Over the Christmas season, Santa's image is everywhere, but do we really understand the history and origin of one of the biggest traditions? When the kids inevitably ask, “Who is Santa?” what do we say?
As with any question from our children, we can use it as a teaching opportunity. Let's take a look at the origin of Santa Claus, the history behind how his meaning has evolved over time, and some of the traditions behind his name.
The Origin of Santa Claus
The name Santa Claus is the English form of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas Sinterklaas. Though the modern Santa Claus is associated with a world of fantasy, the historical St. Nicholas was a godly man known for his charity and generosity.
According to the best estimates, Nicholas, was born around AD 280 in Patara, in Asia Minor. He later became bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey. Nicholas, it seems, died about 343 on or near December 6.
Nicholas was born in the 3rd century to wealthy Christian parents in Patara (a harbor city in modern day Turkey). It is probable that Nicholas and his parents could trace their spiritual heritage to the Apostle Paul, who stopped in Patara on his third missionary journey 200 years earlier.
It is said that Nicholas’ parents were devout believers who had long prayed for a child. When Nicholas was finally born, they devoted him to God. As an only child, he was raised with great affection and special attention. However, when Nicholas was still a young boy (likely a teenager), a plague struck his city, and both of his parents died. Though a loss like this might turn some away from God, it seems to have drawn Nicholas closer to him. The loss of his parents also seems to have made the boy’s heart tender to the suffering of others.
Nicholas was left with a large inheritance and decided that he would use it to honor God. He developed such a good reputation in his region that he was chosen as Archbishop of Myra (a harbor city just south and east of Patara) when he was in his early 20s, an indication that he must have demonstrated wisdom and maturity beyond his years.
During his service as Archbishop, a violent persecution of Christians began. Nicholas was almost certainly imprisoned during this time and was likely tortured for his faith. The persecution that began during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian was carried on by his successor, Galerius, for a total of eight long years.
Interestingly, following Emperor Galerius, Constantine, the first Christian emperor, became the undisputed leader of the West. By 324 A.D., Constantine claimed leadership of the entire empire and declared Christianity a legal religion. Once persecution ended and Christians gained new religious freedom, they started to face new challenges. Serious disagreements regarding doctrine began to erupt. Constantine recognized the need for unity among Christians, so in 325 A.D. he summoned bishops from all over the empire to meet in Nicea and discuss critical doctrinal issues. Nicholas of Myra is listed among the bishops in attendance at this meeting. Little could Nicholas have known that his name would one day be more recognized than any other in attendance at this council that developed the famous Nicene Creed.
History of St. Nicholas and Christmas
There are a wealth of stories about Nicholas’ life -- many of them emphasize his kindness and generosity. After his death on December 6, a tradition of gift giving was begun in his honor.
St. Nicholas Day is still observed on December 6 in many countries, but in others, America included, the practices associated with the day were combined with Christmas. It seemed natural to many Christians that a holiday celebrating giving would merge with the birth of Christ, the greatest gift ever given to the world. However, the merger happened to the dismay of many Christian leaders who thought that St. Nicholas started to draw too much attention away from Christ. In Germany, parents were encouraged to teach their children that the Christ Child was the gift-giver. The name Kriss Kringle is the English form of the German name for “Christ Child.” Ironically, in America the name Kriss Kringle came to be used synonymously with St. Nicholas, St. Nick, Santa Claus and even the English name Father Christmas.
In Middle Age art, St. Nicholas was typically depicted as a tall, thin, bearded cleric. So how did he evolve into the Santa that we know today in America? Santa’s white beard and red suit are actually quite similar to the bishop’s vestments worn by the Dutch Sinterklaas. But the “chubby and plump” appearance of America’s Santa Claus is generally traced to the 19th century poem “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” – an attempt to create a more friendly image of Santa and assure children that they had (in the words of the poem) “nothing to dread.”
"Merry Old Santa Claus" by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly January 1,1881
Though the modern Santa Claus has devolved into a secularized figure surrounded by fantasy, his image can serve to help us remember the real St. Nicholas, a man who devoted his life to serving God and inspiring others to do the same. The purpose of all saints (all Christians) is to bring glory to God, not to detract from him.
At Christmas, we celebrate that God himself came in bodily form, in real flesh and blood, to earth. However, after he ascended to heaven and his physical presence was no longer on earth, Jesus entrusted believers to be his “body” (1 Corinthians 12:27). By all accounts, St. Nicholas lived a life that helped others to see the reality of Christ. How can we follow his example and help others to see Christ in us (in real flesh and blood) this Christmas?
Traditions of St. Nicholas Past and Present
In honor of St. Nicholas the gift giver, Christians began to celebrate December 6 (his feast day) by giving presents. The tradition developed over time. For good boys and girls, St. Nicholas would come in his red bishop’s robe and fill boots with gifts on the night of December 5. For bad boys and girls St. Nicholas was to be feared. In highly Catholic parts of Europe, St. Nicholas became a deterrent to erring young children. In Germany, he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht (farmhand Rupert) who threatened to eat misbehaving children. In Switzerland, St. Nicholas threatened to put wicked children in a sack and bring them back to the Black Forest. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas’s helper would tie them in a sack and bring them back to Spain. In parts of Austria, the priest, dressed up in Christmas garb, would visit the homes of naughty children and threaten them with rod-beatings.
