Has Santa Stolen Christmas?

This is a talk I wrote in 2002 about Father Christmas/Santa Claus, originally for a Women’s Fellowship Meeting. I thought I would bring it slightly up to date and post it to mark the Feast Day of St Nicholas (6th December). I have no record of the sources I used, so apologise for any plagiarism.

Has Santa Stolen Christmas?

According to a recently retired Catholic bishop in the Philippines, yes. According to a report in the Philippine Inquirer, Bishop Teodoro Bacani said:

“Santa Claus helps promote consumerism because he is the symbol of shopping and gift-giving. Christ symbolises the sacrifice of life for man. But Santa has more commercial draw.”

Bacani lamented that statues and images of Santa Claus were now displayed prominently across the Philippines while the traditional Christian symbol of the creche denoting the birth of Jesus was disappearing.

Santa Free Zone

Santa Free Zone: but who will bring the pressies?

For someone who was born so long ago (1700 years and counting), Santa Claus/Father Christmas is remarkable for the way he continues to make headlines around the world. Bishop Bacani is, of course, hardly the first to ‘have a go’ at Santa. Back in 2002 Father Eckhard Bieger, a Catholic priest in Frankfurt, Germany, launched an anti-Santa campaign in protest at the commercialisation of Christmas. The campaign has spread through Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, with stickers and posters declaring, ‘This is a Santa-free zone’.

The protest is unlikely to succeed, however, so completely is Father Christmas in charge of the Christmas season.

Attempts in recent times to overhaul his image have all failed. One provider of actors who play Santa in grottoes and children’s parties pondered the possibility of a change of image for the old man: ‘I think it’s possible to overhaul his image – new Christmas, new Santa. But unfortunately we’re client-led, and they want a fat, old Father Christmas.’

And the American chain store Wal-Mart got into hot water for firing a woman Father Christmas after a child complained about her gender. Accused of sexual discrimination, Wal-Mart’s lawyer ended up arguing: ‘Santa Claus is a man. He has a beard. He’s married to Mrs Claus.’

Father Eckhard Bieger, the man behind the Santa-free Zone campaign, is not interested in updating Mr Claus or making him politically correct. He wants him out altogether. It’s a feeling shared by many Christians who wish Santa would move out of the spotlight of Christmas so that the light can fall instead on the Bethlehem stable and focus on ‘the true meaning of Christmas’.

One Christian t-shirt delivers the hostility in its strongest form by pointing out that ‘Santa’ is an anagram of ‘Satan’.

Demonising Santa has its problems, however, because he was originally a Christian saint who was promoted by the Church. As the columnist Simon Jenkins, points out, “The whole Santa Claus business is actually a Christian own-goal.”

Santa’s career started out not in a Greenland grotto, but in the churches of ancient Turkey. ‘Santa Claus’ is another way of saying the name of St Nicholas, a fourth century bishop from the Roman province of Asia Minor. Many legends and stories were told about Nicholas, and it is hard sorting out fact from fiction.

St Nicholas

Ikon of St Nicholas

Born an only child of a wealthy family, Nicholas was orphaned at an early age when both parents died of the plague. He grew up in a monastery and became a priest at the tender age of 17 years.

Nicholas was a robust defender of the Christian faith, and would probably preach a hostile sermon or two against his 21st century namesake if he was still around today. At the first great council of the Church, held in the town of Nicaea in the year 325, he is said to have punched another church leader on the jaw for singing heretical songs.

So at first glance, it’s hard to see how St Nicholas turned into Santa Claus as we know him today.

Two stories from the life of Nicholas started him off on his Christmas career. In the first, he stays the night at a roadside inn, where he discovers that the landlord has murdered three boys. He responds by miraculously raising them from the dead.

But perhaps the most famous story of all tells how he helped three sisters who had suitors but had no dowries because their father, a poor nobleman, could not raise the money. So they could not marry.

Now bishop Nicholas was a discreet man and did not like to give money directly, so he thought of a way to give it anonymously. When the first daughter was ready to marry, the good bishop tossed a bag of gold into the house at night.

Later, when the second daughter prepared to marry, she too received a mysterious bag of gold.

When the third daughter prepared to marry, the poor nobleman was determined to find out who had been so generous. So he kept watch and observed the good bishop climbing on the roof and dropping a bag of gold down the chimney where it landed in a stocking hung to dry; giving us a reason to hang up Christmas stockings today. When the father saw what had happened, Nicholas begged him to keep the secret, but, of course, the news got out. From then on, whenever anyone received an unexpected gift, they thanked Nicholas.
These folk tales earned Nicholas a Church promotion: he was made the patron saint of boys and girls. The stories also chimed in nicely with a long-standing custom, dating at least from Roman times, of giving presents during the rather wild feast of Saturnalia, in the dead of winter. And so it was that St Nicholas became the great gift-giver.
In his pictures and statues, St. Nicholas is usually shown carrying three bags or balls of gold, reminiscent of his gifts to the three dowry-less sisters.  To show their regard for him, bankers of Lombardy in northern Italy took him as their patron, and placed three balls over their places of business.  Since they lent money to clients, this sign became associated with pawnbrokers.

Three further career moves clinched Santa’s merger with Christmas Inc. The first took place after the founding of New York City (then known as New Amsterdam) by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. The Dutch introduced the festival of Sinterklass (St Nicholas), which Americans later mispronounced as ‘Santa Claus’. This effectively gave him a new, ‘non-churchy’ name.

The name change was followed by an image makeover. The ancient pictures of St Nicholas show him sometimes dressed in blue or red, but most often in white robes with big crosses on them. In fact in many European countries today St Nicholas is depicted dressed in bishop’s robes, with mitre, cloak and a bishop’s crook.

The most important single source for our modern day version of Santa Claus comes from the Christmas poem A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore, better known as The Night Before Christmas. Written for his children in 1823, the family poem was later published for the general public. It includes the verses:

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

This new image took its details from northern European folklore. The illustrator, Thomas Nast, also gave him a toy workshop and located him at the North Pole.

Finally, Coca Cola confirmed the red suit and big white beard in a series of famous advertisements in the 1930s, and the transformation of holy St Nicholas into Santa Claus was complete. Santa still plays a big role in the advertising of Coke every Christmas to this day

Santa’s role as chief executive of Corporate Christmas has been a huge success. Despite his critics, demand for Father Christmas is undimmed at the start of the 21st century. Rovaniemi, a town in Finnish Lapland inside the Arctic Circle, welcomes 20,000 visitors each Christmas, each of them braving sub-ero temperatures and a £199 day-trip price for a brief audience with Santa in his purpose-built village. The many thousands of items of mail addressed each year to ‘Santa Claus, North Pole’, end up here.

But for Christians, the unexpected de-conversion of St Nicholas remains a difficulty, and shows what can happen when homely legends about ancient saints spin out of control.

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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