholas but the holy Christ Child gives us all good things for body and soul, and He alone it is whom we ought to call upon."7 Despite this new emphasis, the Nicholas legends prevailed in many places, especially among the Dutch.
Santa Claus in America
When the Dutch established their colony of New Amsterdam in America in the seventeenth century, they brought with them the traditional "visit" from Sinter Klaas (St. Nicholas) on the eve of Dec. 5. Weiser thinks that when the English later took over the colony and renamed it New York, the English children began longing to have a kindly "Sinter Klaas" of their own that would bring them gifts. But because the English Protestants did not observe saints days, the Sinter Klaas visit was moved to Christmas Eve and observed then.8
Author Washington Irving (1789-1853), most famous for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," is important for the information he gives us on the Dutch version of Sinter Klaas in the early nineteenth century. Washington's 1809 work "The History of New York (also called the "Knickerbocker History") was a satire on the transplanted customs of the Dutch of New York city. The "History" contained several references to the legend of St. Nicholas as observed by the Dutch. The St. Nicholas described by Irving was an old man in dark robes who arrived on a flying horse on the Eve of St. Nicholas to give gifts to children.
In his Folklore on the American Land,9 Duncan Emrich tells us of the next evidence we have of the American evolution of Santa Claus. It is a little know poem, "The Children's Friend," first published in 1821. The poem went beyond what Irving had written, mentioning for the first time a flying sleigh and a reindeer. The poem begins:
Old Santeclaus with much delight
There is universal consensus that the person most responsible for shaping the American version of Santa Claus is Dr. Clement Clark Moore, a theology and classics professor at Union Seminary. What did Moore do to earn this honor? He wrote a simple poem for his children in 1822 entitled, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," that begins with the now famous words,
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
There is a legend that Moore wrote this poem on Christmas Eve, 1822, during a carriage ride to his home in Greenwich Village and that the inspiration for the St. Nicholas in his story was the jolly Dutchman driving the carriage. Closer to the truth is the observation of Emrich that Moore was probably inspired by Irving's Knickerbocker History and "The Children's Friend," which he almost certainly would have read. Specifically Irving's description of Dutchmen in his story was Moore's inspiration for St. Nick, claims Emrich. It must also be said that it is possible that Moore was familiar with the stories about Odin or Thor that were mentioned above.
In any case, in describing St. Nicholas, Moore went beyond anything that had ever been said yet. It was Moore who increased the number of reindeer to eight and gave us their names. It was he who explicitly described Santa going up and down the chimney leaving toys in stockings hung by the fireplace. Moore's St. Nick was "chubby and plumpa right jolly old elf;" he carried a bundle of toys on his back; "he had eyes that twinkled, dimples that were merry, cheeks like roses, a broad face, and a little round belly." It's interesting that Moore's Santa was also a small elf who flew in a "miniature sleigh" pulled by eight "tiny" reindeer.
The poem wasn't published until a year later, and that secretly, without Moore's consent. He didn't think it worthy of publishing. Many others did, however, as it was an overnight sensation. Only 15 years later did he permit it to be included in a volume of collected works.
It was Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast, that gave us the picture of Santa Claus, now so common. Nast, the "father of American political cartooning," drew more than 2200 cartoons for Harper's Weekly from 1862 through 1886. Many of these were of Santa Claus at Christmas time. Before Nast, St. Nicholas had been pictured as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a frock (as he had been pictured in the first edition of Moore's poem). Nast was clearly inspired by Moore's 1823 poem, but he also added additional features to the Santa Claus evolution, such as Santa's home at the North Pole, his workshop filled with elves, and his list of all the good and bad children of the world.
Believe it or not, the Coca-Cola company also contributed to the modern Santa Claus. Beginning in 1931 and for 35 years, Coke ran advertisements that featured a human-size Santa (not elf-size) drinking Coke. These ads contributed much to the modern image of Santa Claus (and the drinking of coke!).
When conclusions are drawn about the origin of Santa Claus, extreme statements should be avoided. This short article has shown that the modern Santa Claus has been shaped by many factors and is a conglomeration of myths and legends. I feel compelled, however, to make several observations.
First, it is absolutely inaccurate to claim that "Santa Claus is a Christian" or that "Santa Claus is St. Nicholas." Though it is true that the historical St. Nicholas was a Christian man, the preceding has shown that the modern Santa Claus has nothing to do with Nicholas of Myra, other than his name. The modern Santa Claus has been greatly influenced by the custom of "the visit of St. Nicholas," in which the saint would show up on the eve of his Feast Day to give gifts to children. But the custom of his "visit" is certainly not based on the historical man; rather it is based on legends attached to him, and it is possibly based on preChristian myths (about Odin, Thor, etc.). It is also a rather silly and misleading argument to state that "Nicholas was generous and Santa Claus is generous, so the same spirit permeates both." Right!
Second, it is also absolutely inaccurate to claim that "Santa Claus is pagan" without any further explanation. We need to be clear what we mean by "pagan." If by "pagan" we mean "non-Christian" then the statement is accurate in the sense that I gave in the paragraph above. However, because "pagan" has such a pejorative sense to it, I prefer to say that "Santa Claus is a fairy tale" along the lines of the tooth fairy - which leads to my next point.
Third, the real problem that Christians should have with Santa Claus is that he has been associated with Christmas. When we survey the history of the evolution of Santa Claus, the critical point occurred, in my opinion, when the St. Nicholas visit was transferred from Dec. 6 to Dec. 25. Christians would have no major problem with a make-believe custom about St. Nicholas bringing gifts on his own day. Christians do (or at least should) have a major problem with moving the St. Nicholas thing to Christmas and, even worse, calling it Christmas!
Put simply, do the Santa Claus thing to your heart's content, but don't call it Christmas! For Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ our Savior, nothing more and nothing less. Christians are rightly offended when the Santa Claus fairy tale is called Christmas instead. A good and practical solution would be to move the Santa Claus holiday back to its traditional date of Dec. 6. But of course, it is highly unlikely that this will happen.
Perhaps Christians should celebrate Christ's birth at another time of the year - especially since we do not know the date he was actually born. January 6 is an improvement, but it is still too close to the Santa Claus fest, in my opinion. Again, I won't hold my breath waiting for this to happen!
Ultimately it is impossible, of course, to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ without competition from other festivals and observances - no matter what date is picked. This is the reason why I have stated that the main problem is not the competing festivals (e.g., Santa Claus) themselves; the main problem is calling the competing festivals "Christmas." Our message to the world should be, "Santa Claus, in and of itself, can be a fun custom. Just don't call it Christmas!"
Check out this new article: "Christmas is Not Pagan"
6 . Some also think that other European "gift-givers" such as Lady Befana of Rome and Knecht Rupprecht of Germany point back to pre-Christian divinities. See McKnight, 16-17. But see Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912), 231-232.