Over time, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of nations like Russia and Greece, cities like Fribourg and Moscow, and of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers (the three gold balls hung outside pawn shops are symbolic of the three bags of gold).
Not surprisingly, the Reformers were less than friendly towards the traditions that had been built up around the saints. Luther rejected the saints’ days, believing they were built upon legends and superstitions (and a virulent strain of moralism we might add). In Germany, Luther replaced Saint Nicholas’ Day with a different holiday, Christ Child, or Christkindl. Ironically, Kriss Kringle which derived from Luther’s Christ Child holiday, has become just another name for St. Nicholas.
If you love Christmas with all the trappings of Santa Claus and stockings and presents, thank the Dutch. The Puritans had done away with St. Nicholas and banned Christmas altogether. But the Dutch held on to their tradition and brought it with them to the New World. In the Netherlands Sint Nicolaas was contracted to Sinterklaas. According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas rides a horse and is accompanied by his helper Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. Many consider Black Pete a racist stereotype derived from slavery, although others claim he is black because he goes down the chimney and gets a face full of soot.
At any rate, it is easy to see how Sinterklaas evolved in America to Santa Claus. Santa Claus became the Santa we know in the United States only after the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written in 1823. Possibly the best-known verses ever written by an American, the poem has greatly influenced the tradition of Santa in the English-speaking world and beyond.
Santa Claus and Jesus
I have fond childhood memories of Santa fantasies and jingles. Though I wholeheartedly agree that the focus should be on Christ during the Christmas season, I wondered if it was necessary to toss out all the old books and ornaments that had any association with Santa. As I struggled with this decision, there were a variety of thoughts that came to mind.
First off, children love fantasy. That is why so many children’s stories include talking animals, fairies, magic, etc. Fantasy can encourage both creativity and imagination in children. As they mature and begin to distinguish between fantasy and reality, parents can play an important role in helping to clarify what is true and what is fiction. Can this apply to Santa fantasies? I looked to two of my favorite authors in the genre of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for some help on this question.
Tolkien, best known for his Lord of the Rings series, was a father of four. Over the course of 20 years, he wrote letters to his children in the name of Father Christmas (the English counterpart to Santa Claus). He included his own sketches of Father Christmas, the North Polar Bear and the North Pole (which he depicted as a literal pole). One year, the North Polar Bear, Father Christmas’ somewhat clumsy assistant, had an incident that forced Father Christmas to move:
“It all happened like this: one very windy day last November my hood blew off and went and stuck on the top of the North Pole. I told him not to, but the North Polar Bear climbed up to the thin top to get it down – and he did. The pole broke in the middle and fell on the roof of my house, and the North Polar Bear fell through the hole it made in to the dining room with my hood over his nose, and all the snow fell off the roof into the house and melted and put out all the fires and ran down into the cellars where I was collecting this year’s presents, and the North Polar bear’s leg got broken. He is well again now, but I was so cross with him that he says he won’t try to help me again. I expect his temper is hurt, and will be mended by next Christmas.”1
Occasionally, even the North Polar Bear would send a letter to the children. He had to excuse “his bad English spelling from the fact that the language spoken at the North Pole was Arctic.” One year, the North Polar Bear got lost in Goblin caves (1932) and later “invented an alphabet from Goblin markings on the walls, and sent a short letter in it.”The children had great fun deciphering the letter.
C. S. Lewis, a friend of Tolkien, is probably best known for his Chronicles of Narnia in which he portrays a more serious Father Christmas. Though the White Witch had made it “always winter and never Christmas in Narnia,”she was beginning to lose her powers. Here is an account of the visit of Father Christmas:
“It was a sledge [sleigh], and it was reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the Witch’s reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world — the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.”2
Father Christmas announces, “She [the White Witch] has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.” He proceeds to give gifts and even delivers sugar, cream and tea “for the moment.” Then he called out, “‘Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!’ and cracked his whip, and he and the reindeer and the sledge and all were out of sight before anyone realized that they had started.”
Clearly, both Tolkien and Lewis embraced the fantasy surrounding Christmas. I especially like how Lewis used the Father Christmas of Narnia to call attention to Aslan, the true King (understood by literary scholars to be a type of Christ).
The beauty of our American Santa Claus is that his roots come from a historical person, St. Nicholas, who was truly a servant of Christ (not a competitor). The fact that American children are surrounded by images of Santa Claus during the Christmas season means that there are many opportunities to discuss the real St. Nicholas, a man whose life should inspire us to more fully serve God.
One aspect of the historical St. Nicholas that I have chosen to emphasize with my children is his generosity. One of the most famous stories about St. Nicholas involves him secretly delivering gold to a father and his three daughters who, through misfortune, had become destitute. The practice of giving gifts in Santa’s name is really just a way of giving anonymously. Secret generosity is consistent with how St. Nicholas gave gifts, and more importantly it follows Jesus’ instruction to let our giving be done in secret. As Jesus said, “Your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:4).
I have always told my children that the real St. Nicholas is in heaven with God and that all the fantasy that surrounds Santa is just “pretend.” My children are still young and love “pretend” stories (just as they love me to make up fairy tales every night before they go to bed). Though I take care to emphasize the difference between what is true and false, reality and fantasy, non-fiction and fiction, my children do not always grasp these distinctions. However, I know that with time and guidance, they will develop this discernment. When this time comes, I look forward to helping them recognize that our Christian story is so much better than fantasy, because it is miraculous, historical and TRUE!