What We Talk About When We Talk About Santa

The myth of Santa, the truth of Christ and trying to find the balance

He's viewed as a symptom and symbol of the commercialization of Christmas. He's vilified as a lie to children. He's associated with countless conflicting portrayals in popular culture (should he be white? Should he be a penguin?). Make no mistake—especially in evangelical Christianity, Santa Claus has been put on trial.

And it's time for Christians to step up in his defense.

The frustration Christians feel about Saint Nick isn't entirely without merit. For some, the jolly fellow from the North Pole represents the consumerism rampant in American culture, a personification of the greed that seems to have replaced the goodwill and charity of the Christmas season. Others see Santa Claus as a distraction from the true meaning of Christmas: the birth of Christ, an occasion that marked the reconciliation of mankind unto God. Many parents take umbrage with the belief in Santa as a gift-giver, because after all, Santa isn't real.

But in fact, Santa was real. And contrary to the ire of Santa-disparagers, he adds a lot to the Christian tradition in the season where we remember the birth of Christ. So keep in mind a few bare facts, bereft of opinion, as we discuss the importance of Saint Nick.

First, Christmas observance was viewed as unbiblical by the earliest Americans. Second, Christmas as we celebrate it today is a conflux of pagan traditions adopted by Christians, Christmas traditions of the early church (such as celebrating it on December 25), and the Feast of Saint Nicholas. And finally, the real man behind the Santa myth was a stalwart defender of the faith in a time when doing so was unfathomably dangerous.

The first ecumenical council in 325, now known as the Nicaean Council, codified much of what we as Christians believe and practice today. It was a messy affair as Arius argued that the Son was not equal to the Father, a position he literally taught as gospel truth in Egypt. Bishop Nicholas of Myra, a slight man of little more than five feet, became so enraged during the council that he punched the heretic in the face. Stripped of his vestments and worn copy of the gospels, he was left in a prison cell. According to Christian tradition, he was visited by Christ in his cell and reinstated as a bishop, to be found the next day reading the gospels that were returned to him.

It may defy belief, but there's no doubt that the man who was known in his time as Nicholas the Wonderworker did indeed work wonders—especially for the poor and oppressed. Before the council, the Bishop sold all he inherited from his wealthy parents and distributed it to those in need. He was imprisoned by Diocletian for his faith, but after his release, he continued aiding the desperate in need of Christ's healing.

As a nod to one whose life was intensely devoted to Christ, the Feast of Saint Nicholas has long been viewed as a precursor to the Christmas season: a time to shift our focus to Jesus and His words, a time to renew the spirit of giving and a time to reflect upon those before us whose lives pointed to Christ in word and deed.

Most Christians in America don't observe December 6, Saint Nicholas Day. But we do observe Christmas, which has become inextricably linked with the spirited Bishop. The problem for many is twofold; that remembering the saints isn't exactly Protestant practice, and that Santa Claus seems to be far removed from the Christ-centered Bishop of Myra.

Celebrating Christmas seems like a balancing act of sorts. Giving gifts, remembering the birth of Christ, enjoying the hymns and holiday music in between radio ads telling us to buy more. Santa Claus becomes another factor in the balancing act. How do you “do Christmas” in a way that honors Christ, and does Santa even fit?

For reasons historical, practical and religious, Santa Claus is a tradition more befitting of the season than the Christmas tree, the lights, the expensive gifts and the Christmas pop songs we all indulge in without a single thought. This is not only because of what Nicholas of Myra brought to the Christian tradition, but also because the modern conception of Santa Claus borrows from Nicholas some of the Christlike qualities that Nicholas himself displayed: love for all (particularly children), a spirit of giving without reproach, unbridled optimism and joy.

He's not an ersatz or substitute for Christ. Rather, he's the embodiment of qualities that point to the Savior. It's not that he's distracted us—it's that we've misunderstood and even abused him.

We've treated Santa as empiricists and skeptics, a myth to be debunked, when rather Santa Claus is a fairy tale that deserves to be believed for the reason that all fairy tales deserve to be believed. As Francis Pharcellus Church wrote in his brilliant editorial “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus,” “Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!” Fairy tales represent universal truth, whereas a fact is only tangibly true for the experiencer. Reducing Santa to a man that can be dismissed as a myth knocks him down several rungs. Believing in Santa as he deserves to be believed does something quite different. For Santa, all people have value. All people deserve to be shown that they're loved and thought about. Children are not the lowliest among us, but the most to be revered. Santa Claus is about unlimited benevolence. Santa Claus is about hope.

