My last post attempted to answer a question I had been anticipating for about one year: Why doesn’t Santa Claus visit Ethiopia? After all, if Santa visits ‘all of the world’s good boys and girls and brings them gifts’, then why, for the past ten years, did he not once make a stop at our son’s home in Ethiopia? Simple question, not so simple answer.
I am a planner, so long before our Ethiopian blessings arrived home, I began to look critically at many of our customs, traditions, and celebrations and ask, “Why”? Why do we do this or that? What does it mean? Most importantly, is the way we celebrate consistent with our faith? Consistency is huge for me. It probably has something to do with my friend-diagnosed ‘messy head syndrome’, but also because in my life the teachers I am apt to follow are those whose actions and life match their words. Those who lead by example, even when it is not convenient. How did we want to lead our children? So, a decision we felt that needed to be made this year was whether or not we should hop off of Santa’s sleigh or ride it with the best of them? What does choosing either of those two alternatives mean to our family, to your family, to our faith, to our convictions?
As I said previously, I have always enjoyed hearing the original story of Saint Nicholas because the authenticity and simplicity of the message was unmistakable. But, where did this whole idea of an costumed, sleigh-riding, gift fairy originate? If Christmas is about the birth of Christ, how did we get from there to here, here being a season where we claim Jesus is the reason, yet may wind up using the majority of our energy stressing about everything other than preparing our hearts for Jesus. No wonder we get get confused about the true meaning! Yet, even if we admit and profess that Jesus is the gift, I would guess most of us still feel some sort of pressure in the Christmas consumer department. Why is that?
A short history lesson helped answer a few questions for me. When researching Santa and his various aliases and transformations throughout time, it came as no surprise that profit, not charity caused the unfortunate demise of Nicholas’ intent. In his book Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus, Jeremy Seal points to the industrial revolution in the late 1700’s as the watershed event that began mass production and mass consumption. Since then, commercialism has exploded and the original intent behind gift giving has been warped and transformed, with Santa serving as the unsuspecting scapegoat. Here is a brief timeline:
- Nicholas was an early church leader, a 4th Century bishop in Myra, which is current day Turkey. He worked for justice and cared for those in need.
- Nicholas died on December 6, 343. This is currently his feast day. (Question: Then why do we blend him and the birth of Christ together on December 25th?)
- Around 400 AD, Nicholas had many miracles attributed to him. (Question: Is this consistent with your faith tradition? )
- In 987, upon his conversion to Christianity, Price Vladamir I brought St. Nicholas with him to parts modern-day Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus. St. Nicholas becomes Russia’s favorite saint.
- In the 1100’s, French nuns begin giving candy and gifts to needy children on December 6th
- In the middle ages, we witness the transition to Sinterklaas, who arrives in the Netherlands along with a new twist on the story .
- In 1809, Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York describes St. Nicholas as an elfin Dutch burgher, not a saint. This begins the emergence of a distinctly American figure.
- Twas the Night Before Christmas was first published in 1823
- In the 20th Century, it appears to me that transformation continues to take on a more secular feel as we see images of what is now Santa, who is no longer wearing a miter and carrying a crosier (the bishop’s hat and staff), but appears with his red hat and is increasing used to brand and sell items (think Coca Cola). (Question: What does Santa giving gifts on December 25th, which is Jesus’ birthday, have to do with celebrating the feast of Saint Nicholas, which is December 6th?)
I am beginning to realize that Santa is just another player (and innocently costumed figurehead) in our consumer-driven, possession obsessed society. Will removing Santa solve the bigger problem of over-consumption? Probably not, but it could be a start. At the very least, I hope that it helps our children to become critical thinkers so that when bigger inconsistencies and questions of faith arise in their life, they can pray and think through the situation and hopefully have peace with their resolution. My hope is that they will ask questions, that will no doubt annoy their teachers, about why we celebrate this or that holiday a certain way. Saint Nicholas certainly was a kind and generous man looking out for the poor and oppressed. However, I am still not making the connection with celebrating him on the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. As the day draws near, we are looking forward to celebrating Jesus’ birth by giving to the poor and oppressed. I am very excited about this new tradition and sharing with our children what our gifts mean.
How does Santa fit in to your Christmas celebration? What are your thoughts on how St. Nicholas became Santa Claus and how that transition may have changed the holiday’s initial meaning and intention? All opinions respectfully welcomed!