To Santa or Not to Santa? - That Is the Question
Santa Claus has become the patron saint of a secularized Christmas. Many Christians are trying to balance the mystique of Santa with the true meaning of Christmas centered in the birth of Jesus. Some families (like mine) have done away with Santa altogether, but even that can prove complicated, especially when classmates and cousins are still “true believers.” (If Joan and I didn’t have the “You don’t need to tell the whole world there’s no Santa” talk with our kids beforehand, then a call from the teacher was sure to be received!)
And yet, no matter how hard people try, Christmas resists secularization. The very name contains CHRIST, and when stores try to avoid that Name by using HOLIDAY, that word, too, contains a confession that the day is HOLY. And Santa Claus, which is just a contraction of St. Nicholas, really is a patron saint.
Indeed, among Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, St. Nicholas is one of the most popular of the saints they venerate. He’s the patron saint of children, students, sailors, merchants, thieves (strangely enough), and the entire nation of Greece. Stories about the saints are called legends. That they aren’t necessarily historically accurate has given rise to a broader meaning for things that are legendary. However, legends often contain a grain of truth, if not in the history, then in their meaning.
We do know that St. Nicholas lived from AD 270-342. He’s remembered in the church on December 6, the traditional date of his death. He was the bishop of Myra, which is located in present-day Turkey. The legends tell how he would give gifts to children and pay for the dowries of young women so that they could marry. He would drop gold down the chimney or toss it through the window so the money would land in the stockings that were hung up to dry before the hearth.
Another story, though, connects St. Nicholas to an important historical event in the Church. He was said to have attended the Council of Nicaea, the conference of bishops that met to consider the claims of Arius, a bishop who taught that Jesus was a god, but not equal to God the Father. The bishops at Nicaea affirmed the Biblical truth that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both true God and true man, with language that’s still used today when we confess the Nicene Creed: Jesus is . . . of one substance with the Father.
Supposedly, Bishop Nicholas of Myra was so outraged when he heard Arius tearing down the divinity of Jesus that he went up to the heretic and slapped him in the face. Some accounts have Nicholas slugging Arius with his fist! The Emperor Constantine (an Arian sympathizer) was present and demanded that Nicholas be thrown into prison. His fellow bishops, shocked at the impropriety, voted to strip him of his office and removed his bishop’s stole. That night, according to the legend, as Nicholas was languishing in his cell, he had a vision of Jesus and Mary. The Lord asked him, “Why are you here?” Nicholas replied, “Because I love You.” Jesus gave him a golden book of the Gospels, and Mary gave him a new bishop’s stole. The next day, the other bishops woke up with the conviction that they should restore Nicholas, which they did.
So, did any of this actually happen? Probably not. We can’t verify that St. Nicholas actually struck Arius, but it’s just as well attested as his putting gold in stockings. And, it’s much better attested than his living at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and elves and flying reindeer. The meaning of the legend, though, is surely true: St. Nicholas confessed Jesus Christ to be true God and true man.
The problem with the cult of the saints, as practiced historically, is that the saints become detached from Christ. Sailors would pray to St. Nicholas to save them from a storm, rather than to Jesus, who calmed the Sea of Galilee. Herein lies the similar problem with a secularized Christmas. Children ask Santa to bring them gifts, instead of their Heavenly Father, the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Actual saints, however, don’t point to themselves but to Jesus Christ. It wasn’t their supernatural virtues that made them saints. Rather, it was their faith in Jesus.
St. Nicholas knew that Jesus Christ is “very God of very God . . . who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” St. Nicholas also knew that Jesus Christ was for him. He may not have been in a literal prison, but he surely knew the prison of sin. Nevertheless, Christ came to him in forgiveness, bringing His Word and His calling.
Can the real St. Nicholas be put back into Santa Claus? I don’t know. In my mind, Santa Claus can’t be rescued from the secularism and materialism of our culture, which is so rampant and destructive. For me it’s too great a distraction from the birth of God in the flesh. But you must decide for yourselves. If your “holiday spirit” must include Santa Claus, then I would ask that you give consideration to the following advice about St. Nicholas and Santa Claus.
Your best hope comes perhaps from building on what Santa is most associated with: the giving of gifts. You can explain to your children that they receive gifts at Christmas because, as Luther explains in the Small Catechism, God has given me my body and soul . . . clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home . . . and all I have. Above all, He has given them salvation, not based on whether they’ve been naughty or nice, or have been good for goodness’ sake, but as a free gift. That is, He has given them the gift of His Son Jesus to be their Redeemer and Lord. You can also take the opportunity to teach the doctrine of vocation. God gives His gifts through what other people (i.e. parents, teachers, pastors, etc.) give them. It’s really God who’s giving them their toys and gifts at Christmas, by means of all the people who love them.
You can tell your children that God gave the gift of Jesus to Santa Claus long ago. St. Nicholas became a pastor who helped children and, when he baptized them, gave them the gift of Jesus, too. That’s why Christmas has St. Nicholas and presents. It’s really all about Jesus.
Wishing You All a Merry Christ Mass,