An argument can be made that Santa Claus draws our attention from the “reason for the season” (an ugly platitude itself), but of the myriad things we allow ourselves to be distracted by on Christmas, Santa doesn't belong in the same category. Many of us (this writer included) actively indulge in the consumer side of Christmas and tend to forget what Christ came for: to relieve the abused and oppressed, to renew a world of despair into one of hope and to give us the greatest gift of all, absolution of our sins and a relationship with God. Saint Nicholas of Myra did so in a historical example. A healthy view of Santa Claus does so in an allegorical one.

In a recent conversation about Saint Nick, I was reminded to “trust the Cause, not the Claus.” But just because we've trusted Christ as our Savior (and yes, the “reason for the season”) doesn't mean we don't get to believe in Santa Claus. Viewed rightly, Santa Claus demonstrates truth about this season. There's a reason for the joy, the hope, the charity.

Because “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” A Happy Christmas, indeed.

8 Comments

G.J. Frye

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G.J. Frye commented…

I was just telling someone that this is exactly how I feel about Santa, not as eloquently as you, but the same point of view, regardless. Thanks so much!

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Brandon W. Peach

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Brandon W. Peach replied to G.J. Frye's comment

Thanks, friend! Glad we've found common ground.

And a Merry Christmas!

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Bosco Tung

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Bosco Tung commented…

I want to like your article but I still don't see how the 'fairy tale' of Santa points to Jesus at all.

For starters, he doesn't love 'all children', he separates the naughty from the nice. In fact, the myth of Santa doesn't even have any conventional rules and my earlier claim is only based on what "I've" adopted as 'canon'.

To say that Santa points to St. Nicholas who points to Jesus is great, but...does he? Growing up, when I thought of Santa, Jesus was never ever in the picture nor was even the real 'St. Nick'. The image of 'Santa' that we have today was one very much fabricated by Coca Cola. Santa adds to the 'Christmas Tradition' more to the consumerism of it all rather than Jesus Christ, and more than anything it feels like Christ has nothing to do with the Christmas that we observe today.

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Gryphon Hall

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Gryphon Hall replied to Bosco Tung's comment

It depends greatly on which "Santa" was brought into one's home during Christmas. I was fortunate to have been told the real story and told that the TV specials were the lie. As a kid, I wanted the commercial Santa to be the real Santa because he will give you toys for being good (as a kid, that was a fair exchange) but eventually saw that the real one was better.

As a result, seeing men dressed up like Santa with children on their knees do not bother me as much. I like to think that the real Santa would not care about how naughty or nice (such arbitrary constructs!) children are, but how needy they are.

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Josh

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Josh commented…

From the title I was kind of expecting this to be written by Rob Bell...

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David Warner

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David Warner commented…

This article was quite long... But good...

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amandasalmon

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amandasalmon commented…

My 5 year old (kindergarten) daughter asked "Did Santa die? I mean did Saint Nicholas die?" And so I said yes that he did and I looked up when he died Dec 6 343 at 73 years old. And there were several legends or stories about his benevolence, I believe the idea is true but I don't know if it was money for poor children or dowries for 3 poor sisters to get married off. We have never "celebrated" Santa and this particular child of ours REALLY believed it last year and it was really cute. Also, she asked if she would be getting presents from Santa this year and I said, "well, you did some bad things this year didn't you, so I guess not. But we love to give our kids gifts to show God's love and God forgives when we do wrong." She said "Well my brother and sister won't get presents either! Cause they were bad too!" And so I said, "well good thing we don't celebrate Santa or no one would be getting presents!" (All of this was said tongue in cheek and kinda kidding around. Well, from my side of the convo anyway)

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Grant Story

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Grant Story replied to amandasalmon's comment

I agree, there's wisdom of using the fable of Santa Claus to talk about what really mattered to the man behind the legend. It's been fun to discuss it with our two girls (4 and 7) and it obviously hits the spot considering the current season we're in.

Talking about the real man who lived and loved God has helped reset their expectations... away from what they'll get to how they can give in keeping with his example. That's cool.

That being said, we tell them the truth. And they somehow... (gasp)... live on another day with a smile on their face inspite of of their entire childhood being destroyed in one fell swoop! LOL

It's not that we are "murderers of fun" or anything like that... quite the contrary... both of my girls can out-dance and out-laugh nearly every other human being I've ever met.

It's just that we have certain family values that we believe are given by God for us to be better humans.

One of those family values is, "Do not lie to each other".

I don't want to have to explain one day that, "Well, that one, 'all-knowing, omni-present, seemingly all-powerful demi-god who gives gifts' was just a fun lie, but the other one, the real God who gave the ultimate gift... that one I'm not lying about!"

Life is so much simpler when we get the simple truths right!

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